Pure Peony

With optimal growing conditions and fertile soils, floriculture is a major industry in Nelson Tasman. But for Pure Peony’s Dot Kettle and Georgia Richards, it’s not just about the aesthetic appeal of their beautiful peonies. It’s also about the healing properties of the peony root and shifting their focus to high-end remedial skincare is also proving to be fertile territory.

Back in 2008, the pair decided it was time to pack in their corporate jobs and busy lives in Wellington and look for a more balanced existence for themselves and their sons. So they bought a large block of land in Dovedale, around 40km from Nelson, and Kettle took a job as chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce.

That was a great way to make connections in the area and it also showed her the strength of the business network “and the willingness of other businesses to help”.

They didn’t have any experience in horticulture or floriculture, but they wanted to do something with their land and a family connection to peony growing inspired them to check if theirs was suitable for it. It was, so they dug in, literally.

Like most peony growers, they started off growing export grade cut flowers. But then came a flash of serendipity.

“The short version of our story is that we were meeting our own need. We first developed our range of remedial skincare to help our own children’s eczema,” says Kettle. “We were looking for a natural alternative to prolonged steroid use and that’s when we stumbled on the traditional use of peony roots and found lots of scientific evidence about their healing properties. So Georgia and I decided maybe it could help our kids and that’s how we pivoted to natural products.”

Business professor and podcaster Scott Galloway jokingly says brand is Latin for irrational margin and there’s no doubt that producing their own products under the Pure Peony name has been good for business.

“There's a phenomenal difference in the money you can make with a high-value product compared to the growers who just grow flowers,” says Richards.

And they think Nelson Tasman is the perfect place to add more value to these high-quality primary products.

“For us, one of our key points of difference is that we’re certified organic and we’re the only peony root farm in New Zealand,” says Kettle. “That whole certified organic thing is a real strength of the region … There’s also such a strong natural products industry here, and that made it easier for us to keep innovating and take it to the next level.”

While they worked closely with the Peony Growers Society, they also worked with local natural products businesses Alaron and Pharmalink. And they also relied on the wisdom of Neudorf vineyard and other organic farms for advice. And the Cawthron Institute also offered an accessible research and testing facility.

“We were able to tap into their expertise. We worked a lot with the business development team and research team in developing the capability to test the active ingredient in our peony root.”

Pure Peony also received funding through Callaghan Innovation’s regional business partnership programme, but rather than conduct another trial on something that had already been well-researched, it used some of the funding to pull together the key research papers and findings that would back up the health claims of peony root.

“Our main focus is on Australia and New Zealand. NZTE has also been a great resource for us in terms of understanding the Australian market. The Australians almost see us as part of their market and there’s a real appetite for natural products there. It’s a good place for us to build a model that we can potentially take to other countries ... We have definitely promoted the fact we are from the Nelson region, both within New Zealand and in Australia.”

In a number of the world’s most successful industrial, tech or agricultural hubs, the research that takes place at the academic institutions or the science that is facilitated through public funding is often what eventually creates value as that research eventually finds its way into the market (for example, economist Mariana Mazzucato says almost every element of the iPhone, from touchscreens to the internet to voice-activation, eventuated from government funding). In the case of Pure Peony, the existing research on the root’s healing properties meant they were able to go from producing a commodity to a high-value product quite quickly.

The Nelson Tasman region has long had a reputation as a hippie’s paradise. Richards and Kettle say it’s now less about dreadlocks and dance parties and more about being “smart and doing things on a shoestring. It’s about being efficient and environmentally focused”. In some ways, these simpler, more traditional ideas are back in vogue. In agriculture, it’s increasingly about working with nature, not against it, and trying to find ways to reduce the inputs required to grow things and reduce the harmful things that are created as part of the growing process.

“We’re certainly of a mindset that efficiency is really important,” says Kettle. “Everything we do we do with a view to maintaining and improving soil health … We were really lucky. We got some soil tests done when we arrived and it was free from residue. We started from a good initial point and have been able to nourish the land from there.”

They say it’s still a struggle to find viable organic alternatives to pesticides and insecticides and doing weed control organically, sustainably and economically continues to be one of their big challenges.

“But - and this is particularly the case for food producers - we need to be moving away from some of those very harsh chemicals,” says Richards. “We have sons, who may take on the business one day, so we need to be thinking long-term.”

When it comes to the things we put on our skin or in our stomachs, there’s a growing awareness from consumers of what is in those products - and a growing understanding of the difference between organic and natural, Kettle says.

“Consumers are doing their homework on the efficacy of natural products and the expectations are that they are proven to be safe and effective and they are produced in an environmentally conscious way, right down to the packaging,” says Kettle.

“Why would it not be organic if it has a plant extract in it?” asks Richards.

Trying to find better solutions is not just good for the environment, however. It’s also good for the bottom line. And so, too, is embracing technology.

“When we first planted the peonies on our farm they were planted by hand, and Georgia said
‘there’s got to be a better and faster way than planting 10,000 tubers one at a time’. So we adapted an asparagus planter to mechanise the planting.”

It used to take eight hours to plant a couple of rows. Now a row can be done in a few minutes. They now grow around 20,000 plants, with 23 different varieties (only some of the varieties are good for the root).

“I don’t think we’d ever envisaged when we first started that our focus would be so different, where we’re focusing on the root as opposed to the cut flowers,” says Richards.

But they did envisage finding a better balance and giving their children a more traditional outdoors-focused upbringing - and that’s exactly what they’ve found.

“It is so beautiful here. We definitely make sure we get to enjoy where we live. And our work life balance is good,” says Kettle.

“There’s nothing quite like being your own boss and being able to decide when to stop. And the 20 second commute to work is pretty good,” says Richards.

While the business is still “a lean ship”, it does hire seasonal labour for the root and flower harvests. But as the company grows, so too will the number of skilled staff they require. And the creation of good jobs is something they see happening all over the region.

While shipping logs, flowers, hops, seafood and fruit and other primary products to willing buyers all around the world helps keep the region’s economy pumping, as Pure Peony has shown, there is sometimes more value to be extracted if you just look beneath the surface.