Once valued for its antiseptic qualities, sphagnum moss is now finding a new use as the world’s best potting medium for expensive hothouse orchids. And nowhere does the giant moss grow better than in the swamps of the West Coast, where the fiercely independent locals are fuelling an industry with a future as impressive as their own landscape.
Rhode island reds pecked fitfully amongst rusted drums, or strutted between the cars in the deserted yard. Everything, from the timber house and barns to the scattered machinery and corrugated iron, was succumbing to the weather. The wind, moaning through the pines, carried the incessant rasp of the seas, and that peculiar odour that was to become as familiar to me over the next few days as body scent. A smell somewhere between seaweed and damp wood chips — the smell of drying sphagnum moss.
I was at the home of West Coaster Paul Wilson, thirty or so kilometres down the road from Fox Glacier at Hunt’s Beach, and it was the reputation of the moss, new wonder crop of the Coast, that had brought me here. The huge moss, which can absorb 20 times its own weight of water, is also antiseptic and uncontaminated properties for which it has long found favour with the Japanese. Following the sudden stopping of its Korean supply in the 1970s, Japan has been a big buyer of dried South Island moss, taking up to 700 tonnes a year, injecting more than ten million dollars annually into the local economy, and creating some 400 new jobs.
My knocks on the door were answered with silence. A white horse twitched close to a fence. It seemed the kind of place that would sap the energies of even the most ambitious homesteader. A while later, out along the beach, I noticed someone wading through the shimmering surf towards me. It was one of Paul’s pickers, Brandon Gardener. He cradled a load of fresh pipis in his hands.
The boss was still over the Alps in Christchurch hospital, he said. Seems Paul had suffered complications after surgery. No one knew when he would be back. Chance, I came to feel, played a big role in the life of Coasters, and sphagnum, the unexpected green gold of the wasteland, was just another of its manifestations. Brandon offered to drive me up to the harvest fields to look around.
We stood in a bog — private land, leased from Maori owners. Scattered amongst the rushes and sedges lay clumps of moss, light green at the living tips and with strands as thick as small bottle brushes. Inland, mist shrouded the Copland Range. Brandon demonstrated how the moss was harvested: stooping over, he spread the fingers of each hand and brought his arms together under the mass of filaments, drawing them up and gently shaking free the trapped wireweed. It looked effortless.
Because sphagnum is alive only at its tip, and has no roots as such, it is easily lifted and separated from its decaying base — a principal source of the world’s peat.
“Best moss I’ve found grows with manuka. Rushes and cutty grass have good moss too. Maybe it’s the shade. Maybe moss likes the support,” he says. “And every time we pick it, it comes back even better.”
Regrowth varies according to nutrients, climate and vegetation, but usually takes between three and five years. During that time the best thing growers can do is leave it alone. All the nutrients sphagnum needs are available in rainwater, so repeated harvesting does not threaten future productivity. However, like many wetland plants, sphagnum is intolerant of changes in water level. Even the compaction caused by tyre treads will render strips of ground uninhabitable for years. So a great deal of thought has gone into minimising environmental impact.
The most common method of removing bagged moss — which, in its wet state, is backbreakingly heavy is by air. Hiring a helicopter in this isolated region is, surprisingly, no problem. The Coast has a high population of them as a result of the deer-shooting boom of the 1970s. Go into the Southland Hotel of an evening, say locals, and half the people at the bar are likely to be pilots or owners.
Harvesting is an odd mix of feudal labour and high technology.
“We group the bags together and get a chopper to lift them out every two weeks to the road. Fastest I’ve ever done it is 80 bales in 18 minutes,” says Brandon. “Sometimes I ride with the last two bales — Paul doesn’t like that.”
It is one of the few rewards for a picker. Life in the swamp can be exhausting. It requires self motivation and the ability to tolerate every kind of physical hardship, from cut hands and annoying sandflies to icy wind and rain.
“You can’t work in winter because the frost doesn’t thaw until five o’clock some days. Try picking moss and the top just snaps off,” he says. “Paul’s been experimenting with a tarpaulin.”
It is a quiet, solitary life — “I get to do a lot of thinking out here.” But there are compensations. For example, the natural world: pukekos, the edible blue berries on the black scrub, the keas that fly down from the mountains every morning to toss moss from the bales. Intrigued, I ask if there is a reason for the birds’ behaviour. “Nah. They just do it to annoy you.”
Up the coast at Hokitika, Kevin Bradley and Steve Keenan run an operation which is in many ways the flip side of life at Hunt’s Beach. Located, appropriately, on the outskirts of the Coast’s old goldfield capital, Scenicland exudes the confident success that moss held out to all growers in the industry’s early days. Through entrepreneurial flair and determination the partners have defied the vicissitudes of price fluctuations, government legislation and bad luck.
A key to regular supply is the ability to kiln dry the moss for shipping. “The Japanese are sticklers for natural products and look more favourably on air drying,” says Steve. “But on the Coast we are committed to kiln drying in winter, and even in summer we can’t use outside drying racks all the time.”
Scenicland started (and almost ended) with a tobacco kiln bought in Nelson. The wooden kiln was unsuitable for drying moss 24 hours a day every day of the year, and early in 1987 caused a fire that destroyed three quarters of the factory, including burners and maintenance equipment. “It almost killed us. because the most important thing with Japanese is meeting deadlines. All the tradespeople round town got behind us and we rebuilt the factory in two weeks.”
It was a measure of the importance of the one million dollar-a-year business that over the following weeks it made the front page of the Hokitika Guardian three times. New burners that could run on the waste oil garages had trouble giving away were flown out from Britain.
Drying the moss is a tricky business. Dry it too long or too fast and it’s like using a pressure cooker. Overheating bursts the plants’ cells, destroying their ability to absorb water — one of the moss’s main attractions. Another is its sterility. The fact that moss harbours no bacteria makes it an ideal potting medium in the huge automated Japanese orchid nurseries, where disease could spread rapidly and disastrously.
Sphagnum’s extraordinary water retention means potted corms need watering only once every three weeks. It also mildly acidifies the water — enough to suit the Cattleya and Phalaenopsis orchids which are commonly grown. Unfortunately. this is not such good news for Gymbidiums, the orchids most popular in New Zealand. These plants find the moss a less attractive growing medium.
Orchid rearing is an expensive exercise. The plants flower at between five and six years, and are then commercially viable for a further 10 years. During that time they may be repotted some 20 times — hence the insatiable demand for sphagnum.
“One company buys all our production. There’s an ever increasing demand,” says Kevin. “If you produce a good product they’ll stick by you.”
The value of moss triples once it reaches the Tokyo wharf, and Scenic-land exports 70 containers a year.
Qualities valued in moss vary. Some buyers like pale strands, others prefer theirs dark. Some go for a hay-like texture, where others place a premium on cream moss with a green tip. To the connoisseur, moss is as subtly varied and distinctive as tobacco or red wine. And, as with a fine Havana or a silky burgundy, the right attributes can command a premium.
But the cost of providing an acceptable quality can be high, and Japanese importers, who lead the world in the prices they are prepared to pay, are tireless examiners of cell damage.
“We bought a small electric kiln, which is basically a heat pump, because the Japanese wanted to try another type of drying,” Kevin explains. “It cost $20,000, but they may push for a bigger one. If they do, we’ll have to try it.” The tag, he says resignedly, will be $60,000.
For years the Chinese have shipped moss to Japan, but, says Steve, it is basically “a mixture of small fine moss and mud. Though they will never admit it, the Japanese blend their own moss with ours to improve its quality.” Canadian moss is said to be short and grey. West Coast moss, says Steve, is the best in the world.
The great unknown in the moss game is access to raw materials, closely followed by reliability of pickers and sorters — the men and women who painstakingly remove twigs, seeds and soil from the moss before final packing. “People can be fickle. For 10 cents they’ll go down the road,” he says. “But we have our own blocks now, so at least supply is stable.”
The blocks, totalling 500 acres, are in two dairy farms bought by the partners 10 years ago when moss first began to look attractive as a crop. The land is largely old forest clear felled and burned 50 years ago, which has reverted to black scrub, cutty grass and gorse in the hauling lines where logs were snigged out. Initially all the commercially acceptable moss was picked, then over the following three years the remaining 60 per cent, which had by then matured.
In just a decade virtually all the moss not on Crown land has been bought up by growers anxious to secure supply. Even areas of as little as half an acre are jealously guarded by Coasters keen to supplement what can be, in this depressed regional economy, meagre earnings. Steve claims he can now tell, without needing to walk through it, whether a swamp is commercially viable. It is the sort of savvy useful in this place.
At kawhaka, in the back-blocks of Kumara, between Hokitika and Greymouth, Dutch-born Kees van Beek has established a comfortable life for himself, his wife Anne and their four daughters. They run a couple of hundred head of cattle and 400 ewes — and harvest some moss. Their nearest neighbour is 7km away.
Kees’s family emigrated from Holland in 1955. While sharemilking in Rangiora, and wanting a patch of his own, Kees looked at affordable land in the North Island. “It was all razor back country and fairly remote. No power, no water, no access. In the end we decided on the Coast, and that’s where we’ve been for the last 20 years.”
In the early days their lives at Kawhaka had a pioneering flavour. Access was via a foot swing bridge, and the telephone was on a pole next to the woolshed. Under the rusted iron roof of the original home they found kawhaka (native cedar) shingles. When a neighbour joined the rural reticulation scheme and cast around for a way to profitably use up the $1000 minimum electricity charge, they hit on moss drying. That was 10 years ago. Now the neighbour, who became head of maths at the local school, has no time for moss. Kees is still committed.
“The year before last moss made up 50 per cent of our income. One kilogram of dry moss was worth more than 12 kilograms of lamb. We sell to the highest payer — over the years it has been Turners and Growers, Scenicland, Newmans and others. Our moss may be a little darker, but it is thick.”
Kees doesn’t expect the price to fall much because the moss resource is finite and New Zealand is unlikely to flood the market. Currently he is getting up to $10 a dry kilogram. With most of the picking areas close to tractor paths, he says a saving on airlifts of four dollars a bale can be made.
One problem he has encountered is fern root. It can downgrade the moss, because, unlike most vegetable matter, it doesn’t always die when shipped, and can grow around the roots of potted orchids, restricting their own growth.
Kees has a Timberlands picking license covering 200 hectares of prime moss land — a block with a high water table. There is also the less satisfactory undulating ground of his own farm.
A nagging concern, he confides, is persistent poaching, which goes as far as moonlighting — picking moss illegally during a full moon. As chairman of the Moss Association he is understandably worried, though he admits catching offenders is not easy. The more sophisticated poachers move into a good area with enough supplies for a week. There they remain almost undetectable until the time comes for their bales to be taken out. Other cases involve growers’ own bales being spirited away in the dead of night. A flash of headlights on an otherwise deserted back‑country road may be the only indication that a hard earned crop has been lost.
Nor is theft limited to sphagnum heists. In late 1988 two unemployed youths were convicted of stealing a lawnmower in a “misguided attempt” to start a moss drying plant. “They may have been market-driven,” said their unimpressed judge, “but that doesn’t extend to self-help.”
The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, an unlikely combatant in the poaching war, became embarrassed earlier this year over signs erected by staff in the re‑mote reaches of the Lewis Pass which read: “Danger — moss sprayed with radio-active tracer — no commercial value”. The false claim was DSIR’s own misguided attempt to protect experiments monitoring sphagnum growth rates in its vulnerable patches of bog.
“In the early days you could leave moss bales by the side of the road,” recalls Lesley Frogley. “Now things have got bad.” The experiences of Lesley and her husband Chris typify the changing fortunes of smaller West Coast processors. Chris moved to the Coast eight years ago, and together the couple bought a woodworking company at Runanga, just north of Greymouth. They converted the building, originally a Catholic School, to a moss processing plant and installed a coal dryer, complete with conveyor belt.
For a time things went well. Moss could often be picked from the roadside, and pickers who put in a solid four or five hours would have their moss weighed and be paid by midday. It wasn’t uncommon for the Frogleys to accumulate 30 bales a day, and a picker with a car and trailer would come away with $100 for a morning’s work.
Some of the moss-yielding swamps were further away though as far off as Lake Hochstetter, 50km inland. “That’s a fair distance on bad roads. A few vehicles have been wrecked in the moss business.”
Now the pickers have moved on and Chris is unemployed.
“The government put us out of business,” claims Lesley. “They locked up the swamps as reserves, and the small blocks we had left weren’t enough to keep the factory going. It needed five tonnes of wet moss a day to be economical. The smart thing to have done back in the beginning would have been to buy a farm with moss on it.”
There is a lot of talk among Coasters of the “locking up” of their resources. The Coast was born on extraction industries — first gold, then coal — and kept going on logging and the export of black sand. Now many say moss, the latest promised road to economic prosperity for the region, is being snatched from them by unsympathetic administrators. Chris Frogley’s father, John, still owns the idle factory. The living room of his comfortable home on Auckland’s North Shore seems a world away from the cool wet moss fields of the south. But, as one of the industry’s first exporters, he has vivid recollections of its early days and some heretical views on its failures.
John started out in 1979, picking from the Ngatea swamp in the North Island’s Hauraki Plains. Supply of the scarce northern moss, choked even further by the destructive effects of lime from topdressing, couldn’t meet Japanese demand. These days the little North Island sphagnum that is harvested goes no further than the local market.
Following the draining of the Ngatea swamp, John moved his operation south, to Springs Junction in the Lewis Pass. Wet moss picked there was transported by truck to Rangiora for airdrying. Japanese demand finally drew him, as it has drawn other growers, to the world’s moss Klondike — the West Coast.
And like others, John Frogley has experienced first hand the resourcefulness and enterprise of the Coasters.
“We paid three hundred dollars a tonne for wet moss, and needed 16 kilos of it to get one kilo of finished dry product. Often pickers would hose down their moss before delivery. They’d pull up to the weighbridge with water still streaming out of the trailer. Making them drive round the block a few times sorted that one out.” Then there were the trailers themselves. “One load was suspiciously heavy, so I had a close look. What did I find? Wet sand in the frame and a new half inch steel floor.” John overcame inventiveness with an old solution: standardisation. Steel-framed boxes with a known weight were supplied to pickers.
Local growers set up the West Coast Sphagnum Moss Association to present a united marketing front to overseas buyers and help stabilise prices. The bigger companies, says John, weren’t interested. Their tactic was to drive prices down, absorb the losses and take over the market. Time after time, he says, large companies that didn’t understand the Japanese system tried to buy dominance and achieved nothing more than a destructive price war.
“When moss suddenly became big, Japanese trading companies came to New Zealand in droves. Our moss is heavier and thicker than anywhere else in the world and every man and his dog got into it.” His catalogue of the company failures that resulted from the scramble is sobering. Arthur Yates took over a factory and bought up a great deal of green moss but, he says, were unable to process it fast enough.
Yates eventually sold to Prime West, who took over a large abattoir for moss processing in Hokitika. The company undercut export rivals, but, says John, stopped trading after losing some five million dollars in sphagnum and other ventures. Wilson Neill, Colyer Watson and others dabbled in the business with mixed success.
One reason why little South Island moss finds its way north to market is the system of converting bulk to weight for assessing transport charges. “Cook Strait is the most expensive piece of water in the world,” says John. “Shipping 40 bales of moss from Christchurch to Auckland cost two hundred dollars more than sending 48 bales all the way to Japan. And that’s not counting the cost of getting the moss from Greymouth over to Lyttelton.”
When the Frogleys began harvesting sphagnum the DSIR determined the optimum temperature and air velocity for opening the moss cells up without bursting them. The process began with hot air at high velocity and finished with cold air to condition the strands and bring water content back to an acceptable 20 per cent.
Hopes of export to Australia were dashed by insistence from the Department of Primary Industries and Energy in Canberra that imported moss be subjected to 30°C for 12 hours to eliminate the risk of continued growth. “That was crazy,” says John. “After all, we had already heat dried it at 93°C. It just turned to powder.”
Ironically, Australia’s indigenous supply of sphagnum, in Tasmania, has now become inaccessible. Legislation aimed at protecting the island’s timber reserves has put the moss off limits to pickers.
A similar action in New Zealand drew widespread criticism. John was one of the victims of a change in policy and land ownership. The Frogleys had contracts with both Lands and Survey and Forestry to harvest moss on Crown land. When the new government organisation Timberlands took over Forestry land the leases were “wiped out overnight”. Renewable picking rights were tendered and bought by one of the big companies for $75,000. In addition, the company agreed to pay a fee for each kilogram of moss picked. The Department of Conservation (DoC) suspended the granting of new licences on its newly acquired estate while it reached a decision on land use policy.
Some time earlier, the Frogleys had followed up a sighting by two deerstalkers of a 1000-acre block in a rimu forest where sphagnum reportedly grew in clumps 18 inches deep. “It was like a fantasy land,” Lesley recalls. “You expected to come across pixies walking in it.” With permission from Lands and Survey they had made a helicopter pad clear of the forest on scrub land and bulldozed a 4km path to it from an old track.
“We weren’t allowed any mechanical means into the forest, but when you’re paying $800 an hour for a helicopter it makes sense to get as close as you can without causing damage,” says John. “We had put $8000 into that site when DoC inspectors arrived in 1987. The whole place was declared off-limits because it was a wilderness area. “They claimed it was virgin land, but Chris did some research and found it had been milled,” says Lesley.
At the time John Frogley spoke to me he was still awaiting a licence, pending a DoC decision on picking rights. The way he tells it, all delays are potentially dangerous. “We didn’t damage the ecology, but with us not there the poaching is still going on, and poachers couldn’t care less about the swamps. Besides, while it sits idle, DoC isn’t getting any return on the land.”
Terry Farrell, senior conservation officer at DoC Hokitika, agrees that poachers are giving the industry a bad name. He says he even found one audaciously drying moss on plastic strips along the Hokitika beach front. “It’s not a problem in terms of amount taken, but the way it’s done. They take the best stuff and trample the rest underfoot.”
DoC’s approach has been twofold:
protecting areas of high conservation value and licensing other sites where sustainable harvesting is possible. “We did have a moratorium on picking when DoC was set up back in 1987, because it was unclear from the Conservation Act whether we could legally sell product from the land,” he says. Having decided it could, the department limited access to areas already modified — for example, through mining, logging or grazing. The area under licence now totals some 3700 hectares.
Concessionaires are required to provide work plans, which include details on day-to-day activity at the sites, proposed access tracks and landing areas. DoC now favours longer licences as a way of preventing damage. The reasoning is that companies with a long-term interest in an area are unlikely to damage potential future crops by reckless picking in the first season.
“The moss industry is a finite thing, and we are getting close to the maximum acreage able to be licensed.” says Terry. “The only way to increase the harvest now is to boost the yield per hectare.”
The meteoric rise of the sphagnum moss industry has ironically highlighted the lack of knowledge about how New Zealand’s wetlands function. Little research has been done until now on conditions affecting moss growth, or on how moss alters its surroundings. And its insect communities were the poor relations of the entomological world. As recently as 1979 a Dunedin-based DoC entomologist, Brian Patrick, stumbled across a moth previously unknown to science in the mossfields of north Otago. Surprisingly, it was bright orange, and not particularly rare. Its larvae were found not only to feed on the sphagnum, but to construct tunnels as deep as 20cm below the surface, often below water level.
The most common of New Zealand’s handful of sphagnum mosses — the exact number of species is still debated — and the backbone of the moss industry is Sphagnum cristatum, a lush, thick-structured moss with strands 20cm or more in length. In trials, up to 25kg of this moss have been harvested from a single square metre plot.
“We are still at an early stage in understanding the ecology of the different species,” notes Dunedin DSIR scientist Peter Johnson. He says most moss grows on lowland sites, generally in areas of beech-podocarp mixed forest. Some ecosystems are stable, but many are in the process of transformation: either creating, through forest removal and leaching, impermeable soil ideal for the establishment of wetlands, or being colonised by shrubs and grasses as water tables fall. If sites become too wet cristatum gives way to less commercially desirable sphagnum species, and to flax-studded open swamp.
Sphagnum bogs form in areas with high rainfall and low temperatures, or poor drainage. Under these conditions nutrients are leached from the soil, leaving an acidic (sour) soil condition to which sphagnum is well suited. Constructed like a big sponge (see box “The sponge moss”) sphagnum tends to retain the water and, by releasing hydrogen ions, maintains the high acidity. One result is that the bacteria which normally break down dead plant matter can’t thrive, and the dead sphagnum accumulates, eventually forming peat.
New Zealand has deposits of sphagnum peat in the Hauraki Plains, Southland and the Chatham Islands. Other peat deposits, such as those in the Waikato, derive not from moss but from sedges and restiads, the so-called “jointed rushes”.
While the acidity of sphagnum inhibits most bacterial and fungal growth, recent studies in the United States have revealed that sphagnum sometimes harbours the fungus Sporothrix schenkii, an organism which can infect workers handling moss with a chronic skin condition known as sporotrichosis. In rare cases this disease can disseminate and give rise to lung, bone and nervous disorders. A large outbreak in 1988 resulted in protective measures being adopted in packhouses and nurseries. These included the use of protective clothing, the installation of exhaust fans and the use of protective breathing masks by workers exposed to moss dust. New Zealand moss is apparently free from this pathogen, and this is one reason why our moss finds favour with overseas buyers.
A mecca for scientists studying the potential of bog management is the home of sphagnum farmer and ardent conservationist Bryan Thomas. Bryan lives in Karamea, 90km out of Westport, and about as far north as you can go on the coast road. Beyond lies the start of the Heaphy Track and the towering Tasman Mountains.
He is the author of Moss Farming in Karamea, a report based on four years of moss tending during which he introduced a pioneering system of low-impact harvesting using light trolleys on relocatable wooden rails. His vocal advocacy of sustainable “farming” is now being taken seriously by an increasing number of harvesters aware of the industry’s limited moss supply.
I found him in Waimangaroa where he had been working on a house for some weeks, and offered him an unexpected ride home for the weekend. We arrived unannounced late in the evening to find his wife Tina and eldest son Chris in a shed sorting moss by the light of bare bulbs. Twenty-year-old Chris, who hasn’t had a holiday in two years, works seven days a week to make moss processing pay. He already owns an impressive 84 acres, leased at present to a farmer, and is himself licensed to pick 270 acres of DoC land. Bryan is content with the three quarters of an acre around the family home. “Chris owns everything. I just work for him,” he says.
Their moss is all supplied to McGill’s Moss in Kumara Junction, a processor which also runs kilns old refrigerated meat containers lined with aluminium.
Next morning Bryan takes me up to the leased DoC land —a plateau in hill country high above neighbouring farmland. Even his three-wheeled farm bike makes heavy work of the steep twisting logging track, which is eaten away by recent slips. At the top, on level ground, sits a small shed with drying racks, a pile of cast iron wheels, a trolley and a pair of creosoted wooden rails which snake off through the young trees. The air, pierced by birdsong, is cool and refreshing. Native orchids are in flower.
It seems, to city eyes, an ideal place to work. But behind everything lies hard labour. When Bryan first came here, he says, it took weeks of backbreaking work just to make the track usable. Then everything, down to the water bottles and hand tools, had to be laboriously biked in.
I notice a large lichen growing on a tree trunk. “Sticta coronota.” says Bryan. “Used for dyeing wool. A woman from Iioliand contacted mo about it -all business-likeancl highpowered. She wanted exclusive rights to it.” He shrugs. The proposition held no appeal.
Bryan reveals his latest approach to moss transport — a four horsepower machine called a power carrier. It looks like a wheelbarrow on rubber caterpillar tracks. He claims it will carry a 350kg load and run all day on a litre of petrol. Its tracks, when he starts the machine up and coaxes it forward, make less indentation in the boggy path than his boots do.
The demonstration is just another indication of his determination to develop a sustainable method of moss harvesting. His 30-page report is full of that obsession: experiments in shading and fertiliser, the use of fines (sphagnum dust collected during drying) to reseed areas of bog, notes on a briefly employed aerial ropeway that stretches from the edge of the terrace to the valley below four-inch nails, bent to form hooks, carried the suspended bags of moss down to an ingeniously arranged blade that automatically cut them free.
They are efforts that have resulted in some of the best moss on the Coast, and harvestable within three years. From every five or so acres, Bryan calculates he can get 10 tonnes of clean, dry moss a year.
He looks to a future where moss can be farmed alongside other crops, such as native trees, leaving other areas of the wetlands free to live as they always have.
“When you shear a sheep you don’t skin it,” says Bryan. “Same with moss. Nature never put a foot wrong. Only people.” They are words that, here in this unpolluted and sparsely populated stretch of coast, make perfect sense.