Aotea Organics is an enterprising farm demonstrating resilience and sustainability through a mix of productive activities and value-adding.
Five years ago, American Dan Friedlander, and his Japanese wife, Kazuyo, bought Aotea Organics at Shelly Beach on the South Head of Kaipara Harbour. Originally set up as Shelly Beach Farm in 1978 and run by John and Norrie Pearce, Aotea Organics farm solved issues the Friedlanders had begun to experience on the eleven-acre Dairy Flat property they’d lived on for seven years. Development had crowded around them and they dreamed of a larger lifestyle block on which they could stay for the rest of their lives while retaining ready access to Auckland’s CBD.
For these Slow Food NZ converts and great lovers of travel, the 440-acre Aotea farm offered many possibilities.
Dan spent months talking to neighbours about existing farm assets which might viably be used to create a sustainable living. Aotea Organic Farm includes approximately 200 acres of grazing, five acres of fish-farm ponds, 15 acres of orchards (figs, persimmons, citrus and 300 macadamia trees), three acres of heritage Malbec grape vines, five acres in gardens, accommodation and buildings, and the remainder in native bush. It also includes private waterfront on the Kaipara Harbour and extensive panoramic views.
Having spent time on a kibbutz as a youngster, a chicken farm which also ran a stapler and staples production plant, Dan had noted virtually all successful kibbutzim combined farming with industrial activities. Eventually it was decided that the industrial output of Aotea Organics would derive from a purpose-built boutique processing plant.
Dan has a design background, and despite being warned by industry professionals of the nightmarish difficulties in designing such a facility themselves, they went ahead with the design and build. Indeed it was difficult and much more expensive than anticipated but they’re tremendously pleased with the result.
The Aotea processing plant is no ordinary facility. Multiple species can be processed and the plant has capacity for a variety of products. Salami is only the beginning. The uncompromising visual design which appears as a large American-style barn set against a panoramic harbour backdrop includes windows offering a forest outlook, and attractive artworks hanging in the employee lounge – all unheard of in mainstream processing plants. Mainstream plants normally run two or three shifts per day, but Aotea is aiming for a worker-friendly five-day week.
Ticking all the boxes
Since it’s a certified organic facility, all cleaning agents are also organic and these along with the wash-out (which contains particles of processed products) end up in two large holding tanks. That adds up to a lot of recyclable fertiliser, which is allowed under MPI registration to go back onto the fields as long as it has been held for four weeks, effectively neutralising it.
Aotea Organics’ processing plant has MPI registration (additional to AsureQuality organic certification and Hua Parakore verification) to cover the processing of beef, fish, fowl, lamb, and venison. Because they’ve opted to leave pork out of their production schedule the plant is completely halal. Their products are also nitrate-free, GE-free and gluten-free.
Registration with MPI means Aotea Organics can export their own meat product brand and market it domestically. Because making salami involves a complicated form of fermentation, the facility needs to be clean and safe and MPI demands an audit every month to six weeks for the first year. If everything is correctly maintained, visits later become quarterly.
Vegan and fish salamis
Aotea’s vegan salami might raise an eyebrow or two but, without giving any of the serious tricks away, it’s a pea base densely packed with nuts and seeds, some especially flavourful ingredients, and smoked.
Fish salami isn’t the usual thing either, but at a recent tasting event it won the day hands down – smokey and flavoursome. Vegan and fish salami-equivalents are not new and can be found in Asia, but not quite like these high-end products which necessitate reasonably accommodating pockets. Processing these products is expensive, and the processing facility will need to recoup for some ten to fifteen years.
Dan says New Zealanders generally avoid food experimentation, but with their own globally refined palates, and the aid of world-class food artisans and consultants such as meat consultant Wilhelm Zabern, of Zamati Technology, Aotea Organics hopes to fill the gap in the domestic market by “pushing out the boundaries of what the New Zealand palate expects”. On-farm persimmons, figs, macadamias and citrus fruit are all used in Aotea salamis.
Good things take time
Aotea also processes smallgoods under contract for restaurants and businesses which have had limited choice in boutique organic processing facilities. One restaurant chain importing their product from Australia has been testing Aotea samples this year. Direct retail sales are unlikely to be part of the picture however since the plant is small and unable to sustain huge retail demand at this stage. Aotea processes approximately 500 kg per day, or 6–8 tonnes per month. The relatively small output is curtailed by the time required to ferment product (several weeks). Fermenting rooms would become backlogged under larger output.
Certification and verification
After operating Aotea Organics for two years under the existing biodynamic regime, the Friedlanders decided the energy input wasn’t viable in terms of added benefits. The property had been certified biodynamic by Demeter and certified organic by BioGro, but when it was awarded Hua Parakore verification under the guidance of the late Percy Tipene, the Friedlanders opted for AsureQuality organic certification which they felt was a natural partner with Hua Parakore. Percy had given his blessing to the farm and was especially delighted that the Aotea brand would be the third product available internationally under the Hua Parakore (HP) label. Two other HP brands are exported to Australia, but Aotea will take HP into Korea, Japan, and Singapore.
Aotea Organics’ Hua Parakore designation is based on a long-known history of the land, the unconventional introduction of dung beetles by Shaun Forgie of Dung Beetle Innovations, and Aotea’s respect for the land and suppliers. Some dung beetles were released and continue today to contribute to soil health on Aotea Farm.
“Hua Parakore helped us in our thinking,” says Dan. “Because we were involved with it we incorporated it into our plans. One of our salami varieties includes miro berry. The original recipe came from Percy, although we’ve had to adjust it, but we wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise. Percy helped us clarify our intentions and gave us great encouragement.”
Ponds and paddocks
The fish-pond farm already in situ when the Friedlanders purchased Aotea Organics, is New Zealand’s first. Currently only two of sixteen ponds covering almost five acres are stocked (with mullet). So as not to spread themselves too thinly, Aotea continues to maintain the licenses until they can find someone capable of managing the fish farm and making it work.
Aotea farm currently sustains 180 Angus cattle, while under previous management, 80 were barely sustainable. Dan says they need to get their feed growing a little better on the poor South Head Peninsula soils but believes they can build the herd up to 200 animals. Certainly the dung beetles have played an important part in the numbers increase.
Events and accommodation
A lifetime of experience, including the co-ordination of over 400 events at their own Limn Gallery in San Francisco, is also being put to good use on the Aotea Organics farm by Dan and Kazuyo. They have upgraded the wwoofer accommodation to rustically elegant group accommodation for twelve. The lodge is packed with art, displays by well-known collector and historian John Perry of historic marine and bush lifestyle objects, books, and even Max Cryer’s old upright piano on which he composed new works. A cottage 200 metres away accommodates four more guests.
A sauna facility, perched on the hill looking over the farm and down to their private beach and the iconic Kaipara Harbour, was moved onto the site from Helensville, where John Perry had sited it. It had originally come from Parakai where it had been built from the remains of an old kauri church.
A wooden boardwalk has been built for the length of the kilometre-and-a-half descent through bush and fields down to the beach. It’s wide enough to accommodate a quad-bike, and allows walking in pairs with plenty of room.
A major glasshouse sited over a rock floor will be in full use from March as a covered event facility. Product launches and weddings are already filling the diary. Five people work full-time on the farm, including two people in the processing plant, and Dan himself.
Combining high quality organic food from their gardens, the capacity for group accommodation, small conferences and events such as weddings and launch parties, plus the processing plant, Aotea Organics really has come up with a sustainable farming lifestyle plan.
Aotea Organics Farm at a glance
Location: Shelly Beach, South Head, Kaipara
Acreage: 173.7 ha (approx. 440 acres)
Producing: Artisan salami and smallgoods, Angus beef, macadamias, figs, persimmons, and citrus fruit
Diversity: Boutique processing plant, accommodation, events venue
Copyright Theresa Sjoquist 2019
First published in Organic NZ – March/April 2019 – Vol. 78 No.2 – http://www.organicnz.org.nz