Imagine being able to taste your fruit and vegetables before purchasing them. Wouldnt that be a novel experience, having merchandisers prompting you to try before you buy in supermarkets? Considering supermarkets merchandise everything else why are fruit and vegetables excluded? It begs the question - would non-organic producers stand behind their products? It is certainly food for thought that might encourage a consumer-led revolution. When consumers vote with their wallets against floury apples and tasteless stone fruits someone concerned with profit versus quality might listen.
That was Monica Stoicas experience growing up. The Romanian-born academic, and former landscape designer, was privy to visiting farmers' markets to purchase the weekly fruit and vegetables. In this culture, you never bought anything unless it was first sampled which encouraged growers to grow great-tasting fruits and vegetables. It is still her benchmark today and the reason behind her business.
Three years ago she moved to the 1914 villa on three acres of land in Pukekohe, Auckland, with her partner Stephen Plank, which is now the home of Oakdale Organics. The business, born a year ago of her passion for good healthy food, is aptly named after the 100-year-old oak tree that dominates the property. The seedlings which she grows, and distributes through local garden centres (including Mitre 10, Palmers, Kings, Sunhill, and Ceres Wholefoods) however have a history that preceeds even this time.
Her 'purpledragon' carrot is an oldie but goodie. Over one thousand years old, it was grown at a time when carrots were indeed purple. It is only because a Dutch man preferred the 'look' of orange carrots that these have today become the norm. The lemon cucumber is an attention grabber too - a cucumber that looks like a lemon. In fact, many Stoica seedling varieties are amusing but perhaps less comical when we realise that these older varieties are Mother Natures bounty - products not changed by man's arrogance in thinking he knows better than her, products that she herself would encourage you to try. Stoica is merely her distributor.
In an age where people want more for their money she delivers it, ironically by offering less - no pesticides (not even soapy water is used to keep pests at bay) and no genetically engineered seed. Less acid, for example in her real tomato Roma from Italy, also proves a winner for customers suffering from eczema.
Taste alone Stoica says should encourage consumers to buy and grow organically. With the industrialisation of farming in the 1960s, hybrid crops were introduced to standardise commercially grown fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately, flavour has in some instances been compromised as a result. Stoica grows heritage seed, that is seed pre-1960, and refuses to spray to encourage virility in her plants. Three part-time staff are employed in production but her current focus is on distribution and educating the public about organics.
An advocate of companion planting and encouraging biodiversity, her ethos is to create an atmosphere in the garden that encourages good over evil. Good predators can be tempted by the planting of shrubs, trees, and herbs which although, it may take several years to establish, will pay off when you no longer need to spend time ridding them yourself. Is this war? "Yes it is" she says but one where Mother Nature is on your side. That is a strong ally for any army.
A certified Biogro distributor of vegetable and herb seedlings, Oakdale has recently added Asian greens to their product range, because of their popularity in stir-frys and salads. Pak choy, Tatsoi, and Mizuna Misome have now been on the shelves for a mere month. But it is Stoicas range of medicinal herbs that really captures your attention, not least of all because of her enthusiasm when she speaks about them. These can be used in teas or cultivated as tinctures. Wormwood is a favourite for pet owners because of its effectiveness in treating fleas and ticks and for migraine sufferers, feverfew is a must.
Stoica's spell that produces such magical healthy and robust plants seems simple. Daltons potting mix, Ocean Organics seaweed fertiliser, Biofeed compost tea, and of course quality organic heirloom seeds. Integrity is a word that comes to mind when Stoica tells her story, it doesn't happen often, but if she feels a plant doesn't measure up - it is disposed of. Says Stoica, "when it comes to our food supply it should always be about quality, not quantity". Her concern it seems is not so much about profit as it is about humanity. That seems a traditional moral code that is worth reinstating.