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Roxburgh Family Mine Goes Green

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

The Harliwich family has been making the earth move at their lignite mine in Roxburgh for nearly 100 years.

A century after his father Nicholas Harliwich sold his first cart load of lignite in 1914, Ken Harliwich has invested $200,000 in a new venture to harness the soil-enhancing properties of lignite by crushing it into super-fine particles the texture of talcum powder they're marketing as Harlies Humates.

Lignite, a precursor to black coal, was millions of years ago the squelchy bits between the toes of dinosaurs as they strode the swamps and plains of Gondwanaland, the huge land mass which included what became Australia and New Zealand.

Little surprise that humates contained in the low grade fossil fuel have wonderful soil and plant growth properties.

They promote robust plant roots by improving mineral, fertiliser and water absorption, provide a good source of energy for beneficial soil organisms, make for a friable soil structure and increase water holding capacity, so important in times of drought.

Mr Harliwich started down the humate path when the mine lost some big industrial clients in Dunedin.

"There's not much industry in Central Otago," he said, "and of all the options I looked at to make the mine more viable, humate production was the one we could most easily handle."

"We've always had a productive garden here. All my life, from Dad's day, we worked the lignite fines into the garden soil with good results.

"And every year we'd have gardeners come to get fines to put round their tomato plants in the glasshouse - they reckoned it made them spray-free."

Encouraged by mineral and fertiliser companies, Harliwich began trialling humate production and in the process, pioneered commercial humate manufacturing in New Zealand when they opened a trial plant at Roxburgh in 2007, producing up to two tonnes a day.

Turning a fossil fuel into a soil enhancer involves using a mill to reduce the particle size to a 300-micron powder which is then sorted by a classifier unit to remove any over-sized particles.

"The super-fine particles make it possible to suspend the humates in liquid suitable for spray application while the classifier provides for a coarser grade suitable for bulk spreading with fertilizers."

The product is BioGro certified for organic use and sold in tonne bags under the Harlies Humates brand.

A member of the New Zealand Coal Association, Mr Harliwich also worked with scientists at the group's research arm, CRL Energy, to find a commercial method to test the humic acid in lignite samples.

"It's important to give the product a scientific base because that's what counts on the land these days. We're lucky to have Ray Annan from Sustainable Growing Solutions available close by at Cromwell.

"We draw heavily on his technical advice. He is our go-to man for information on soil science issues."

Harliwich Holdings is a member of the International Humic Substances Society, connecting it to its global network of 900 scientists researching the properties of humic substances and its potentials for soil improvement.

Humates have been used in the USA, Australia and China for 50 years to improve soil quality and boost plant growth. Now researchers in Germany, Russia and China have found animals fed on humate-rich pasture were healthier and had increased yields of meat and milk.

Ken and his late brother Roger took over the mine when their Dad died in 1957. Now Ken's son Brent, his grandson, Nick, and Lyndon Crabbe, the grandson of Roger, are part of the team that is taking the Harliwich name into new territory in a new century.

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