Getting fresh produce on a small Pacific island can be hard.
But Mark Blumsky, once the Mayor of Wellington, never dreamed he would be washing fancy lettuce grown on his hydroponics farm in Niue.
Mr Blumsky and wife Pauline are co-owners of Niue Fresh, the largest hydroponic farm in Niue in partnership with local fisherman James Douglas. They also topped the Niue Business Awards winning the Supreme Business of the Year Award in 2015.
Not bad for someone who admits he has never been a gardener or big on growing vegetables before. But he is a sharp, enterprising businessman and pushes himself to succeed.
A lifetime ago, Mr Blumsky was a Wellington retailer who became the Mayor of ‘Absolutely Positively’ Wellington. He was then appointed New Zealand High Commissioner to Niue. After he completed his term he remarried and settled in Niue with his beautiful wife Pauline.
Niue is the largest coral island in the Pacific, a three-hour flight from Auckland. It is run by a democratically elected government and is in free association with New Zealand. The population hovers around 1,600 residents. Tourism is the island’s biggest earner and growing.
Niue Fresh hydroponics farm is a 10-minute drive from the airport, on the road between the capital Alofi and the village of Tamakautoga.
The couple went into partnership with local fisherman James Douglas five years ago, starting small with 360 plants — two rows of hydroponic lettuce grown on James front lawn to supply Pauline’s family-run restaurant Falala Fa. They buddied with New Zealand’s most experienced hydroponics experts, PGO, as mentors and sent James to New Zealand to work with PGO and spend time with their customers. Their early progress was made through trial and error. But they were quick learners. The morning Pacific Periscope visited, Mr Blumsky was rushing to wash fancy lettuce for box lunch packs going to the local supermarket. “They’re very popular in Alofi — a great seller,” he said.
In the past three years the farm has flourished. Staff numbers have grown to six, including the two owners. They went from 360 lettuces to 4000 in 5 varieties, 500 tomato plants, 350 pak choi plants, 200 cucumber plants, 100 capsicum plants and 40 eggplants. They’re also growing coriander, basil, dill and parsley — all heavily in demand from the local hotels, restaurants and supermarkets.
“I don’t have any idea what works or not,” he said. “We just do trials to see if they work.” Seeing things grow has become a passion, he said. He is currently trialling green beans, celery, carrots and pineapple. The capsicum along with a wide range of herbs thrive. Even though tomatoes are a main stay of their business, they are struggling with the heat. “They might go,” he says. “It’s the price for a meagre harvest.”
They also installed a nutrient system run by computer that automatically feeds the plants and monitors their progress as also mastered pest control using netting and non-toxic sprays. The farm is a big investment but it’s not just about the profits that have trebled in three years. Like many Pacific Islands, Niue heavily relies on expensive imported foods and the the incidence of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, gout and obesity has increased.
Now, Niue Fresh produce is supplementing the local diet with fresh vegetables.
“It’s great to see the dietary change that is actually occurring, for example we are selling out most days of our ‘ready to eat’ salads at the supermarket. These salads are now a favourite for the workplace lunch. “We are making Niue healthy again,” he said. There is also a shortage of fresh fruit and so they are trialling five different varieties of rock melon. However, the cost of growing vegetables hydroponically with the nutrients, equipment, electricity sometimes means some of the basics such as cabbage or carrots can be dearer than imports, depending on the season.
Dr Colin Tukuitonga, Head of the Pacific Community (formerly South Pacific Community or SPC) says fresh fruit and vegetable supply is a problem in most Pacific Islands including Niue, the range is limited and supply is not consistent. SPC supports more locally grown fruit and veg but often the limited supply means prices go up. It’s a recognised problem, no easy solutions. Hydroponics is one solution he said.
However, it’s simply not possible to encourage consumption of local fruit and vegetables if these cost the same as imports. SPC was funding a VSA Fruit Specialist to spend a year on Niue to try new varieties.
Niue Fresh is also looking at exporting basil to New Zealand. The large, palm-sized fragrant green basil plants have thrived and visiting chefs want the basil. But with no import standard for basil grown in Niue under New Zealand’s strict biosecurity rules, the process to getting an import standard could take 2-10 years. Watch this space, however.
Meanwhile, the couple is busy running their retail and clothing outlet in Alofi, a spectacular mini-golf course and café by Mrs Blumsky and maintaining other business interests.
For more information, please email Eleanor Ikinofo at firstname.lastname@example.org