Rapahoe's lettuce farm

Published date08 February 2023
Publication titleWest Coast Farming Times, The
There are several trips made every day

"It's like farming," says Chris, who lives in Dunollie.

"It's a 24/7 operation and difficult to get away from."

Chris Frogley was an Aucklander ("in pre-JAFA days"), who began his working life up north managing a deer farm, after graduating from Massey with a bachelor of agricultural science.

The family's introduction to the moss industry began at Ngatea on the Hauraki Plains, when Chris was at varsity. But the industry there was fading as more and more of the surrounding land was drained for farming.

So everyone's eyes turned southwards and to the Coast. But first stop, Christchurch. Chris remembers a fully loaded open top LA railway wagon of West Coast moss arriving in Rangiora and having to be pitchforked out at an outdoor drying operation set up by his father. It was labour intensive and expensive to rail wet moss, so plans for a Coast based drying plant took shape.

Before long Chris was on the Coast at Runanga, assembling and modifying a moss drying plant designed by his grandfather, and commissioned by his father in Auckland.

For 25 years he was immersed in the industry, initially drying and packaging for his father's export company, before becoming a contract dryer for several exporters and processing his own moss.

He employed up to six staff to operate the 15m-long coal fired conveyor dryer, along with the cleaning and packaging plants that he designed and built, in what was the old Matai Industries building in Runanga.

But when it became harder to get swamps because of conversion to dairying, or with land becoming tied up within the DOC estate, and other countries like Chile entering the market, Chris could see the writing on the wall.

"The hey days were over. Today it's probably only 20% of what it was. It's more sustainable now with many swamps being "farmed', but the way the moss was picked back then - it wasn't."

So after getting an opportunity to lease a tunnel house, Chris gradually opted out of moss and "grew' into hydroponic lettuce production in 1999. His company Fern Valley Fresh began on leased land with a tunnel house in Rutherglen.

"The tunnel house was empty when we started, and we built everything from scratch.

"We contract grew for three years for the landowner, but eventually decided to go out on our own. We leased and eventually purchased our 2.6ha property from Solid Energy, at the end of the Rapahoe straight. Coastal Greenhouses built our tunnel houses for us. That was in 2006"


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