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NZ: Microgreens business bounces back after Covid

Hank Kang came to New Zealand with his parents from China in 2005. Today he is the owner and manager of Blinkgreen, a burgeoning microgreens and edible flowers operation just outside Hamilton that's experiencing phenomenal growth post-Covid-19.

The Kangs' bought an asparagus farm on the Morrinsville highway in 2012, which they initially left in grass and cropped for maize.

Today, the 18-hectare property includes 12 ha of open fields, which are used to grow broccolini, the larger form of spinach, and a smaller variety of bok choy. Coriander is also grown outdoors and under cover during summer.

Seedlings for the field vegetables are brought in from Nga Rakau Nurseries and the Makaurau Marae Nursery.

Hank graduated from Waikato University with a degree in accounting and then went to work at Southern Fresh near Matangi for five years, which gave him a background in horticulture.

"Working for Southern Fresh was a big learning experience," Hank says. "They provided a training course, and I learned how to plant and spray.

"I used to look after the microgreens for them, but when the Covid hit, sales fell off, we separated, and I concentrated on establishing my own business, Blinkgreen.

"My experience at Southern Fresh helped me choose what I wanted to grow."

In establishing Blinkgreen, he searched for a crop mix that would provide a good return and a quick turnover. This ruled out crops that take years to establish.

Stainless steel hydroponic 'flood' tables were obtained from Silwood Exports – a business near Katikati which had grown microgreens and edible flowers for 30 years but was clearing out as it was in the path of a motorway development.

"We brought in 16 tunnel houses totaling 10,0000 sqm from China and assembled them on-site over a couple of weeks."

The operation took several weeks to assemble, along with organizing the water supply – an essential part of hydroponics. A new and deeper bore is currently being installed.

Inside the tunnel houses, rows of flood tables grow coriander, parsley, thyme, rosemary, China rose radishes, pea tenders, rocket, spring onion, watercress, red mizuna, and the mild peppery sango. Each hydroponic table is covered by black polythene sheeting to keep in the warmth during winter. These can be reversed in summer with a white layer on top to keep the microgreens cooler – otherwise, they would cook, Hank says. 

"We also put the shade cloth up during the summer to reduce the heat inside and outside. We try to reduce the temperature inside to about 26 degrees - otherwise, they'd (microgreens) cook."

In the warmer times of the year, a crop is taken off the tables every week and about every 12 to 14 days during winter. 

Up to nine varieties of edible flowers are grown in summer, including dianthus, viola, marigolds, and calendula. The flowers of summer vegetables can also be used before they go to seed. A small pink rose, about the size of a two-dollar coin, is edible and very popular around Valentine's Day.

There are also stock, snapdragon, and polyanthus – edible flowers that can be used for decoration and for their scent.

"Lots of people use them in desserts and cocktails," says Hank. "Quantities and mixes depend on the requirements of the buyers. We can get orders of up to 60 punnets each of between 50 and 100 grams, but the usual is 20 to 30 punnets. Christmas is a very busy time with orders of 200 punnets largely due to the restaurant trade."

The product goes out via wholesalers, including Bidvest, to serve a market from Auckland to Wellington.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hank was working by himself, filling small orders. But at this point, market demand is bouncing back, and Blinkgreen is struggling to fill orders.

"There's more demand than we can supply," he says.

The operation has a workforce of six who pack Blinkgreen products in punnets and bags made from environmentally friendly recycled paper with clear plastic tops and view windows.

The future for Blinkgreen is expanding its operation.

"I'd like to cover the whole area with hydroponic microgreens and edible flowers," Hank says.

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