The Saturday Market is a jewel in Nelson’s sparkling crown and sometime soon I promise to have a chat with Nita Knight and talk to her about the market, its history and some of the characters that she has dealt with over the years. One of those characters is my focus for this column.
Stephen Morris is the guy who operates the Heatherdale Orchards fruit and vege stall at the Nelson Farmers Market, the Saturday Market and the Sunday Motueka Market and is the person we go to for Nelson-grown vegetables no-one else has or for berryfruit when everyone else has finished for the season.
Morris’ family moved from England in 1959 to the property they still own in Redwood Valley and established an orchard. Morris and his brother Darren took over the orchard from their parents in 1980 and had a pretty significant orchard and apple packhouse operation, including packing apples for about 10 other orchardists.
Over time the apples gradually came out, initially being replaced with berryfruit, and when the last of the orchard was removed over a couple of years from 2002 they subdivided the land and converted part to a market garden; the balance was sold and is now planted in grapes.
The old apple packhouse is still there but is now being leased to a business for manufacturing furniture.
Today his mother and father, brother and sister all live on the farm that has been reduced from about 100 acres to close to about 20 acres that has a market garden, a berryfruit garden and a glasshouse operation.
While Morris grew up in the horticulture industry he had a few years doing other things, like working at the old freezing works in the mid-1970s and the obligatory travel.
Morris has many stories to tell including about how he ended up working at the Stoke freezing works: “In those days dad ran the family pack house that processed boysenberries as well as apples. We used to take the berries to the works to freeze them in their big chillers. Before you could even go on the freezing works site you had to be a member of the union and because I used to drive the truck to take the berries to the works I joined their union and that gave me an in to eventually working there.”
Morris told me while he has done a fair bit of travel his heart has always been with the farm, he says there is something about their piece of land that makes it a great place to work and live.
“When we were growing apples we always had the glass houses for the roadside stall, more a hobby and something to do when there wasn’t anything to do with the apples, we have always mucked around with strawberries and raspberries outdoors and tomatoes in the glasshouses.
“It turned out we had so much demand we increased that side of the business, I looked after the fruit and vege and Darren looked after the apples by himself except at harvest time when it was all hands on deck. Dad ran the packhouse, Darren ran dispatch and that side of things and I drove the trucks.”
When the apple industry got into a fair bit of strife they had negative returns for three years and Morris says they were lucky they had a backup option. There were plenty of growers who left the industry with nothing.
They had always had a stall at the Motueka market and had tried to get into the Nelson market but it was full. But about the time they pulled out the apple orchard in around 2002 a space opened up for them in the Saturday Market in Nelson and they were one of the original stallholders at the Nelson farmers market when it started.
“When the Farmers Market was at Founders we used to send Dad and a nephew to run the stall for us, we didn’t make much money and when the organisers pestered me to move to Morrison Square for the Wednesday Market I told them if I wasn’t making money I wouldn’t stay but it fills a niche that no-one else is doing and we have a number of restaurants who come along to top up their supplies mid-week.”
Morris sells all manner of fruit and vegetables at the various stalls and while some things like bananas are obviously brought in, they grow the vast majority themselves including specialty products that need a glasshouse as well as various berryfruits, herbs, chillis, eggplants, zucchini, melons and tomatillos outdoors.
“We have specialised in unusual tomatoes so in the glasshouses we have got various cherry tomatoes, yellow, black and so on as well as Isle of Capri.
“We grow eggplants in the glasshouse as well as outdoors because some eggplants, mainly the Asian smaller varieties grow differently and have different flavours depending on how they are grown.”
Morris says the market gardening industry is hard work, with a different marketing process to apples.
“With apples the price was dictated and you had to invest in labour and all of your running costs for a year and a half before you got any money. With fruit and vegetables you can harvest different crops all year and when they are ready you can’t put them in a cool store for six months, you need to sell the sell them straight away.”
Heatherdale Orchards, or Brightwater Country Fresh, as they are known in the market, added hydroponically-grown strawberries in late 1990s and they have proved a huge success. They get twice the crop off half the land and because of the way they manage the growing process. They also get great flavours, not just force-grown fruit without the real fruit flavours.
Morris says they have thousands of chilli plants of varying varieties, from large chillis for stuffing to fiery-hot birds-eye chillis.
He also says they have the best collection of berries as far as varieties is concerned with around 15 varieties of raspberries, five types of blackberries and numerous varieties of blueberries, some of which don’t have names.
“A lot are crosses supplied by a plant breeder who uses us to trial them but it also means I have blueberries for a lot longer than anyone else.”
And the secret to growing great produce? “It is all to do with the conditions they are grown in, we have a soil structure known as Dovedale Loam and can grow can grow anything.”
Morris doesn’t think he could do anything else. “The thing about the farm is sometimes we don’t have much money, sometimes we have some but we always have our own space, we have seen lots of changes in Redwood Valley since we moved there in 1959, there were only four houses around us then, and I just love the markets we go to, I love the atmosphere at the markets and get to talk to all sorts of people from all around the world.”