Compost club grew naturally

Phillippa Jamieson
Phillippa Jamieson
Janice Murphy gets to the root of the organic movement in New Zealand.

Way back in the distant past, long before hippies, permaculture or the Green Party, people began to be concerned about their food. Newfangled growing methods such as artificial fertilisers and pesticides seemed to be stripping the heart from the land. And if soil became degraded, so would the food it produced, which would have an inevitable effect on human health.

In 1920s Auckland, dentist Guy Chapman noticed dental caries were rife among his patients, and he suspected the cause was poor nutrition.

He took a holistic view when looking for a solution, promoting whole foods, vitamins and fresh food produced in healthy soil, and continued his education work in this area for years.

And 70 years ago in Auckland, he co-founded the Humic Compost Club (later Society). It started in May 1941 with a demonstration of how to build a compost heap. Such demonstrations would attract 200-300 people and were occasionally held indoors, complete with manure.

In 1942, the first issue of Compost Club Magazine was printed. In later years, the magazine changed its name to Compost Journal, then Soil and Health. It later took the name it has today: Organics NZ.

By 1943, Dr Chapman was actively promoting composting and lecturing on nutrition among Maori. (He was later made an honorary Maori chief in appreciation of his work with Maori.)

In 1953 the organisation, which by then had branches around the country, changed its name to the Organic Compost Society, because people did not understand the word humic, which refers to the layer of humus that supports all kinds of soil-based microbial activity.

The name changed again in 1970 to the Soil Association of New Zealand.

But whatever its name, the society's motto remained the same: healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people.

Success of sorts came in 1958, when North Otago farmer Harry Leaman received orders for 145 sacks of organically grown wheat, in the first sale of its kind.

But more and more synthetic fertilisers were being used in farming, and hybrid seeds were coming in.

DDT was widely used as an insecticide.

However, when Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring was published in 1962, people took notice and began to look for more natural - and less toxic - ways of doing things. By 1977, Bob Crowder at Lincoln had established the Biological Husbandry Unit, which focused on organics.

The environment was beginning to take the spotlight, and the Compost Society actively campaigned against fluoride in water supplies and for a nuclear-free New Zealand, as well as keeping its core message of healthy soil as a base for healthy living.

And in 1979, all aspects of organic gardening were covered in a series of articles in the Compost Journal.

Organics began to be taken seriously by farmers, and in 1982 Federated Farmers set up a steering committee to gather information on biological husbandry.

That year theNew Zealand Biological Producers Council was formed, comprising members of the Soil Association, the Biodynamic Farmers & Gardeners Association and the Henry Doubleday Association. This group had the task of designing and registering a trademark that would identify approved organically grown produce.

That eventually became the Biogro symbol we know today.

The association was active in Dunedin around that time. The late dental surgeon Donald Ritchie was president of the Dunedin branch, which had large compost heaps at Burnside. Members could pay a small fee and fill bags or trailers for their own use.

By 1987, the organic movement had really taken hold. The Ministry of Agriculture had decided to assist with the promotion and production of organically grown food, and supported research into biological husbandry. Research and development programmes were set up in the North and South islands. Although organics has become almost mainstream since the compost club began 70 years ago, the organisation still has plenty of battles to fight.

At a recent Hort Talk at Dunedin Botanic Garden, Organic NZ editor Philippa Jamieson explained that the Soil Association is currently campaigning against the growing of genetically modified crops in New Zealand, and for country-of-origin labelling of food, as well as continuing its fight against pesticides.

For more information on the Soil Association, visit

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