Plants can help reduce emissions and chemical use

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01 June 2022, NZ: Seeds for flowers to feed beneficial insects, for plants which help regenerate the soil, and for green manure are among those in the thousands of sacks, bags and packets which fill the Katikati warehouse of Kings Seeds.

Better known for its online business supplying seeds to home gardeners, the company also specialises in supplying smaller commercial growers, farmers, and horticulturalists with specific varieties to meet their needs.

Charlotte Connoley, Kings Seeds general manager, says the regenerative agriculture movement is strong right now. “A lot of people see the benefits of using green manure to enhance soils, and plants to help reduce chemical inputs and lower emissions. These are in line with the government’s aim for a more sustainable primary economy, as set out in its Fit for a Better World plan.”

And there is a science to back up the use of plants to help improve the environment, including from research by Lincoln University, says Gerard Martin who, with his wife Barbara, owns Kings Seeds.

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“Flowering plants can help with integrated pest management programmes on orchards and vineyards by providing nectar and pollen for beneficial insects,” says Gerard.

“Integrated pest management means growers monitor pests and use target sprays for specific pests when required. By understanding the lifecycle of pests and beneficial insects they can use nature to encourage the good guys to fight for them.

“Providing a food source for the beneficial insects is imperative. For instance, if growers know aphids are likely to be a problem at a particular time of year, they can plant seeds, especially of Phacelia, three months early, to be sure to have a food source for the insects which will help control the aphids.”

Knowing the feeding habits of beneficial insects is also vital. “Some, like parasitic wasps, have very short ‘noses’ and can’t access nectar from many flowers, which is why alyssum, with its clusters of tiny flowers is an ideal food source. Alyssum is often grown in orchards and vineyards, where it may be driven over by tractors and still recover.”

Charlotte, who for 20 years worked for South Pacific Seeds where she was managing director, joined Kings Seeds three months ago. “After 20 years managing Kings Seeds, it is time for Barbara and I to step back and bring in new ideas. With her extensive experience and knowledge of the seed industry, Charlotte was the obvious choice to keep the business going forward,” Gerard says.

While many businesses have struggled in the past two years, Kings Seeds has been busier than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns has brought a resurgence of interest in gardening and since lockdowns eased, prompted increased demand from small and large commercial growers, leading the 44-year-old company to employ more staff, including Charlotte who has plans for its further growth.

“The first thing was to focus on people. Getting the right people in place is vital and we have an outstanding team of 15 locals.”

Technology will play an increasingly important role in the company’s future. Charlotte says it is a point of difference for Kings Seeds that measuring, weighing and filling seed packets is done by hand. However, to meet increased demand, efficiencies are needed.

“We need to become more streamlined, including with our product range to be sure it is attractive for growers. We are looking at our marketing and talking to our customers to find out what is working and what they want, including the 20-to-40-year age group of home gardeners who are quite new to growing.”

Gerard says the company has found a niche for itself in supplying home gardeners and smaller commercial growers.

“There are around ten big seed companies in New Zealand supplying commercial growers. We concentrate on growers who supply farmers’ markets with vegetables or seedlings or grow gourmet vegetables for restaurants and cafes, who require smaller volumes of seeds than big growers. There is an increasing interest in different cuisines from around the world too. All this is suited to where we are at within the industry because of the range of seeds we offer.”

Charlotte says provenance and food safety is increasingly important for consumers, which is why many people like to buy food from farmers’ markets where they can talk directly to the growers.

For growers, the fact that Kings Seeds has many heirloom varieties and grows and harvests seeds in New Zealand also appeals.

Part of the reason for growing seeds locally is to ensure they will do well in New Zealand conditions, says Gerard. “We try to ensure things are easier to grow rather than hard to grow, so people can enjoy success instead of being stumped at the first stage by seeds which are hard to germinate, or frost tender or not suitable for their region.”

As well as vegetable seeds, the company has an extensive range of flower seeds popular with home gardeners and small commercial growers. “Flowers, especially wildflowers, are very much on trend and many of our customers grow them for farmers’ markets or roadside stalls,” says Charlotte.

There’s also been increased demand from another sector. “There has been a proliferation of interest in community gardens, gardens at marae, in schools and in early childhood centres which is excellent, because it’s helping to teach people about growing their own food, which in today’s environment with rising food prices is very important.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic has brought growth in demand for its seeds, it has also thrown up issues for the company, exacerbated by the impacts of the war in Ukraine.

“The supply chain is tight and globally there is a lot of demand for seeds of all varieties. Where once we could expect to receive seeds in two to six weeks, it may now take six months. The costs of freight have increased as have fuel costs,” says Charlotte.

Like the seeds it specialises in, the company hasn’t stopped growing since it was founded in 1978 by Ross and Glenys King, who sold through their first catalogue, 65 herbs and flowers, eight gourmet vegetables and 170 herb plants.

Barbara and Gerard bought the business in 1999, relocating it from Auckland to Katikati. The company now sells around 1000 different varieties of seeds, including many described as ‘weird and wonderful’ in line with the King’s founding philosophy to keep things interesting.

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