Meet the Grower: 26 Seasons

26 Seasons is an urban farm that uses innovative technology to grow a range of fresh microgreens within a two-week cycle. 

Co-founder, innovation and R&D officer Matt Keltie was brought up in the sheep and beef industry. 

After studying agriculture and economics at university, Keltie ended up working for a corporate farmer in Wellington. He met his current business partner during this role, and the two got to talking about hydroponic growing. After some experimentation, it progressed from there. 

“We had a site under a building in Wellington, supplying 10-ish restaurants and chefs," explained Keltie.

“After we did Wellington on a Plate, we got a great response which really helped our exposure.”

Hydroponics is the method of growing without soil. In the absence of soil, the water provides the nutrients, hydration and oxygen necessary for the plant. 

“When people say hydroponics, it takes on multiple meanings. 

“It ranges from growing in a field with watering tubes to what we do which is having plants stacked vertically under grow lights and a programmed watering system unique to each variety.”

Different plants sit under different lights to make them do different things, said Kelti. 

“The lights influence the way the microgreens taste, so when we make a minor change, you can taste it. 

“I remember I had one set of radishes growing under one set of lights and another set under different lights and I took both to a chef who tried them and he told me he could taste a difference.

“We’re constantly pushing to test different techniques for our growing. We’re a tech company that farms instead of a farming company that uses tech, I like to say.”

It is this innovative use of technology that allows 26 Seasons to grow microgreens within a two-week cycle. 

“We grow everything from seed.

“We treat the seeds and then run them through a germination process which allows the seeds to germinate very quickly. 

“Then we put them in the growing system. The shorter varieties we can have out at as little as six days, whereas others can take up to 21 days. 

“New Zealand is known for its number eight wire solutions and there’s a bit about our business that is derived from that approach. That’s what you do when you’re starting out but we’ve moved into commercial solutions to the aspects of the growing process.

“I still look around and see a lot of duct tape and zip ties, but our newer sites are a lot techier and upgraded.”

As hydroponic growing doesn’t use soil, 26 Seasons substitutes the dirt with a grow mat. 

“We currently use wool grow mats, but we’re hoping to switch to an organic hemp material. 

“Each medium you grow in has its own unique properties - residual nutrients, residual pH’s for example - that affects the plants and how they grow. 

“The hemp material is compostable instead of biodegradable and will be certified organic.”

Naturally, the whole set-up of urban microgreen farming is inherently sustainable, but 26 Seasons has some additional practices.

“We farm in an unused building in the city, so we have a low footprint and we recycle our water. 

“We use the grow mats, and recyclable plastic trays made from recycled plastic which we collect and reuse from our customers.”

While Covid closed restaurants and cafes, 26 Seasons’ main client base, sales were compensated by supermarkets. But that is not the biggest challenge the growers face. 

“Our biggest challenge has been helping people understand what our product is and how to use it. 

“Microgreens are on-trend overseas but we’re not putting out a new brand of alternative milk. We’re putting up a highly nutritious product that can be used for more than just a garnish and it’s been difficult educating consumers and customers.”

A microgreen is the first growth phase of a plant and is more flavourful and up to 100 times more nutrient than the mature plant. 

With time, Keltie hopes microgreens will become more widely known and accessible to the everyday consumer.