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Hard work reaps rewards
Hard work reaps rewards

It’s with a great deal of pride that Robin opens up a photo album and starts flicking through the pages. He pauses to reflect on images showing nothing more than a sloping paddock and a lonely, white weather beaten house near the top of a hill.

“That’s all there was to start with,” he says. “A single house on a big block of bare land. But we’ve done a lot with it in 12 years and most of it all ourselves.”

Robin and Maxine bought the lower Kaimai property, sandwiched between State Highway 29 and the Wairoa River, in August 2003. The purchase marked the start of an entirely new direction for the couple.  In their 50s, the couple started looking at opportunities in the Bay of Plenty where they could work together and continue to earn an income after they retired.

They knew very little about horticulture at the time - Maxine’s parents had gotten into kiwifruit  years earlier – but that wasn’t something they felt was for them. “We wanted to grow something and we liked trees,” says Maxine. “We started looking around and struck it lucky when a friend put us in touch with consultant David Lushington who gave us a wealth of information about growing avocados in those early days.”

Before they even bought their property, they signed up to Team Avocado and started attending field days and working on orchards to tap into even more grassroots knowledge from orchardists who’ve “been there, done that.”

Faced with the reality that buying an established orchard was outside their reach, they looked at grazing properties for sale that they could convert into avocados. Although there were few options available to them at the time, they felt comfortable with their decision to settle on the Kaimai property having done a lot of due diligence about the area.

“When we came here, we were told the Kaimais would be too high for avocados but in reality, the Ruahihi power station is at sea level,” says Robin. The property isn’t as high as  people think and we’re in our own unique micro-climate. We’re in a little basin and sheltered from the wind. In the last few years, we’ve proven we can do quite well.”

A challenging start

Starting from scratch involved long days spent earthmoving to prepare the ground for 585 young Hass trees. They were advised to dig big holes – 3m by 2m deep – to “fluff” up the soil. Nearly 50kg of fertiliser and half a metre of granulated bark was then added to each hole. “The idea was to give the trees uninhibited progress to expand their root system,” says Robin.

Unfortunately, that first summer many of the young trees started dying from the top down.  Scratching under the ground, they discovered their young trees had developed J-roots and 380 would need replanting. “We replanted another 80 trees the following year and we didn’t finally finish planting until the end of October 2007.”

The pair had a further set back in 2009 when their trees were hit hard by 16 frosts in a row, killing all the flower buds and leaving them with no fruit the following year. The couple installed irrigation at the outset to provide both water and frost protection for their trees. Two sprinklers per tree were mounted 1200mm above ground level to provide better air movement and coverage has proven successful.

Functioning as a frost protection system, it kicks in when the air temperature in the coldest part of the orchard falls below 2degC and switches off when it creeps back up to 2.5degC.

Last January, they used it every weekend to apply 23mm rain equivalent of water which helped keep their free-draining soil moist throughout the dry period.

Independent advice

Robin and Maxine juggle their orchard commitments with running a commercial lawn mowing business. While they pride themselves on doing as much in the orchard as they can, they’ve discovered it pays to bring in specialists as well. They contract Mike Dillon, who they say can look at each tree objectively, to prune their orchard annually .

“Robin and I argue too much about what needs to come off – we find it hard to agree so having Mike do it takes care of that problem,” says Maxine. “There are so many schools of thought on what to do but we’re seeing results from Mike’s regime.”

After planting close to 600 trees at the start, they’ve removed about half and their aim is to keep 300 healthy trees across 3ha.

“We’re growing fruit right down to the ground on virtually all our trees and ground picking brings down the costs. Our first pick last November cost $85 a bin when we picked 90 bins in 2 ½ days compared to the slower more hydralada-focused second pick of $105 a bin .

“Thanks to Mike’s pruning, the hydraladas didn’t hesitate moving around the orchard and we’ll work to keep the tracks clear this year as well as bring the trees height down to 6m.”

Tree health a priority

Robin says they take leaf and soil samples every year and use AVOCO’s technical consultant Colin Partridge to prepare a fertiliser programme which they “follow to the letter”.

They started out using a spreader to apply fertiliser but discovered too many prills were damaging their low-hanging fruit so they now fertilise by hand. Maxine says hand fertilising also has other spin offs.

“I enjoy getting inside the trees and having a really good look. It’s a time when we can assess the crop prior to it being picked as well as the overall health of each tree. If we find a tree isn’t performing well, we can look at why and consider our options, such as more intense pruning.”

Fruitfed carries out their pest monitoring and although they don’t have high pest pressure, they ground spray at night as required, out of respect for their beekeeper next door. They inject their trees for phytophthora around April or May after the late flush of the season.

A thirst for knowledge

The 2015-16 season is looking promising for the couple. Last season their average fruit size was 22ct and although harvesting is several months away, it’s obvious their third consecutive crop will again feature large fruit.

They attribute their success to a combination of hard work and an open mind to trying new things. They still attend field days and their orchard is one of several currently involved in bumblebee trials. The trials, carried out by Plant, Food and Research scientist David Pattemore, aims to attract more wild bumblebees to the area for all-weather pollination.    

Their beekeeper, Steve Weenik, puts in a generous number of hives each year from September through to January.

“What’s fascinating is that scientists monitoring the trees in September found that the huge number of blowflies in the orchard were the predominant pollinators of the flowers.”

They’re among a group of  Kaimai growers who happily share information among themselves and the wider Team Avocado community. It’s that collaborative approach which first attracted them to Team Avocado and it’s something they still greatly value under AVOCO.

“We really like the ethics of the people involved and in supplying them, we feel part of one big family. Team Avocado growers are very open with one another,” says Robin.

He says their orchard development has demonstrated to their family what can be achieved through hard work and determination and as a result of this work ethic, they are all doing well for themselves. “At picking time they are all there to help. I know they see the value in what we have done here.”



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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado