Pandemic prompts pesto producer to go-local

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The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have prompted Levin pesto company, Genoese Foods Ltd, to source its basil from New Zealand instead of Fiji. The shift has not only helped to retain staff, but has benefitted Cambridge salad, vegetable and herb grower, Southern Fresh Group, too.

14 December 2021, New Zealand: Genoese had previously flown in basil for its pesto from Fiji, but co-owner Andrew Parkin says the pandemic and the 2020 lockdowns made it clear the company would need to secure a local supply.

“We had been sourcing basil from our own Fiji farm since the early 1990s. The climate is conducive to basil growing as it is warm and temperate, meaning the crop can be grown and harvested for a far longer part of the year than in New Zealand.

“However, it had become more difficult in terms of biosecurity and sustainability as well as the costs – both monetary and environmental – to airfreight a very light, air-filled crop that takes up a lot of room. Supply continuity was also put under significant pressure when Covid-19 first emerged,” says Andrew.

Aware of the pressures on the Fijian basil supply, Genoese had already begun conducting trials with several New Zealand growers with the idea of complementing the quantities from Fiji.

“Southern Fresh Foods was one of those growers,” Andrew says. “When Covid hit, they were well placed to be able to scale up what they were growing for us. We then made the decision to close the Fiji operation.”

Forming the relationship with Southern Fresh was crucial for GenoeseWithout a secure basil supply, Genoese’s ability to operate would have been severely impacted and placed jobs in jeopardy, says Andrew.

“The New Zealand supply has allowed us to maintain the business and in fact grow. Consumers who turned to preparing more meals at home, as a result of Covid, have been using more of our product, and we are adding to our Quality Assurance team due to the increased production in New Zealand.”

Fortunately, growing trials were already underway and could be scaled up.

“We were also lucky to be able to take a large amount of basil crop that Southern Fresh had grown which was destined for hospitality customers. When lockdown occurred, those businesses couldn’t operate, but we were able to take on that surplus instead.”

Southern Fresh sales and marketing manager, Garth Dunn, says the contract has been a great step forward for them too.

“It has enabled us to utilise our indoor and outdoor growing capability, and we have been working really closely with Genoese to ensure we meet their high standards in terms of flavour profile, leaf colour and leaf specifications,” Garth says.

“Crops had been wasted due to Covid over the last year. We minimised this as much as we could by offering crops to charity. Because of Genoese’s contract, Southern Fresh has been able to increase its production of basil and retain its full complement of staff.

“Basil has always been a big focus for Southern Fresh and we have been growing it for 20 years. However, with the increased demand we have scaled our production and our indoor farm has allowed us to do so efficiently and effectively.

Southern Fresh has 400 acres (more than 161 ha) of fertile soil outside where it grows its basil, as well as an indoor farm for growing during the winter months.

“Our indoor farm is perfect for growing basil as we have 100% control over the growing environment,” says Garth.

We are planting and harvesting basil daily by machine and by hand for all our customers.

Like many businesses, Covid-19 made Genoese take a closer look at its operations.

“We had some legacy pesto that didn’t fit our values so reformulated them,” says Andrew. “The customer response has been incredibly positive and we are seeing some good growth. Covid put things in perspective, removed some fear of change and gave us that nudge to get it done.”

With more than 25 years of growing basil in Fiji, Genoese has developed a good understanding of what it takes to grow great basil and how to transport it to their pesto plant in the best condition.

Southern Fresh Group has more than 161ha of fertile soil outside in which to grow basil.

“Southern Fresh operate a HACCP (Hazard analysis and critical control points) based Food Safety Programme and operate NZGAP (New Zealand Good Agricultural Practice) for the growing operation. We regularly audit them. They have been open and easy to work with on any ideas to improve for win-win solutions.”

Fresh is best and with basil being highly perishable, Genoese receives regular consignments from Southern Fresh.

“In October we were receiving two deliveries per week,” says Andrew. “From January to March, volumes will ramp up to over 4,000kg per week across three deliveries. This also fits well with Southern Fresh who pick and ship all their other produce daily.”

Southern Fresh Foods was established more than 20 years ago by the Dunn family, who still own and operate it today. It has gone from its humble beginnings to become one of New Zealand’s leading growers and processors of high-quality, specialty baby vegetables, gourmet salads, and fresh herbs.

The company has a reputation for innovation, including building New Zealand’s first automated hydroponic system and growing the only Trio lettuce in New Zealand. In 2019 it began construction of a 20,000m2 indoor farm, providing a consistent supply of product year-round.

The contract with Genoese has enabled Southern Fresh to continue to maximise its infrastructure and at the same time continue to supply high quality, fresh food to New Zealanders.

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