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Eternal Student
Eternal Student

After more than 40 years in the industry, Ron Bailey says his work’s never complete with a lesson around every corner.

Despite his formidable 40-year track record in the avocado industry, Ron Bailey still struggles with accepting that he knows a thing or two about his trade.

His humble open mindedness and determination to continually improve himself and his orchard, and to learn from others, strikes you as soon as you talk to the man.

“I’ve always had a work in progress attitude and I think this is key, even after 40 years,” says Ron. “Growers who are always willing to questions, to reassess, do the best. The ones who want to learn one way and then refuse to take on other complicating factors or information get left behind.”

On his Te Puke farm in the Bay of Plenty, which he bought in 1962, Ron still has the dairy he started with, along with kiwifruit orchards. He diversified out of pure dairy farming in 1968, putting in citrus and tamarillos for export. He then moved into avocado and kiwifruit growing and in 2000, Ron bought neighbouring land to double his dairy, avocado and kiwifruit production.

After over 40 years in the fruit export industry, Ron’s outlook is more future focussed than ever. Maybe it’s the diverse experience that’s made him that way, but it may also be derived from his industry-wide work over the years.

Ron has held various posts, including chairman of the Avocado Growers’ Association. His understanding of marketing and the wider industry issues means he’s dedicated to being a voice for those growers who are keen to see growth in the New Zealand avocado industry by expansion of export markets, even if that means lower returns while growth is achieved.

“There is a real will amongst a block of growers who want to increase their gain and see this industry grow for the long-term. For these growers, avocados are their lives and this industry means everything to them.

“Growers are looking for more than just maximum returns each year. They’re in it for the long haul. They want new markets and to be less reliant on Australia. These growers are happy to take less in the good years to put money into developing new markets and that’s what the AVANZA model is doing with the help of AVOCO.”

Ron says there needs to be less of an opportunist approach in the industry, which is reliant on Australia having a bad crop for New Zealand to succeed. He says AVOCO’s major shareholding in AVANZA (supplying 75% of total exports to AVANZA) is the vehicle that will improve this by making headway in faraway markets and consolidating sheds to get the best efficiencies out the markets.

Ron believes the move to rationalise the industry through AVOCO, which saw the country’s two largest exporters of avocados Primor Produce and Southern Produce put their rivalry behind them and join forces, saved the industry. Before then, Ron believes it was on the brink of failure.

“My bank manager was starting to get nervous and so were land agents when it came to the value of an avocado orchard. But suddenly, with AVOCO, we have a viable industry.

“We need a year or two years under our belts to see the results. But things are looking good. It was also a friendly and mutually beneficial decision for commercial gain across the board, no hostility, which has made for a great start to this venture. This isn’t easy to achieve in industries like this.”

With his dairy farming background, Ron believes there is a lot to be learned from the dairy industry and its a practical approach to combating problems. There’s no one silver bullet to improve avocado crops, it’s a matter of coordinating lots of little actions

“Success or failure isn’t dictated by one single thing. Technology on dairy farms is constantly being invested in and farmers are taking it on. The technology isn’t complex. In fact it’s more about an open mindedness to lots of little things to fill the gaps. That creates a positive cumulative effect and outcome. Growers need to take an active role like this.”

He says there are definite parallels between avocados and the dairy industry, including nutrition and feeding, weather issues and education around such issues. In particular, Ron feels that nutrition is a key management tool that is underrated and underutilised in the avocado industry in New Zealand.

“Recently the head of AgResearch, Andy West, said that we could double the dairy productivity in this country with no more cows, just better technology like feeding. I think the same goes for our avocados.”
Biennial cropping is also a key area calling for more research. Improving the consistency of volumes is essential knowledge required to take the industry to the next level.

“With the biennial cropping we face, we need to understand more about what we can do about this. Consistent volume of fruit each year is key to our growers. My question is, are we making fast enough strides to solve this at both an industry and grower level? I do question this.

“I believe we need to take the same quantum leap that we did as growers to collaborate in AVOCO, to the product level too, so that we can improve the consistency of volume. We need to identify the problems and start solving them at a grower level.”
Avocados are also a new industry in New Zealand, where there isn’t yet the second and third generation of professionals in the industry and the kind of expertise and professionalism that brings.

Ron does worry about where that expertise will come from in the future and how it will be handed down. Fortunately for him, Bailey Farms is a family affair, with Ron’s son managing on the ground and his daughter looking after administrative side of the business, while Ron oversees in a trouble-shooting role. He feels lucky that his family are keen and willing to be involved and carry on the Bailey Farms so that his own knowledge is not lost, but developed into the future.

“In places like America where avocados have been grown for a long time you see these second and third generation weather-beaten growers. But it’s not like that here yet.

So we’re constantly catching up.

“Fortunately I have Karen (daughter) and Chris and Steve (sons) who want to carry on taking Bailey Farms forward. In that sense my family are and always have been a resource to me. They are really the reason, along with my wife Shirley, that I could also get involved in so much industry-focussed work - they were holding the fort and keeping the farm going while I did this.”

Recently packhouses have employed consultant growers that can provide a yearly visit to growers’ orchards to offer advice. Consultants are a key investment that all growers should be thinking about, says Ron. He says the technical experts, Jerome Hardy and Colin Partridge, at AVOCO are also invaluable in terms of technical expertise and development.

But more needs to be done to link science with growers on the ground and the practical application of that science. Equally Ron explains that a relationship with the universities and their relevant research departments would be invaluable, rather than research being isolated at Plant and Food.

“There is a place for the lab, but a lot of science around the world is being done on the orchards and in a partnership model with the orchards. The industries that have really gone ahead, like South Africa, show strong relationships between the universities and orchards. This also means young people are connected with the industry too, which is not happening here to the same extent.”

And the single best piece of advice Ron can offer to fellow growers, well that’s not for him to impose. In true Ron style, he keep an open mind because there’s still so much more to discover, “I’m not saying we do this, so you should do it too. You never stop learning because you’re always trialling new ideas and techniques.”

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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado