Words by Richard Rennie
Establishing a reputable brand in New Zealand’s competitive gardening sector is no easy task, but a Southland family are celebrating their 27th year in business with Biofeed, a product highly regarded by keen gardeners throughout the country. But behind that brand is also a family with their roots strongly bound in the land, a history of looking after it, and a future firmly set on helping the next generation know where their food is coming from.
Biofeed organic compost tea has built a long-standing reputation among its regular users over that time for its ability to boost vegetable growth, pick plants up after a slow patch, and ensure continuous, robust health.
Greg Crowe founded Biofeed with his late wife Noni on their family’s farm at Otapiri in Southland. It came about almost by accident, and thanks largely to a keen organic neighbour they had at the time.
Greg, Noni and their family had a large wintering shed on the property that held a variety of animals over the course of the season, including deer, sheep and cattle.
“Our neighbour had been growing organic peony flowers. She noticed all the manure we had pulled out and piled up outside the wintering shed. Being organic she needed to have a Bio-Gro certified supply, and she suggested we seek BioGro certification on it.”
Little did they realise the chance discussion over the fence would be the foundation for a business that has included two generations of family members today.
Greg says Biofeed was a hobby that ultimately came to be a business, but prior to this he and his late wife Noni had farmed on the family farm in Southland alongside Greg’s two brothers. As well as farming, he had also pursued an interest in horses, not a pursuit his family were always convinced would bring much in the way of financial reward.
“I remember telling my grandmother I was going to buy a racehorse one day, and she told me that was not the ‘way we make our money’!”
He did eventually buy a racehorse, “Belcarra” that went on to have eight wins, proving his grandmother wrong and helping fund the family’s new property at Otapiri.
“We started breeding quite a few horses when we were there and at one stage had four stallions standing, with 120 mares on the place and 60 foals.”
Greg admits that like most things with horses there was some luck involved.
“I bought a mare in the pub one day for 30 quid and the first foal out of her topped the South Island thoroughbred sales, by a stallion called Kurdistan.”
Kurdistan was the sire of the 1970 Melbourne Cup winner Baghdad Note.
“Kurdistan was a terrific stallion and he used to be owned by Bill Hazlett.”
But as the Biofeed business grew it meant time for horses was less, while the distance to the North Island thoroughbred industry was also an issue, so over time the numbers diminished.
The horses and Biofeed business were also fitted around a busy family life. Noni and Greg had four children who have all today enjoyed their own successes – Deborah is an entrepreneur living in the Bay of Plenty, son Barry continues farming, painting and paper hanging in Southland, Gillian, previously a forensic scientist now coordinates programmes at the Science Museum in London, and Vanessa works in an environmental position in Wellington.
The Biofeed business started back in 1994 and ever since then they have managed to retain their BioGro organic status, no easy task given the robust audits that come with the ticket.
Despite not being an organic farm, they were able to ensure that the BioGro organic standard could be met by ensuring the animals they kept in it were quarantined from conventional treatments, drenches and drugs.
“Being a BioGro certified input means organic farmers can use it as a fertiliser and still comply.”
The largest market for Biofeed is through the home gardening channels for vegetable and flower use.
The Biofeed composting process produces a “compost tea” made from the hot composting process of the animal manures and hay balage.
“Hot composting” is the process of bringing together a variety of organic materials, mixing them into a large pile in one process with some water added to initiate the breakdown process.
The process aims to optimise the microbial activity within the pile and requires getting the right amount of microbial activity going with about 25 parts of carbon to one part of nitrogen, with the hay providing the carbon element and the manure the nitrogen component.
The recommendation of Biofeed’s effectiveness was soon passed on to other growers, farmers and neighbours but it was the experience Noni’s brother had with it that reinforced its plant health value.
“He had bought some plants for his wife and stopped at the pub on the way home, and the plants wilted badly in the heat. Knowing he’d be in trouble, he put some Biofeed over them, next morning they were looking very healthy. He encouraged me to start looking at putting it on the market after that.”
While not a fertiliser in the conventional sense of containing high levels of nitrogen, phosphorous or potash, Biofeed acts as a natural soil conditioner delivering enzymes, micro-organisms and trace elements that assist in releasing essential nutrients and organisms from the soil.
Greg admits it was a step-change as a farmer to move into becoming a salesman-marketer, dealing with distribution, production, promotion and pricing, with all the usual challenges and slips along the way.
In 2008 at the height of the dairy boom, Greg finally relented to the market and sold the farm for a dairy conversion, moving to a smaller property at Lady Barkly, north of Winton.
“We ended up bringing Biofeed with us, building a big shed and putting in the big tanks we use for holding the liquid.”
Thanks to the input and support from his family, Greg has been able to continue the business well after many would have opted out for retirement.
Now well into his 70s, Greg acknowledges the challenges that go with keeping in touch with a range of retail outlets, and much of his focus has been in the lower South Island most recently. However slow, steady work in past years saw uptake from some big outlets, most notably The Warehouse which provided an invaluable sales boost in the earlier stages of retailing.
With some sales and business input from Deborah, he is keen to see Biofeed continue.
The family are open to opportunities and discussions with interested parties who may share their organic vision, and see the opportunities opening up as people become more tuned in to gentler, alternative soil treatments.
Greg has collected dozens of testimonials from happy customers over the years, many accomplished gardeners who would not be without their regular Biofeed regime in their plants’ lives.
“I had one customer, a local who took me to his garden shed and showed me all the other liquid fertilisers he had used over the years, and he said he had dropped them all.
“Another customer said he would regularly spray his vegetables with a Biofeed treatment every night religiously and it delivers every time.”
This follows Greg’s main advice to buyers of Biofeed, to use “a little often” to get the full replenishing benefits of the tonic.
Meantime the opportunity for Ruralco Cardholders to access Biofeed orders opens the door to an even wider range of customers, with the certainty strong supplier relations the rural co-operative brings with it.
“We see Ruralco picking this up as a great opportunity – we know there is a strong interest in gardening among many farmers and having Biofeed in store alongside all their other farm supplies is ideal,” says Deborah.
Deborah brings not only her commitment to her Dad and his efforts, but also a deep level of business experience, a love for the outdoors and farming, and respect for the environment.
Her talents and interests have meant she not only completed a Bachelor of Engineering in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Canterbury in 1990, but also earned a graduate diploma in design and fashion from Massey University 13 years later.
Deborah’s time spent during her OE in the wilderness of Colorado and a meeting with Paul Hawken, the author of the Ecology of Commerce helped her realise the value business can play in being a means of positive change for the environment, and it became something of a guiding light for her career pathway.
After spending seven years as an engineer at Telecom, her extensive resume includes time spent founding IT start-up companies both here and in Los Angeles, all with a strong links to IT, learning and the environment.
Most recently Deborah has been working with The Formary as a strategic advisor. The Formary sustainability consultancy is helping organisations around the world create “closed loop” solutions and more sustainable pathways to business success.
This includes Usedfully - Textile Re-use Programme launched in 2018 by Minister for Conservation Eugenie Sage.
It aims to significantly reduce the environmental impacts of the textile and clothing industry by designing and implementing a circular system to capture much greater value from textile resources, diverting them from landfill. It is a public-private sector collaboration transitioning the industry to a low carbon future.
Deborah’s links to the land have also stayed strong and since moving to Bay of Plenty she is closely involved with a local social enterprise project “Teacher in the Paddock.”
Based on farmland on the edge of Tauranga the farm acts as a learning centre to connect children to the land and where their food comes from.
Teacher in the Paddock offers after school programmes, holiday activities and school learning projects for kids across all ages.
In 2014 her son Mani went as part of a primary school visit and had enjoyed the time there so much that she offered to pay Kevin Powell the founder for letting him continue to come.
“In my mind it was the same as paying for swimming lessons - here the lessons were lifelong and just as valuable, and cheaper than owning a farm!” From this the after-school programme was born.
Looking back over her varied, interesting professional career and at life growing up in Southland, Deb says she owes a lot to her father’s “have a go”, entrepreneurial spirit to giving her the courage to try new things.
“Dad pretty much tried everything except dairying when he was farming, racehorses, grain growing, sheep, cattle, even ostriches for a brief time, and I totally owe the things I have tried to his approach.”
Biofeed has been another part of that full, active life for Greg who also lists country music among his many other interests.
Humble as ever, Greg downplays his country music associations as simply “a bit of a hobby.”
But a quick trawl through YouTube finds him singing much of his music, something he still gets out and about to do through Southland at assorted country music socials.
His retinue of songs are expansive, each one a homage to the many important things in his life, including “She’s my Woman” about his late wife Noni, Jacob, his first grand-child and “Bervan”, a race horse few will remember but to its owners was everything. There is even one titled “Go Organic”, written for an annual BioGro NZ conference.
“Dad comes from a time when farming as it used to be was varied and entrepreneurial, and Biofeed really has been an extension of that,” says Deborah.
Ruralco Cardholders can purchase Biofeed product by using their Ruralco Card online at www.biofeed.co.nz