Life on our small farm

The big test: tomatoes

The big test: tomatoes

A few seasons into market gardening, we faced the ultimate test: can we grow tomatoes? Why am I calling it the ultimate test? Because people tend to have quite strong opinions about growing tomatoes. Either they grow a plant at home every summer, or their father does. We'd read lots of posts and articles about commercial tomato growers watering each plant 20 litres of water a week in irrigated tunnel houses with fans. Pruning and feeding the plants sounded complicated and only fit for an expert to attempt. 

We don't have tunnel houses, we'd love one ... but just haven't had the money to buy one. We don't have a town water supply to rely on, or a spring or river. We collect all our water from the sky and store it in tanks. Would we have enough water to sustain the tomatoes? Would the tomatoes be ok in our no-dig beds out in our front paddock in the wind and rain?

When I was a kid, my parents and grandparents were market gardeners. They grew a lot of different crops, mainly through the summer, but they were mostly known for their tomatoes. Penny's tomato shed was quite well known in the district. They grew most of the tomatoes in glasshouses but also grew some tomatoes out in the paddock. There were die hard outdoor tomato customers that would wait for the outdoor tomatoes. They'd come in week after week asking when the outdoor tomatoes will be ready. It was flavour they were after, the paddock tomatoes have a different flavour, maybe it's because they're out in the direct sun, sometimes not quite getting enough water, open to the wind and rain.

I remember riding my bike along the smooth dirt track alongside the tomato beds in the paddock. The tomato plants were dying, it was the end of the season. I saw one last deep red little tomato on a plant and ate it. It was the sweetest, strongest flavoured tomato I've ever tasted.  

So, anyway back to now - we knew growing outside was possible, but I didn't remember all the hard work to pick the tomatoes when they're down on the ground. I wish now I'd taken more notice when I was a kid instead of riding my bike around.

Like most things we do for our business, we jumped in boots and all with great enthusiasm. We seeded 150 tomato plants, all cherry tomato varieties. We decided that's what our customers would like the most because we loved eating them. It didn't occur to us until the plants were big enough to transplant out into the paddock how time consuming it was going to be to plant, stake, train, prune them all. We got them all the in ground, staked and tied up and did a round or two of pruning. Then it all got out of control.

I told my grandma, 'we're growing outdoor tomatoes. 100 metres of them. We haven't kept up with pruning and tying and now they're great big tangled bushes. But there are loads of tomatoes'. Her face dropped and she rolled her eyes. She said 'that's fine, they'll just be really time-consuming to pick'.

Something quite interesting to me is that my Mum told me that back in the earlier days, when my Grandparents were in charge, they didn't used to sell the little tomatoes. The little tomatoes wouldn't be picked and would be left on the plants or thrown away. My Grandparents once went away on holiday and left my Dad, a teenager at the time, and his sister in charge of the market garden and roadside shop. I think a customer saw the little tomatoes still on the plants and asked if they could buy some. So my Dad and his sister had a brainwave to box the little tomatoes and sell them for more than the larger tomatoes. It was a success.  

Anyway, just to reassure you, our baby tomatoes were a success too. We ended up with a huge crop, the flavour was outstanding, our customers loved them and we sold them all for a good price that made the time-consuming crop worthwhile.

This is our third summer growing tomatoes and we haven't learned our lesson. We still grow 150 plants, and this year we got behind in pruning and tying up. It takes us 1 hour per bed to pick the baby tomatoes and there are a couple of plants that you pretty much have to lie on your tummy to get the massive handfuls of little tomatoes hiding underneath. We thought we had it cracked this time, too, with a whole lot of bamboo tepees supporting the plants. But they weren't strong enough for the heavy weight of the fruit laden plants.

Note to ourselves: next summer ... buy big steel Warratahs to extra support the tepees.

We tried a new variety this year - a variety called Andiamo, a 'San Marzano' style, lower acid, plum tomato. San Marzano tomatoes are famous in Italy for their flavour and as a canning tomato. I'm sure you'll agree the description sounded quite romantic so we grew it, and it's all true, Andiamo is our new favourite. We'll be growing that each year along-side (or along-ground) the baby toms.

I think back to my childhood again and I remember my dad coming in from the tomatoes, his hands all black from the tomato plants and smelling of tomatoes. I remember him scrubbing and scrubbing his hands and never getting it all off. Now our hand towels have tell-tale yellow marks from the tomato season, and one of our sons once said there's nothing better than the smell of a tomato plant.

Does this mean we can now call ourselves tomato growers?



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The hut we built ... and other muddy matters

The hut we built ... and other muddy matters

It's been wet and muddy and honest-to-goodness we're over trudging through it to get to our gardens and taking on and off our wet-weather gear to work outside. 

The wet and mud affects all of our daily work on the farm and most tasks take longer than usual. All crops grow slow and take an age until harvest. Less customers brave the farmer's market and our stockists sell less. All in all, our work is a little less rewarding in the winter.

The gravel road we live on becomes quieter - with drivers avoiding its potholes and muddy puddles. When we drive to our local town we feel a muddy-vehicle kinship to the other muddy-vehicle owners we drive past and park next to.

If the wind is strong, we prepare in case the power goes out. Fuel for the hydroponics generator, buckets of water, candles, playing cards and firewood. It's too far to pop up the road for takeaways so we make a slow cooker of something that can be re-heated on our wood fire for dinner if the worst happens. The wind whistles around our old house, which is a bit draughty but solid against the stormy weather - the settlers who built it chose a good spot.

On very wet days we check for road closures in case our route to school or our delivery to stockists is blocked by slips or flooding. One stormy afternoon all three routes to and from town were blocked with slips and flooded roads. We couldn't pick up our son after school so he stayed the night at a friend's house. That night the friend's dad couldn't get home from work and he ended up staying with us. We joked that we had traded family members. The roading guys worked hard overnight to clear the roads and the next day our households returned to normal. 

It was during one of these wet and muddy months that our oldest son Sam, who is in his final year studying film production, asked if he could use one of our paddocks to shoot some scenes for a short film he was making. It was a story he had written about a Viking and he was excited to begin filming.

Here was something to distract us from a difficult time in the garden and luckily it had stopped raining for a couple of days to dry the farm (slightly) for filming.

Time was short before filming started and Sam asked if we could help with set building. We - reluctantly at first - chipped in constructing a hut. Our boys had built many huts in our bush over the years, but we hadn't done work like this since childhood and it was fun. Sam said the hut needed to be big so it took a while to finish. The hut was visible from the road and passer-by's were slowing to get a look and neighbours were stopping to ask what the hut was for. 

The film crew arrived and we watched them filming in and around the hut, crowding the doorway with their cameras, booms and screens. Suddenly we understood why the hut was big - there was lots of gear, lots of crew and the tall actor playing the Viking needed to fit inside.

It was entertaining to have young creative minds around for a few days talking about stabbing scenes, golden hour shooting and, most excitedly ... a planned camera drop. Our kitchen was the birth place of many massive trays of stir-fry rice, our side-by-side bike was roaring up and down the road and driveway at all hours ferrying people and gear back and forth. The local cop even stopped at 3am at the close of a night shoot to check what was going on!

The filming wrapped up, the crew went back to the city and now the farm is quiet once again. It's still wet and muddy but it's getting lighter earlier and going dark later, which is an encouraging sign that winter will end soon. The farm had been used for something new and the filming took our minds away from mud for a while. We can't wait to see the film finished. 

Sam and his friend Jordy are the creative directors of Red Ape Media, and the short film they shot here on the farm is called 'The Walker'. Take a look on Instagram @thewalker.production to see more on the filming of The Walker, and follow future projects at


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Suburbia to Farm - how farm life has changed us

Suburbia to Farm - how farm life has changed us

The recent extreme weather has made us think about our lives as growers, how we've gotten to where we are and who we are now.

We had been living on Waiheke Island for 17 years when Daryn said “Lets shift off the island. I’m tired of commuting and not seeing you guys and we’ve dreamed of having our own business for a long time”. I’ll be honest, my heart sank. I hate change. I don’t like being out of my comfort zone. Our little boys and I had a nice life, playing on the beach, being near my family. But we did miss Daryn - he was away long days due to the extra hours it took commuting. He travelled overseas frequently for his job and was away weeks at a time. Ok, I thought, one step at a time, we can just start researching and it might not happen for a while.

We didn’t think seriously about how we would earn a living in our new life, but liked the idea of producing some kind of food product. Auckland had a lot of people who could be our customers and Daryn needed to keep his current job until we got the new venture started. So we decided to stay roughly an hour of Auckland.

We headed over to Auckland one Saturday morning to look at rural properties, all on the Kaipara side of North Auckland. I was still feeling apprehensive about the prospect of moving. As we stepped off the ferry I bumped into an elderly man and said “oh, I’m sorry”. He smiled kindly and said “don’t be sorry, just be happy”. Lucky I had my sunglasses on because I cried all the way to our town car parked on the nearby wharf. The man’s words felt like some fatherly advice, telling me to bravely look forward to new our adventure.

We settled on a 48 acre farm near Wellsford. The original part of the house had been there since early settlers had built it, big old trees planted through the years gave the small farm character and it was next to a tidal inlet from the Kaipara Harbour. Our youngest son started at the tiny local school and our oldest son the college a half hour drive away. Both boys loved their new schools and soon made friends.

We had decided to buy cattle to graze the paddocks. We had been at the farm for about a week when Daryn came back from the saleyards with 40 sheep. “Just to tidy the paddocks up a bit”, he said. The next day he went overseas on a work trip. I dropped the boys off to school and came back to find a dead sheep. It took me all day to dig that hole, wrap the sheep in an old sheet and tow it to the hole with our car. I still think it was a clever plan - towing the sheep into the hole, the car wheels straddled the hole and the wrapped up sheep dropped neatly into the hole. I had never touched something dead before, so it was a big deal for me, I feel embarrassed now, remembering that the next day at school I was telling a proper sheep farmer about it. He said “you know you can always call and we’ll come to help if anything like that happens”. I said I needed to start out like I was going to carry on - I couldn’t ring them every time something happened when Daryn was away. We sold the sheep and got cattle. Cattle are great.

That first summer it was exciting when we got the first hay cut from our flat paddocks across the road. The boys and dog had a great time jumping up and over the bales, the paddocks looked nice and tidy when cut - and it was good to sell the bales and make some money. In the beginning it was also a way to meet locals who came to buy the hay, one of those first locals we met still calls in to buy veges and have a yarn about goats and life.

Earning a living from the farm has been a development over 9 years, but finally the farm supports us completely. We are now full-time market gardeners, growing, harvesting, packing, marketing and selling our veges. It’s been years of learning, exhausting at times, but very rewarding. I’ll tell you something, it’s been good for our brains to be learning so many new things. We hadn’t market gardened before, so it’s been a steep learning curve. If a crop fails, it’s many hours of work and plant-growing time that’s gone. We had part-time jobs to supplement the farm income the first 6 years, but we found that the farm didn’t work as a business until we got brave and threw all our energy into it. I have immense admiration for Daryn, who, knowing nothing about hydroponic growing, researched, built and led us to grow the most wonderful lettuces and herbs using the system. Although we have in-ground garden beds also, it is the hydroponic garden that keeps our income consistent year round. It’s been a wonderful lesson for our boys to see us start a small business from scratch, face and over-come challenges. They’ve seen that when the going gets tough, if you work hard enough, you can make it.

We had dreamed of changing our life, but hadn’t thought about how it would change us and how much we would learn.

Daryn and I learning to work as a team hasn’t been easy ... but I have to say we’re become pretty good at it. We think differently and tackle jobs differently. But at some stage I think we realised that being different was actually a good thing and makes our business stronger. We’ve both compromised a bit which has helped. We would never have spent so much time together in our old life, and I’m certain we wouldn’t know each other as well as we do now. We feel good that we are in control of our own destiny - we aren’t reliant on anyone else for our income like we were in our past.

People often say rural communities are tight knit. We’ve found our locals friendly, helpful and generous with their time, but don’t socialise in the same ways we were used to in our old life, like going out to restaurants for dinner or meeting up for a walk. Catch ups are often outside the local 4 square or rural supplies stores. We also found another new community in our customers, people who buy our veges at the market, or pickup their orders from the farm and stay for a yarn about the weather, livestock pricing, trading eggs for lettuces or an extra big hug because your dog died. We even had local customers turn up in a big storm because they were worried about the coriander and lettuces (their favourites!). Yet another community is our fellow small producers at the farmers markets. We are all small business people, proudly producing, working hard, sometimes struggling but loving what we do. Once we sell out at the Saturday market, there is time to catchup with stallholders, sharing news of what’s happening on their farms or how business is.

There are practical things we didn’t have to think about in suburbia. One night we woke to a big thump under our bed. it turned out to be a possum that came down an unused chimney! And other things like thousands of mitres of farm fencing, a very large lawn to mow, pests to trap, livestock to look after, big trees that fall down, farm troughs and dams to check, farm races and a long driveway to maintain. All of these things take time and money to keep up with, but the reward is living in a beautiful and healthy place, having loads of privacy, being proud of helping to keep pest numbers down, entertainment provided by livestock, free firewood ...

How has life changed for our boys? Being stuck out in the country makes it hard to hang out with friends on a whim. They missed out on Saturday sport ... they were helping us at the farmers markets. That was back when we worked six and a half days a week, doing two farmers markets every weekend. The boys have been a really great help to us. We actually couldn’t have done it without them. Sometimes it’s been paid work ... but sometimes it hasn’t, when we were really struggling to make ends meet. We know them better and they know us better from working side by side with us, in the garden, in the packing room and at the market. They wouldn’t have been able to come with us to our previous life’s work. They’ve watched and supported us do things we had never done before.

Nature is a huge part of our new lives. We are totally immersed (most of the time literally) in the weather. It dictates how much our crops grow, what we grow and when, what our schedule is, whether we can sleep easy or not, even how much money we make. We have learned so much about mother nature here on the farm. In reward we are fitter and stronger for working in the garden, get lots of fresh air and vitamin D, eat lots of fresh really good veges, and earn our living. We like the idea that we might never really retire, staying fit and strong working in our (down sized by then) garden. We heard someone say their farming life was a lifestyle, not a job. And that you don't retire from a lifestyle.

We miss parts of our old life - living closer to friends and family, swims at the beach, eating out more, living in a comfortable new house (our farm house is very old), having more disposable income, and - a big one - having holidays ... but that’s about it.

What if we’d never come here to this new life? We wouldn’t be who we are now. We wouldn’t know how capable we are, and that we could be good at growing and selling veges. It’s been a humbling experience to live so modestly. It’s made us braver - we love what we’re doing for now, but we wouldn’t be scared to try something else in the future. Living here has made us question what really is important. Maybe money and flash things aren’t as important as we once thought.

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Saturday - a big day

Saturday - a big day

I'm writing this early on a Saturday. Early means it's still dark outside. We get up super-early on a Saturday, like, usually ... 4.00am! It's market day, our biggest selling day of the week, and Daryn and Joe need to get to the market and set up before their first customers arrive (often as soon as it's light!). We pick lettuces and herbs and wrap their roots in paper. Other produce we have picked and packed on Thursday and Friday and just needs to be loaded into the van.

I check the boys have their water bottles, remind them to eat and wave goodbye. As soon as it's light, I head outside to do the hydroponic jobs. I check the hoses are all clear and running. I throw out any plants that aren't thriving. Then I put out all the seedlings in the gaps where we've havested during the week. Next up, it's seeding to replace the seedlings I've just put out. We're seeding 600 hydroponic seedpots currently each week. As we build more we'll be able to grow more.

The boys get back from the market early afternoon. It's always exciting to see how they've done. We aim to sell-out every week, and it's unusual for them not to. We unpack the van, sit down and have a yarn about market-goings-on ... and then ... to be honest, we often nod off. It's been a big day!

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You don't have to be big to make a go of it

You don't have to be big to make a go of it

Salty River Farm is small, and there are just two of us to get the work done ... with a bit of help from our boys. We are often suprised when people think we're bigger than what we are. We don't have alot of land, and we don't have a team of people who work for us.

We are keen to earn a living off growing good vegetables and show people that anyone can do it, you don't need alot of money ... or alot of land ... and as long as you're happy to work hard, it's possible to learn as you go along.

When we talk to people with a dream to market garden, they often think it's impossible unless they have lots of money or inherit a farm. It's not true, you can do if off a smaller piece of land, you could lease a couple of paddocks or buy a smaller block than what you think. And it doesn't need to be traditionally good growing land either.

The trick is to think differently.

So ... how do we do it?
The methods that we use to grow are intensive - both hydroponics and no-dig beds mean that you can fit more produce into a smaller area. And there is very little weeding - usually a time-consuming part of market gardening!

Hydroponics is a way to grow that is up off the ground and provides a perfectly balanced growing environment without being in the ground.

No-dig beds are made on top of the ground, and each season we top up the beds with new beautiful perfectly balanced soil.

The no-dig beds also mean that the crops are up higher than the initial ground - so don't get waterlogged in our sometimes wet northland conditions

We have learned that crop selection is important. We only grow crops that grow quickly and strongly for us. This means we can turn over crops quickly and they are abundant - therefore profitable. And we have accepted that we can't grow everything.

We have adapted and been flexible. During covid when our farmers markets were closed, we set up an online shop and started deliveries. Now it's an important part of our business. Being a small guy, it's important to be able to change and have an open mind.

We supplement our produce with other growers produce. Our long-term goal is to sell just our own produce, but for now, having a wider range of produce for our online customers makes us a viable business. When we can afford to build more infastructure so we can grow more volume, our goal will be possible.

When we bought our farm, we thought we needed as much land as we could afford to earn a living. Our small farm is about 17.5 hectares. Since we've been market gardening, we've realised we didn't need that much land at all. We only garden off 1-2 hectare!

We have a small amount cattle and goats, to keep the other parts of the farm grazed. Most years we sell our 'standing grass' to be made into hay. The income we have earned from raising and selling cattle and hay has been handy over the years. But we could have been on a smaller property and not had animals.

We really enjoy working for ourselves, living in a beautiful place, growing lovely vegetables and receiving compliments from our customers. For these reasons it is a very rewarding life and although we work hard, we are very happy being here.

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The big old oak tree

The big old oak tree

This is our old oaktree over the road on the flats. It's huge and it's old and we named it's paddock 'oak tree paddock' after it. The boys built the ladder up the big trunk and into the tree when they were young. We often imagine how many creatures it gives a home to ... it must be millions!

The trees here on our small farm provide shelter from the sun and wind for us, our crops and our livestock. And of course we all know trees give us oxygen, store carbon, stabilise the soil and give life to the world's wildlife.

But most of all I love how much character trees give. I can't imagine how the world would look without trees.
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Hay time

Hay time

Most years we get our flat riverside paddocks cut and baled into hay. It makes us feel good. The hay goes to farmers who need it, we get nice tidy cut paddocks and some tractor work done for us in return. We love the sweet smell of the hay, our boys love fooling around on the bales and the dog loves running on the once-a-year short grass. Everyone loves hay time!

The first summer we were on the farm we were so excited to have the hay cut. We had the whole of our flat paddocks cut - and ended up with nearly 1000 bales! It took us ages to sell the bales, but it was a great way to meet the locals. One local that we met that first hay season still pops in to buy veges and have a yarn about goats and life.

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Frog friend

Frog friend

I was clearing away slug eaten leaves from the bottom of the cabbages ... and who was hiding under some leaves but a lovely little frog!

We often hear and see the frogs in our animal water troughs, but I hadn't seen one in the vege garden before. We have a little water trough that we were going to make into a fishpond for the front paddock, but now I'm thinking I'll set it up with lillypads to make a nice place for frogs to live.

Frogs are quite an efficient form of natural pest control. Skilled at using their tongues to catch even flying prey, frogs subsist on a diet of mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches, caterpillars ... and best of all - slugs.

Having a frog in our garden is a sign that we have a healthy ecosystem, free from pesticides and fungicides. Frogs are highly sensitive to pollutants and stay away from sources of toxins.
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Thank goodness for rain

Thank goodness for rain

We're well pleased that we've had a good amount of rain. Our dams and ponds were empty after two dry summers and it's taken quite a bit of rain to get them full again.

The dog is pleased to have her swimming pond back and we are relieved that the dams that collect and store the animal trough water has filled back up. It was getting a bit of a worry - was there a leak? But after a catch-up with the neighbour we learned his dam was very low too. That was only 3 weeks ago, now we've all got loads of water! Everywhere.
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Unplanned pregnancy

Unplanned pregnancy

This is a story of unplanned pregnancy. The neighbour's bull found our heifers so irresistible he broke down the fence to have a big love fest with our girls. 

So mooving (sorry) the cattle now involves checking out udders to see if they are evidence that next winter we'll have calves born here for the first time!

It might turn out a good way for us to raise calves each year. Maybe we need a gate between the neighbour and us instead of a fence?

And, another brightside was an excuse to get to know the neighbour a little more during multiple visits to entice the bull home.
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What a storm!

What a storm!

Well that was a stormy Sunday! And a near disaster for our lettuces and herbs. But we got by with a little help from our friends.

We lost power on Sunday morning, and without power to pump water along the channels under our hydroponic plants roots, all we can do is manually pour water down the channels to keep the plants alive. The mature plants in particular suffer, and wilt so badly they look like seaweed! You can imagine our distress!

Along came our neighbors, extra buckets, watering cans and helping hands at the ready. And, the best bit, eventually they tracked down their generator.

Our power was out for a couple of days, and that generator saved the lives of many lettuces and herbs! And saved us and the buckets alot of work.

So a huge thank you to our neighbour's, so willing to come and help out ...

... and now we have our own generator. It wasn't on this month's budget but we feel so much better knowing we have power backup at the ready.
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