Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A food story built on fusion

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As a young country, NZ looks to make its own culinary traditions, and it all starts on farm.
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The last bit of track is steep. All you see is the hood of the side-by-side, before the windscreen fills with the Pacific Ocean on one side, Southern Alps on the other and a patchwork of towns, farms and bush in between. 

This is Ian Knowles’ favourite spot on Glenmark Springs near Waipara, Canterbury. Every trek up to Central Hill reminds this Ballance Farm Environment Award winner and guest on TVNZ 1’s A New Zealand Food Story just how lucky he is to farm here.  

“It’s the opportunity,” he said. “We can grow almost anything out here. Nature gifted us a temperate climate that’s light on snow and frost. We’re even tucked away from the harshest of the Easterlies coming off the Pacific. This is a place of abundance.

“We’re a young country,” says Knowles. 

“The old world has millennia of farming heritage to lean on. There are Burgundian vineyards with roots that reach the bedrock. We’re still writing our food story.” 

Knowles thinks there are two parts to New Zealand’s budding food story, both of which he can see from Central Hill. The first is about diversity and abundance. 

Within eyeshot of his sheep and beef farm and orchard, Knowles and others can grow an award-winning menu.

Maybe it’s Pacific Ocean kelp and mussels to start, lamb and market greens for the main, with fresh fruit and ice cream to finish. Don’t forget the wine too. 

But diversity also matters off the plate. Looking south to Christchurch, new New Zealanders are adding the tastes of Asia and the Pacific to the menu. The original taste of Aotearoa, Māori cuisine, is also making impressive inroads at home and abroad.  

Where some of the richest food stories around the world are built on tradition, NZ’s will be built on a fusion of farming landscapes, food and people. Indeed, the view from Central Hill has already changed many times – from bush, to sheep stations and dairy farms, to vineyards, orchards and in many places, back again to bush. 

The second part of the food story that Knowles can see from Central Hill is about innovation meeting nature. 

That seems like a contradiction at first, but not to data-driven Knowles, who admits to being addicted to trials and experiments on farm. 

“The land talks to me through Excel spreadsheets. When I experiment with a new crop, plant trees to slow erosion or adapt a grazing practice, I can only judge the impact of those changes on the soil and animals through data. I do it because the flip side of my privilege to farm this land is a responsibility to leave the land in at least the state we found it, if not a better state.” 

Ben Bayly, restaurateur and host of A New Zealand Food Story, said Glenmark Springs is the most beautiful farm he’s ever visited, “beautiful to the core. If you could look at a porthole into the future this is what farming could look like.”

A focus on data-driven decision-making could be the foundation for the NZ food story of the future. Knowles sees a day when the next generation of verification schemes enable an even deeper reputation for health, ethical farming and environmental restoration – further separating NZ’s food and fibre from commodity competitors. 

Free of the crutch of subsidy, NZ farmers will commercialise measures for water quality, nutrient density, carbon sequestration and biodiversity – adding economic value and telling a story about how great farming, can change the world.  

For Knowles, collaboration, humility and celebration across the sector is what will glue it all together. But it will start on farm.

“At Glenmark, I see my role as a conductor.I get inspiration and hard-earned lessons from the Ballance Farm Environment Awards community of pace-setting farmers. 

“I need new tools like MitAgator and SpreadSmart to help the land continue to tell me how I can use my nutrients more efficiently. It’s my job to ask the dumb questions and learn from my tools and teachers – that’s the humility bit.”  

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