New Zealand's coronavirus restrictions have led to one of the country's leading herb producers to make their range available to more consumers, through the creation of an online store.
Superb Herb Sales and Marketing Manager Brigitte Hannett says they can courier all herbs nationwide overnight, and so far, people have been delighted to get them delivered at their front doors.
"This was a project we had in mind for a while but it became a clear priority when our first lockdown was announced," she said. "We knew the trips to supermarkets were going to be a bit more rushed and 'to the point' so we wanted our consumers to still be able to find the varieties/flavours they were after, and even more than the usual herbs as the lockdown was the perfect time to experiment in our kitchens. The feedback has been amazing, our consumers can easily access our smaller range, like lemon basil and marjoram but also our leafy greens, which were only found at top greengrocers and supermarkets in the country. The minimum purchase is six plants."
The company, which was founded in 1974 by Jim Pike, grows 23 varieties of herbs; the most popular being Coriander, Basil, Mint and Parsley. In terms of volume, three tonnes of herbs are produced every week, using five ha of greenhouse space and Ms Hannett says the challenge has been set to their team of professional growers to supply all year round.
"New Zealanders love their fresh herbs and are keen to try new flavours so we keep growing our range based on consumer demand," Ms Hannett said. "Right now, we are working on establishing a good supply of French Tarragon, not an easy herb to grow all year round but as our consumers are asking for it. We supply to all supermarkets, restaurants and fresh markets in New Zealand as well as a home delivery business: My Food Bag. We also export twice weekly to Hong Kong where we sell to two major supermarket chains and a fresh market. Our fresh herbs actually make it to Hong Kong supermarket shelves faster than in stores at the bottom of the South Island."
Photo: Superb Herb's Directors, Ken Rogers and Charles Pike
In late 2019, Superb Herb started production its new glasshouse, which was built by world experts in greenhouse automation based in The Netherlands and scoped with the latest technology available. Ms Hannett says it is the first one of its kind in Australasia based on the amount of automation built within each growing stage.
"All planting has been heavily automated, from the seeding stage where all seeded pots travel on automated tables that make their way to the Germination area," she said. "Then our growing can take place in a climate-controlled area, in nutrient-rich soil with minimal direct human contact. Plants keep circulating throughout the greenhouse until they reach maturity, where they return to the working area for harvest, packing and dispatch. Irrigation, fertilisation and climate are all tightly controlled by a central Software, which can be accessed remotely and at a glance. The water and fertilisation are combined with UV disinfection system, ensuring water re-use plus a zero nutrients loss in the environment."
The system also automates the plants spacing stage which occurs in the first weeks of plant growth, when each pot has to be individually spaced so the plant can get the optimum amount of light and ventilation. Over 7,000 pots are being spaced daily by two spacing robots, which in the past had to be done manually.
"Once harvest is complete, more automation has been introduced so every table is picked up and taken to its final stage, the cleaning station, all automated, before being sent back in the seeding area where new seedlings will be planted and ready for their journey through our greenhouse," Ms Hannett said. "This automation also allows for better traceability and improved food safety as everything is recorded as the plants travel through our new facility."
Beyond the automation, Ms Hannett added that there has also been the introduction of the glass and shades used are the latest in terms of technology, letting the perfect amount of light go through and using white shades working as well as the old black or green shades letting the light in while also keeping the heat in winter.
Generally, sales are strong throughout winter as outdoor growers are battling with the weather while we can keep producing, according to Ms Hannett. She says the only issue in the past was physical constraints around the growing space as plants are much slower to grow over this period, they stay longer in the greenhouses hence more space is required to reach the same level of production.
"This year, with the addition of our new glasshouse, we thought that space will finally be of no issue but that was not counting COVID-19 hitting us," Ms Hannett said. "The first week of our lockdown was very quiet, especially as our hospitality customers all closed down suddenly but then consumers reverted to “cooking from scratch” and through the whole COVID period, we actually had to quickly re-open and use all the space we had available, old and new greenhouses were back in full steam. We were fortunate it was just the start of autumn so our plants were still growing well but the second lockdown was a bit scarier in terms of volume as growth was still slow and volumes suddenly up again. Overall, the company was able to supply well over winter, we could have done with more of everything but both customers and consumers understood these were unusual times and even with the best systems in place, we couldn’t have forecast what happened and is still happening."