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Organic farming

by  Seager Mason

Once seen as a fringe activity, organic farming has become a multi-million-dollar industry in New Zealand. Worldwide, organics is one of the fastest growing sectors of food production.

What is organic farming?

The organic farming movement (sometimes called biological or ecological farming) started in New Zealand in the 1940s as an alternative to using synthetic chemicals in farming and food production. The skills and techniques which had been developed in home vegetable gardens and orchards began to be applied to larger commercial enterprises.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent spring warned against the effects of pesticides on the environment, adding to the impetus for organic farming in New Zealand and elsewhere. There was a growing concern that toxic agricultural chemicals such as DDT had become widespread and persistent in the environment, in food, and in humans.


Biodynamics is a farming method that has developed in parallel with organics. They both use natural materials and methods, but biodynamics also considers things such as the effects of the moon on plant and animal growth. Some organic farmers also use biodynamic principles and techniques, but a number of these lack scientific support.

Definition of organic

Most consumers understand organic food to be that which has been produced without chemical fertilisers or pesticides. However, for producers, it is more complicated – organic food production involves a philosophy, key principles, and defined practices that create and maintain fertile soils and produce healthy crops and livestock in a sustainable manner.

Organic methods

The challenge for pioneers of commercial organic farming was to develop large-scale systems that used natural materials and methods economically. There are a number of organic management techniques:

  • Compost, animal manure, naturally occurring mineral fertilisers, green manure crops (crops planted and dug into the soil to fertilise it) and crop rotation enhance and maintain soil health.
  • Mechanical or heat treatments control weeds.
  • Biological controls, such as the insect predators of pests, are used to reduce weeds, pests and diseases.
  • Rotational grazing and mixed pastures keep stock healthy and minimise the likelihood of getting internal parasites.

These techniques are labour intensive and need careful management.

Standards, certification and accreditation

Certification agencies check that growers and processors have adhered to organic standards. The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), formed in Germany in 1972, defines standards and has an accreditation system for organic certification. Organic products are often more expensive than non-organic, and certification is important to ensure consumers are not cheated.

Once organic produce has left the farm or orchard, it needs to maintain its quality. Packing and processing is designed to involve the fewest additives possible.

Organics in New Zealand

Founding organisations

The Soil and Health Association and the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association were formed in the 1940s, with the aims of supporting organic and biodynamic farming respectively.

The Biological Husbandry Unit was established at Lincoln University in 1977 by horticulturalist Bob Crowder to research and demonstrate organic farming methods, making Canterbury a key region in the developing organics industry.

A growing industry

Commercial organic farming developed from the early 1980s. Initially the industry was very small, with just a few small growers supplying produce to local markets. As demand increased, consumers wanted assurance that the produce met organic standards. The New Zealand Biological Producers and Consumers Council (BioGro) was formed in 1983 to support producers, and to certify produce to BioGro standards and international regulations. When New Zealand began exporting organic food in the early-1990s, the Organic Product Exporters of New Zealand (OPENZ) was set up to develop the market.

Government involvement

Organic growers received no government encouragement or incentives until the 1990s. Before this, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries had done just one study, in the 1980s, which compared the economic performance of organic and conventional farms. It concluded that well-managed organic dairy farms were economic, but organic mixed farms (with both crops and livestock) were not.

In 1994 the ministry published a seminal paper, Towards sustainable agriculture: organic farming, which confirmed that organic farming was viable in New Zealand. It acknowledged that organic methods enhanced soils and nutrient recycling, and reduced reliance on chemicals. The paper concluded that the organic approach would benefit future farmers and society.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, government-funded research looked at organic orchard management, mixed farming, and crop and lamb production. However, when government science institutes were restructured in the mid-1990s, research into organics collapsed.


Two large corporations, Wattie’s Frozen Foods (now Heinz Wattie’s) and the New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board (now Zespri International), led the expansion of organics in New Zealand. They diversified part of their conventional production into organics, supported their growers, and developed distribution systems. Wattie’s produced their first crop of BioGro-certified peas in 1990 and exported it to Japan. The New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board exported their first BioGro certified kiwifruit in 1991. Other companies followed, with most growth in organics being export-led.

The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was held in 2001, and opposition to genetic engineering in agriculture led to a sharp increase in sales of organic products in New Zealand’s domestic market – from about $32 million in 2000 to $259 million in 2006. By 2020 the sector was estimated to be earning a total of $723 million in domestic sales and exports.

Types of produce

Peas and corn

Peas and corn are the main crops grown organically for processing, and are sold canned or frozen. One of the largest companies, Heinz Wattie’s, increased the amount of organic vegetables they grew throughout the 1990s, and established Kowhai Farm for joint research with Lincoln University.

Beetle banks

Beetle banks were set up at Kowhai Farm, in Canterbury. They are grassy ridges at the centre or edges of paddocks which provide bugs with a refuge from predatory insects and spiders. In spring, many of these useful bugs move on to the crops to devour pest insects.


Organic kiwifruit has been the main product of the organics industry. Its production grew rapidly from 13,000 trays in 1991 to over 3 million in 2000. Most organic orchards are in the Bay of Plenty, the country’s main kiwifruit-growing area. The area of organic kiwifruit production (about 6% of the total area) stayed the same from the early 2000s, as consumers became unwilling to pay higher prices for the organic fruit.


Exports of organic apples began in the mid-1990s. Although there was a high demand and price for these apples, few growers initially opted to become certified organic producers. Research had shown that it would be difficult to control insect pests and black spot fungus in organic orchards, and the sulfur and copper sprays allowed under organic regulations were harmful to apple trees. However, by 2007 around 9% of the nation’s apple crop was organic, and these apples accounted for $52.5 million or 14% of the export earnings from apples. Conventional apple growers combine some organic methods with integrated pest management techniques to produce apples with minimal chemical residues.

Dairy products

At first most organic dairy production and processing in New Zealand was aimed at the domestic market, and supplied milk, yogurt and cheeses. Since 2005 Fonterra, New Zealand’s main dairy processor and exporter, has attempted to increase the number of certified organic dairy farms and the amount of organic milk for export. By 2007 there were about 70 certified organic dairy farms in New Zealand.

Meat and wool

There has been limited conversion to organics in the meat sector, and in 2008 organic meat accounted for less than 1% of total meat exports. The most popular meat is lamb, for the UK market.

There is some interest in organic wool, especially for baby clothes and blankets.

Other products

There is steady demand for most horticultural crops in the domestic market, and for some crops in the export market. These include fresh and processed vegetables, grains, pulses, avocados, berries and other fruits, and nuts. Other growth areas include organic wine, beer, juices, honey and seafood, as well as toiletries and cosmetics.

Industry support

Certification, standards and regulation

In 2008 there were four private agencies offering organic certification for New Zealand producers and processors: AgriQuality, BioGro, Organic Farm New Zealand and the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. Converting from conventional to organic farming takes two to three years. There are no organic labelling laws in New Zealand – domestic trade in organic products is governed by fair trading laws.

Organic producers in New Zealand wanting to export their products must comply with the national or international standards for their market.

Education and training

The government has played a minimal role promoting knowledge of organic farming. Until recently, most growers learned through trial and error and personal networks. Since the late 1990s a number of tertiary institutes have set up training in organics.


In 2007 a number of agencies were doing small-scale research on organics in New Zealand, although there was little co-ordination among them.

Some of the research agencies are:

  • Kowhai Farm, Lincoln University, researching organic crops
  • Biological Husbandry Unit, Lincoln University, researching numerous aspects of organics
  • Massey University, running a paired trial comparing a conventional and organic dairy farm
  • HortResearch, developing disease-resistant apple varieties
  • AgResearch, with a long-established BioGro-certified block on its Ballantrae sheep farm, which is used for comparison with conventionally farmed blocks.

Consumer interest

In the early 2000s there was strong demand for organic products, although many consumers were reluctant to pay high prices for them. Cafés, restaurants and farmers’ markets offering organic produce have sprung up around the country. The range of organic products in supermarkets has increased significantly since the early 1990s.


The future of organics in New Zealand depends on:

  • the continuing expansion of export markets
  • the continuing increase in numbers of farmers converting to organics
  • food processors, distributors, retailers and exporters being willing to handle organic produce
  • researchers investigating solutions and strategies for organic farms, gardens and orchards
  • education providers getting involved in the organic sector
  • political support.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Seager Mason, 'Organic farming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2021)

Story by Seager Mason, published 24 Nov 2008