Rewarding to invest in renewable energy
“Rewarding to invest in renewable energy” Initially published in Central Rural Life, week of September 14th, 2022
Images and words by Tim Cronshaw
Robin Oakley’s call to put in 564 solar panels at his Southbridge vegetable and arable operation was done with his head and heart.
The ground-mounted solar line-up sits next to the packing shed and powers 40% of the site’s energy needs each year.
Within seven years, the payback from electricity generated by the panels will have covered the capital outlay of $400,000.
By then this power will come virtually free — thanks to the sun.
Mr Oakley says the satisfaction of unhooking from the grid — or partly so — and doing good for the environment accounts for only some of the reasons why they’ve invested in renewable energy.
Solar power will have an economic benefit for the business with electricity bills only going to go up, he says.
‘‘We didn’t do it just for the feelgood factor. We’ve done it because there’s an economic advantage to us as well as a positive environmental impact. That’s the motivation for doing that.’’
Solar power from 390-watt panels feeds into their large washing, grading and packing shed. They’re lined up facing the best direction and angle to harness the sun’s energy.
Oakley’s founder says they would consider increasing the solar farm’s size if they were paid more money supplying power at peak times back to the grid.
At the moment they only get a token amount so the focus is supplying power to their own operation.
The vegetable growing, washing, grading, packing, packaging and storing business is year-round, but peaks in the summer when sunshine hours are at their highest.
This coincides with a greater power loading needed for refrigeration so it’s a ‘‘good fit’’, he says.
Mr Oakley is a fifth generation grower with the family legacy traced back to his great great grandfather John Oakley who began farming in Halkett in the 1870s.
Successive generations followed with the latest Oakley entering vegetable growing as a teen, moving with his family to Southbridge in 2004 to set up the packhouse and offices and building the Oakley’s brand.
Today the growing operation extends to more than 450ha of leased and owned land.
He’s always looking for more innovative ways to improve the health of the land, crops and finished product.
More lately, that includes reducing, monitoring and managing greenhouse gas emissions and nitrogen leaching, and improving soil quality.
Overseer software calculates their nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide emissions as well as nitrate leaching after the numbers are punched in.
‘‘We are measuring what we are doing as the soil is the biggest part of our business and we want to know the impact of fertilisers. Now we are more fine-tuning what we are putting on. We’ve always worked at what we consider best practice and that’s moved on another notch as far as doing more testing of paddocks directly before the crop goes in. We want to know exactly how much nitrogen is in the soil and we’re doing more monitoring during the growing of the crop to ensure that the amount we put on is very closely aligned to its needs.’’
On top of the plant tissue testing and soil analysis, they are monitoring soils after a crop is harvested and putting even more scrutiny on choosing the following crop. This could be a green crop to soak up nutrients that might be left in the soil.
For three years, nitrate levels have been measured in one of their paddocks as part the Sustainable Vegetables System programme. The national research project is analysing nitrate uptake and leaching, the efficiency of data and looking at the accuracy of Overseer predictions for potato crops.
At Oakley’s nitrate levels are measured throughout the soil profile to check their movement.
Gratifying for them, the results show that their nitrate leaching is very low.
Mr Oakley says they probably run on the low side for nitrogen.
‘‘The good thing is we are quantifying what we are doing and we aren’t ‘guesstimating’. We think we’ve been operating our farming systems pretty right just by observations about whether more or less nitrogen needs to go on. Farmers have been doing that for years with season crops, but now we’ve got more tools to get physical measurements and numbers.’’
Growers know by experience what grows best after another crop to make the most of existing nitrogen levels in soils.
Pumpkins are a good crop to follow broccoli or nitrogen-fixing peas as there will still be nutrients in the ground, but the soils will be ‘‘hungry’’ if they follow grass or wheat and more fertiliser is needed.
‘‘The technology has validated what we were doing was pretty much on the button,’’ he says. ‘‘So it’s not like we’ve suddenly found we’re putting too much of this or not enough of that particularly with nitrogen, which is the main one that everyone’s concerned about. For any vegetable crop you are growing if you have too much nitrogen you will get just as bad an outcome as not enough. We’ve always worked a fine line because if you put too much nitrogen on potatoes they won’t set the numbers, you’ll get poorer quality skins and you will get more disease problems. So as a potato grower you never wanted to put too much nitrogen on.’’
The same applies to pumpkins — too much nitrogen and they won’t store well and will go rotten. Under-playing nitrogen means the canopy will be down and the yield potential won’t be reached.
Mr Oakley says they used to err on the side of caution with their nitrogen needs, pre-technology, because they’d rather have slightly lower yields and higher quality than risk a crop’s overall quality.
He says they’ve found in some cases that they can put more nitrogen on because the tools tell them the starting level in a paddock is lower than what they thought.
‘‘We’ve got a measurement on it now and we know we can confidently put X amount on because that’s what the crop needs and that’s what the soil’s got. Whereas before we might have tended to be conservative because we didn’t want to blow it out the other side and risk ruining the crop.’’
It’s hard enough to run a business employing at the peak of the season 45 staff, let alone devote so much extra energy and revenue into the environmental space.
Mr Oakley says there’s good reasons for going the extra mile and being quick to pick up technology and innovations to improve their environmental sustainability.
They’re not the only growers doing this, he says.
‘‘We’ve got branded product in the marketplace and we’ve got people buying product and we want to be able to communicate to these people what we are doing, because I think in the rural area at the moment there’s a lot of bad PR about things that are happening with agriculture in general. A lot of it is misinformation and some of it’s justified, but we want to make sure there’s some good stories being shared to the general public based on facts rather than people drawing their own conclusions based on hearsay. There’s also the opportunity to improve our overall performance financially as well as environmentally. Often the two go hand in hand.’’
He says his family asks environmental questions about products they buy so it is only fair that consumers do the same.
The constant search to improve, especially their soils, isn’t done to satisfy ‘‘grumpy environmentalists’’ but to produce a better crop and this feeds into the bottom line, he says.
Upgrading packaging so it is kinder to the environment might cost more, but it could encourage people to buy their product and increase sales.
Similarly, growing a crop by burning less diesel saves money.
Changing environmental practices on fertilising some crops will come at a cost, but there will also be a saving with fertiliser prices skyrocketing at the moment.
‘‘There’s an economic reason to do it and there’s an environmental reason to do it and you have to weigh up both of those things. So far, in most of the areas we are targeting there’s a win-win going on. That’s no different from the whole world.
‘‘The world has to make those decision because it can’t make a gain environmentally but at an economic cost that will have everyone out of their houses living under bridges.’’
Potatoes are a constant throughout the family growing legacy, but he was the first to grow vegetables commercially.
‘‘I started growing vegetables when I was still at school on the family farm. I left school at 15 and I’ve been involved since that.
Whilst our family has been growing for a long time I essentially started my own business.’’
At the time his grandfather, father, brother and himself were all growers. They each did their ‘‘own thing’’ running their own businesses, but worked collectively and co-operatively with sharing machinery and labour.
As he got more involved in vegetable growing he became less involved in other components of the farm. ‘‘I just liked growing vegetables. As a kid we all had school vegetable gardens and I really enjoyed that and my vegetable garden got too big for what we needed for our family of seven and I started selling at the gate and to neighbours and then started taking stuff to the local market and it just went from there. To build a business out of growing vegetables has been great. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.’’
From initially supplying vegetables seasonally, this has expanded to a year-round operation.
As the business matured, he began dealing directly with customers and creating their own brands and marketing.
The vegetable selection has chopped and changed over the years and in the past he’s grown cabbage, cauliflowers, parsnips and sweetcorn, among other varieties.
Today that’s evolved to potatoes, broccoli, beetroot and pumpkins.
Arable crops including turf grass seed, feed wheat, processing peas and maize for silage are also part of the rotation.
Deep-rooted wheat and maize get to fertiliser further below the surface and after harvesting the residue is chopped up to provide organic matter for the soil.
Broccoli, beetroot and pumpkins are sold as a raw product without being processed, other than being graded, washed, packaged and delivered to customers.
More investment has gone into the potatoes with the Oakleys producing their own boxes branded as Golden Gourmet Potatoes. Their pack-house also supplies bagged potatoes for Foodstuffs’ Pams brand and to other customer specifications.
Mr Oakley credits his wife Shirleen for being a major ingredient in Oakley’s success. Without her support he doubts they would’ve been able to grow the business to where it is today.
One of his daughters looks after their website, social media and some marketing activities part time while completing a master’s degree.
She shares his passion for food and there’s potential that she might become more involved in the business in the future, if this is her wish.
Mr Oakley’s commitment to looking after the soil, land and airspace earned him a HortNZ Environmental Award.
He says they’re proud to be recognised environmentally and want the operation to hold the course that’s been set.
Growers are caretakers of the land and their whole life is looking after the soil and the health of the plants, he says.
‘‘All this environmental stuff is just an extension of what we are doing. It’s nothing new except now we’ve got more tools and technology to measure what’s going on. And it just so happens at the same time people are a bit more conscious about environmental impacts. Go back 20 years ago and nobody gave much thought about it. It didn’t even matter, but it mattered for us and we were still conscious we were getting the best outcomes to grow good healthy produce and look after the soil in such a way that we would get a good result out of the next crop. These are things all growers and farmers have been doing, but now the rest of the world is really conscious about what we’re doing now because of the impact we’re having. Well that’s great.’’
He says it has been immensely satisfying seeing a business progress from a schoolboy start to sustainably growing vegetables in healthy soils.
‘‘It’s the most rewarding thing you can be involved in for me to take something from a seed and grow it to a finished product. We are feeding hundreds of thousands of people every week so it’s pretty cool.’’