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Couple mix it up with caper crop

Julie Winder says she gets her green thumbs from her mother. PHOTOS/GIANINA SCHWANECKE


On a five-hectare plot just south of Greytown, one couple is exploring new crop species suited to the Wairarapa climate.

Julie and Richard Winder have been at the property for 12 years, where they have 1200 olive trees which they use to make olive oil under their Greytown Gold label.

The two like to experiment with different crops though.

“We don’t pick from all of them,” Julie said. “We decided to diversify from the olives because if you have a bad crop, you get nothing.

Caper berries mature from the stigma of the flower when it has died back.

“We like to try new things – it’s a challenge.

“We thought we should try another crop that requires similar conditions and yet had a point of difference.”

The couple had experimented with growing saffron, a high value spice derived from the three stigma in crocus flowers but had been disappointed in recent years.

About 170,000 flowers are needed to yield a kilo of saffron, which can cost anywhere from $16,000 to $26,000.

“The last couple of years have been disappointing due to the increase in rainfall and lack of frosts,” she said. “Saffron corms do not like moist conditions and need a drop in temperature at the right time to stimulate flowering.”

They also grow quandong fruit, finger limes, and honey berries, in addition to a few household veges they grow for themselves and for the Carterton Farmers Market.

The edible capers can be picked at various stages of development.

Julie’s current focus was the caper crop.

Thirty-two plants, which first started as seedlings, were transplanted from their property in Heretaunga several years ago.

Their interest in capers was born after friends returned from Australia where they had tried them at a restaurant and learned more about their production.

“Apparently they grow well in Tasmania,” Julie said.

“They came back and said we should try them.”

Capers originate from the Mediterranean and typically grow in sea regions.

Julie had found that they were also well suited to the loamy soils of her Greytown olive farm.

“They don’t need nutrient rich soils. They grow in poor draining soils.

“Here it’s also quite rocky.”

Caper bushes prefer dry heat and intense sunlight.

They can withstand strong winds, like the Winders experience regularly, but are sensitive to frost during the vegetative period.

Though initially put off by the long germination period – it takes between three to six months for seeds to start – the crop had done well.

“You have to be very patient,” Julie said.

“Once established, they don’t need much water. They do while they’re germinating though.

“The plant is drought tolerant and usually cultivated in non-irrigated land.”

The bushes grow to about two metres and then spread out, she said.

“We started picking [this season’s crop] about a month ago.

“This year, we decided to leave a lot of the capers to mature into caper berries. The flower dies back and that’s where the caper berry comes from.”

Capers are be preserved for at least one year before they are ready to eat: left, recently picked capers compared with those from last year.

Picking the berries is an equally time-consuming process.

“It’s very time consuming. It takes a long time to pick a bush.”

The capers can be picked at various sizes while it takes a while for the berries to grow.

She gets an average yield of about 1kg from each bush, but they can yield about 2-5kg each year.

Once picked they are preserved in sea salt for at least a year before they are ready for eating.

Being from the brassica family, the caper bushes are popular with the dreaded cabbage white butterfly, as well as pests like the pukeko.

Regular weeding was also important for ensuring a good yield.

While changing climate conditions across the region had reduced the viability of the saffron crop, she said there was potential in others like the capers.

That said, it is still a costly and time-consuming crop, due to auditing requirements.

Julie  sells her capers at the Carterton Farmers Market.

“I get about $5 for 100g of capers.”

For her, gardening was about the lifestyle.

Julie said her green thumbs came from her mother who grew tomatoes in England.

“She used to give them to all the neighbours. She kept gardening into her 90s.

“I’m still keeping her plants going.”

She described it as a therapeutic activity.

“We are foodies and we like to try new things by growing them for ourselves.

“More and more, people are taking an interest in food and sustainability.

“We enjoy what we do.”

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