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Achieving profitable crops year after year
Brian and Jan Robinson

Having notched up more than three decades in the avocado industry, Brian and Jan Robinson know a thing or two about how to get the best out of their trees.

The Katikati couple have consistently grown large volumes of avocados for export, proving it’s possible to achieve profitable crops year after year.

This season, in what is a record production year for the industry, the Robinsons picked twice, in September and December. They harvested almost 17,000 trays, including 14,485 for export.

It helps that their 4ha Kauri Point Rd property is considered “good avo-growing country” but location is only one part of the equation. Strong management combined with a fearlessness that has seen them try new things and defy conventions has paid off for the pair who have never regretted joining the industry.

They came to Katikati after spending the early part of their married life dairy farming in Otorohonga. They travelled over the Kaimais in search of a better farm and ended up in partnership with avocado industry pioneer Arthur Honeyfield for two years before going it alone.

Jan says she’ll never forget visiting the orchard with the real estate agent for the first time.

“It was 1984 and we didn’t even know what an avocado looked like. But everything was beautifully mowed and it looked like a park with all the trees growing. Arthur was in his 80s then and keen for us to manage his stock and grazing land. He was a real character and in those early days we learnt a lot from him about avocados.”

The property was originally planted with 150 trees of different varieties including Hass, Pinkerton and the green-skinned Fuerte. Over time, the Robinsons replaced the poorer performing export varieties and the orchard now boasts about 310 Hass trees of varying ages. The youngest trees are no more than 14 years old and the oldest, planted by the Honeyfields, are now 43 years old and still performing.

Buying an orchard with already mature, tall trees was a motivating factor in the Robinsons deciding to buy their own Hydralada to pick the highest fruit. The following season, they bought one more and soon realised the business potential of starting their own contracting business, Avopic. Over time, they built it up to become the largest in the Bay of Plenty with 18 Hydraladas plus trailers, trucks and a team of staff operating from north of Katikati to Opotiki.

They sold the business to industry stalwart Hugh Moore in 2006. But Brian says the venture gave him helpful insights into the kinds management practices that worked best in orchards.

“I could see growers who were only ground spraying weren’t reaching the tops of their trees. On our own orchard we knew from experience how time-consuming hand-spraying was. We started out spraying around the bottom then had to go around each tree again with the Hydralada to reach the top. It made sense to try helicopter spraying.”

The Robinsons were one of the first orchardists to adopt aerial spraying, using a Ruatoria-based company called Heliwing to carry out the work. Impressed with the results, they convinced other local growers to try it as well and in doing so, organised Heliwing’s work on many Bay of Plenty orchards. Oceania Helicopters now does the work and still uses the Robinsons’ property as a central landing point.

Advocates of the AvoGreen pest monitoring programme, they self-monitor the orchard for pests about every two weeks and spray by helicopter as and when required.

The health of their trees was always a priority. The couple were one of the earliest to start injecting avocado trees to treat and prevent phytophthora and they use a consultant to advise them on fertiliser inputs. “We try do the basics well – inject, feed and spray,” says Brian. “We’ve always hand-fed our trees. Some people use a spreader but I like to look at my trees as I go around.”

Pruning methods have changed over the years and although some growers take an aggressive approach to control their trees’ height and shape, Brian prefers to only take one or two branches out at a time to avoid the trees vegetating.

“Some of our tallest trees are 13m high but we’re bringing them down slowly. Some people like to keep them at 5m but big trees produce a lot of fruit. Our aim has always been to get consistent production and we’ve achieved that so we’re happy with what we’re doing.”

They pack with KauriPak, just up the road, and belong to the Team Avocado pool of growers who supply export giant AVOCO. The company has finished its 2014-15 season after having exported more than 2.8 million trays. Brian considers the merger a huge plus for the industry.

“Everyone’s working as a team and we’re probably getting better, more consistent returns as a result.”


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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado