27 Oct 2016

Pioneer organics firm still going strong

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:28 pm on 27 October 2016

What started off as a small communal farm in the early 1970s has grown into a flourishing business with six stores; five in Wellington and one in Auckland, as well as an online store.

Commonsense Organics was founded by Jim Kebbell and Marion Wood 25 years ago.

Modern agriculture has resulted in not only poorer quality produce, but also polluted soil and waterways, Jim says.

“These chemicals may produce quite good looking vegetables and produce, but what they do to the soil has never really been accounted for.”

Growing organics is about maintaining the fertility of the soil, which still has the healthy micro-organisms necessary for growing nutritious produce.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the nutrients that we need for healthy growth aren’t always known. It’s very complicated and therefore what we choose to put into our soil, having killed it, doesn’t necessarily produce nutritious food.

“It’s completely counter-intuitive to think that if you pour poisons all over your food, then it is going to be good for you.”

Jim and Marion got into organics for political reasons. At the time they were running accommodation for people who lacked a stable family network and who “had been dumped into institutions of one sort or another”.

“Living with us they got some domestic skills, but we thought it would be nice if we got a bit of land and introduce them to some of the outdoor skills and food growing skills and so on. I myself grew up on a farm.”

A plot of land was purchased while Marion was in the hospital giving birth to the couple’s first child and it was Marion’s mother Frances who insisted they grow exclusively organic produce.

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, I come from a conventional background, I am not so keen on this’. But then I discovered that Shell oil was one of the owners of the new high yielding hybrid seeds. And I thought to myself, ‘Goodness, it’s hardly a good thing for an oil company to be in charge of the food chain and what’s more owning it and patenting it so that everybody had to buy seeds from them’.”

Located an hour’s drive north of Wellington in a place called Te Horo, the farm was named Common Property and was originally 4.8 hectares.

Jim says the two main reasons people shopped at Commonsense Organics in the early days of the shop were for health reasons and for environmental reasons. These days the reasons are still the same, and the largest group of customers are mothers with young children who are seeking healthy alternatives to feed their family.

“One of the problems with industrial processed food is that it is so refined that it has less and less nutritious value and they know that organic food is not processed in that way and therefore is much more likely to be good for you.”

Now, as the business celebrates its 25th anniversary, Common Property is a professionally run commercial unit and has grown to 11.2 hectares.

Major supermarket chains have also noticed the increasing demand for organic food and are now starting to stock chemical-free produce. Jim is not concerned about the competition.

“We’d be delighted if everybody went organic of course. Our aim is to get everybody to be buying and growing organic food.

“I suspect that will be the only type of food that will be there in a hundred years or so, because we will have done so much damage to the planet.”