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A change for the better

A Change for the better

Born with a green thumb, Matthew Heller spent most of his working life growing tomatoes in commercial greenhouses. But after 25 years, he decided it was time for a change, opting to buy a small avocado orchard near Katikati. It’s a decision he and his wife Helen have never regretted.

“When you operate greenhouses, it’s a bit like being a dairy farmer,” says Matthew. “It’s a seven day a week business because the plants and glasshouses need a lot of attention. It’s very labour intensive and there is a lot of staff to manage.

“Now, we have the orchard, we only have to manage ourselves. The work needs to be done within a certain time frame but we can choose the hours we want to work and that has its lifestyle benefits.”

In 2007 the couple sold their two hectares of greenhouses at Bombay and bought a well-established 3.5ha avocado orchard at Ongare Point near Katikati. Long and narrow, the orchard runs through a V-shaped gully and features 350 trees, ranging in age from 12 to about 30 years old.

When the Hellers arrived, the crop generated about 28,000 tonnes of fruit per hectare but almost half didn’t make the grade due to fruit damage caused by wind rub. Although the orchard had been well cared for in terms of nutrition and fertiliser, the trees had been left to grow too tall and nearly all the fruit was at the top, overloading the uppermost branches.

The high reject rate prompted Matthew to carry out an aggressive pruning programme to open up what was an almost unbroken canopy overhead. The trees were progressively trimmed to a height of no more than 6.5 metres and many trees were taken out altogether – a move that Matthew now reflects on with the benefit of hindsight.

“We took out about half the trees and looking back, we may have been too aggressive. We could have staghorned the older part of the orchard but that’s history now. We can’t go back to put them back in.”

Focusing instead on the benefits of pruning, Matthew says they’ve aimed to create well-balanced trees, open in the centre, with a canopy which extends down all sides to just about the ground. Structural pruning, combined with a sound spraying programme, has increased the export pack-out to more than 85 per cent.

They have also drawn on a technique they used when managing tomatoes, whereby they work out an optimum fruit count per square metre and flower prune to achieve the desired result.

Under their management, the orchard has produced a crop every year and has averaged 18 tonnes per hectare for the past four years.

Matthew credits the pruning programme for his orchard’s consistent production. “It’s the only thing we’ve done differently to what was done here before. By reducing their height, we’ve reduced the load the trees have to carry so they have more energy to put into a crop the following year.”

Controlling pests is a priority and Matthew and Helen are advocates of the AvoGreen pest monitoring programme. They self-monitor the orchard for pests and spray by helicopter when required – a method that, while more expensive, achieves a more even coverage and best suits their orchard’s contour.

They follow the recommendations of consultants who advise them on fertiliser and spraying inputs and attend field days to learn what others are doing in the industry.

“It’s a very open industry. Growers are happy to share best practice techniques and that’s good.”

The couple supplied Primor Produce before the merger with Southern Produce and its network of Team Avocado growers. Matthew considers the formation of AVOCO as nothing but positive for the industry.

“I’m confident that as growers, we’ll benefit. When there was competition between the two export groups, growers spent time looking at which one would get them the best deal but now we should just have to worry about doing our job well and not worry about the rest.”

He believes the industry is in good heart, made more so with a solid team pushing the interests of New Zealand growers in the all-important Australian market.

“I’ve been across the Tasman and seen the Australian production coming on line. The advantage of AVOCO is having one voice looking after our interests and getting good prices for us, especially in those challenging years when Australia’s production is up.”

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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado