Meet the Grower: Fernside Microfarm

Owners and operators of Fernside Microfarm, Hayley and Michael Heron had been living in North Canterbury for six years when they accidentally stumbled on their ‘forever’ home in December 2019 - a lifestyle block of ten acres with a beautiful barn style home.

“The property just captivated us,” they expressed.

“We had already been living as sustainably as we could; growing our own vege’s, fishing, harvesting seafood and preserving our harvests so we always knew where our food was coming from.” 

Hayley explained that she has a deep connection to her Māori heritage and grew up eating sustainably from the land and sea. Kai was always grown and shared among the community, and respect for the land and its bounty was always integral to the way of life.

Michael was brought up around commercial greenhouses tucked in below the Port Hills in Christchurch. Michael’s parents grew roses and sold them nationally to markets and wholesalers. He has many childhood memories playing with his brothers and helping his parents among rows and rows of roses.

“We are both very mindful of our responsibility to respect and protect Papatuanuku / Mother Earth, so vertical farming was a natural step for us due to the reduced amount of water and land required to produce nutrient dense food without chemicals or fertilisers.”

The long-term environmental benefit of vertical farming is what drew the Herons to their current business model. After spending months creating a business plan, preparing a suitable climate controlled indoor growing facility, and getting registered and verified. 

“We invested all our spare time learning about the various microgreen varieties, growing processes, marketing, branding and sustainable packaging. We built our website, designed our own logo and labelling, and we print everything in house. Our vision is to produce as much as we can on our property without needing to outsource.”

In July 2021, Fernside Microfarm launched its products locally, and now supply dozens of restaurants, cafés, and wineries as well as wholesale produce suppliers and farmer’s markets.

“Right from the outset, we wanted to ensure that our products were of impeccable quality, so we started with a single racking system (grow tower) and spent months perfecting the growing technique of our four main varieties, broccoli, sunflower, three radish varieties and pea. We now grow up to ten varieties of microgreens at any given time.

“We went with coco coir as a medium, growing in shallow trays under varied spectrum LED lights. Microgreens are grown from seed, so it was important to us to find an established and trusted supplier who had a proven track record for quality.

Once planted, our grow trays go into a germination phase – some varieties for a day or two, and others for longer. Once the germination process is complete, the trays go under the lights, and it is absolutely magic watching them propagate. One day it will be a sea of yellow, red and lime green, and the next day those same trays will be beautiful deep greens, purples, pinks, and maroons.”

Microgreens are an efficient use of resources – land, water, medium – and is a very rapid yield from seed to harvest and the Herons noted that growing vertically is a promising future food source. 

Fernside Microfarm have four main varieties (sunflower, broccoli, pea and radish), all with very different taste and texture profiles. They also grow Kohlrabi, Amaranth, Red Cabbage, Kale, Bok Choy, rocket and occasionally do special runs of the more uncommon varieties like Cilantro and Mizuna.

“Our most popular product is our Mixed Blend – it is a combination of all four of our main varieties plus two to three specialty blends (this changes week to week). We package our retail Microgreens in 50g or 100g compostable containers and have a weekly subscription service where we deliver 240g in a re-usable airtight container. Live trays are also a popular choice for restaurants and cafés. “

Products are sold at Rangiora Welcome Market on Thursday evenings, Ohoka Farmers Market on Friday mornings, Christchurch Farmers Market and Amberley Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, Oxford Farmers Market on a Sunday morning, Rangiora Produce Market seven days a week, and on their website.

“We are also about to begin supply to two local supermarkets.”

The freedom to innovate is what the Herons find most exciting about what they do.

“Through learning about vertical farming, we have been able to put those skills to use to branch out into things like edible flowers, chillies and herbs; something we are hoping to eventually supply during winter when they are out of season.”