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Environmental background a bonus

Grower of the Year for the second year running, Ian Fulton talks about his secrets to success.

Ian Fulton might have been judged The Team Avocado Trust’s best grower two years in a row, but that doesn’t stop him feeling the pressure at picking time.

“I let out a big sigh of relief as soon as the last of our bins are loaded and taken out the gate. Up until that point, you can’t relax or be complacent.”

The 54-year-old hasn’t had too much time to reflect on his recent achievement. He’s been busy planting avocado trees in new blocks next to his main production orchard in the Far North, but he still recognises it’s something special.

The Grower of the Year title is awarded to the grower that industry experts judge to be running the best operation. Packhouses submit their nominations, which they make based on grower results from the previous season and also the grower’s ability to meet best practice orchard management standards. Southern Produce field staff scrutinise each nominee until they find a grower who ticks all the right boxes - with Ian coming out on top for the second consecutive year.

Humbled by the acknowledgement, Ian says it’s a nice reward for all the hard work he’s put into his orchard over the past seven years. “You always try to do your best, don’t you? I focus on trying to be the best in my region and any Grower of the Year title that comes my way after that is a real bonus.”

Ian’s orchard is at Waiharara - a rural area on the lower Aupouri Peninsula, about 30km north of Kaitaia. He bought the block in 2006 after working for a short time at the pulp and paper mill in Kawerau. It was his first job back in New Zealand after spending about 20 years working in land management and environmental mining rehabilitation in Australia.

For 10 years he lived in the remote town of Gove in the Northern Territory where he  was responsible for restoring an ecosystem on land stripped bare after bauxite mining, as well as the tailing ponds of the residue waste stream from an alumina refinery. Earlier conservation work took him to the Mary River wetlands next to Kakadu, Australia’s biggest National Park, near Darwin.

Those places seem a world away now, but the experience and skills he gained in his professional career have come in handy on the orchard.

“When you first come into the industry as a grower, you get bombarded by consultants and salespeople. It could be very easy to be led up the garden path based on all the different advice you get from them and what’s available on the internet,” he says.

“The trick is to know how to gather information and I think my technical background has helped me quickly sort out what’s valuable advice and what isn’t.”

Motivated by wanting to have a more relaxed lifestyle, Ian says he spent time “doing his homework” before buying his Far North orchard. His environmental background meant horticulture was the logical next step in his career but he knew choosing where to grow could mean the difference between success and failure.

“The Far North is the country’s most suitable area for growing avocados because temperatures up here are warmer during flowering leading to consistent fruit sets. The rest of the country is climatically marginal, hence the industry’s problem of irregular bearing. I also like it up here for the great fishing.”

His main production orchard is 8.3 canopy hectares, with avocado trees ranging in age from eight to 13 years old. His first year on the orchard generated about 1000 trays of fruit. Last year he produced 22,500 trays  and this year will be about 27,000 trays.

Ian says his orchard management systems are no different to most other growers. He likes to be “hands on” and focus his energies on maintaining tree health and fruit quality by doing simple things well. That involves regular fertiliser applications, good irrigation system, phytophthora control, spraying and an aggressive pruning programme.

His advice to other growers is to keep doing the basics well and focus on the tasks that contribute to orchard profitability, as opposed to aesthetics.

“Too often you see well-manicured orchards that are in poor health and low productivity. Also, there’s plenty of advice around. Growers should gather and analyse that advice then take responsibility for deciding what happens on their orchard.
“You often hear growers blaming consultants for failures, when in fact ownership sits with the grower.”

Looking ahead, Ian is confident the avocado industry has a bright future, especially under the newly-formed AVOCO banner.
“The benefit of AVOCO is that we’ll see crops flowing at optimum levels and we won’t have exporters competing for the same market. There should be some internal cost savings down the line and that should maximise the Orchard Gate Return (OGR) for growers too.

“There are also plenty of opportunities to grow markets in Asia. In the seven years I’ve been in the industry, there has been five years of good to excellent OGR, so productive orchards should have been highly profitable and this is unlikely to change in the near future.”

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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado