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Young growers diversify in the Far North
Maria and Diego Fathollahi

Taking on a neglected avocado orchard is a challenge for any grower. Combine that with devastating storm damage and you have even more hard work in front of you. But a young Far North couple are taking it all in their stride.

With youth and energy in abundance, Maria and Diego Fathollahi look out across their Houhora orchard and feel confident they made the right decision to buy.

“We went into it with our eyes wide open and we knew it would be a lot of work to start with,” says Maria, 27.  “But with Diego’s work ethos and my technical background, we know we can turn it into something special.”

With one full season under their belts, the couple have already made changes to the property and identified further room for improvement. Central to their five year strategy are plans to diversify and replace many of their older, unproductive avocado trees with blueberries and raspberries.

It’s a strategy that’s already taking shape. In their first year, they reduced their avocado orchard canopy to 3ha and planted 1500 blueberry plants for export.  They want to extend their crop by planting a further 10,000 blueberries over the next two years and also supply the local market with raspberries. They’ve recently developed a website, and Facebook page to generate interest from berry distributors and consumers.

Maria, a fruit crops technical advisor for Farmlands, says the berry market is growing in New Zealand and changing their crop has already helped fill the gaps in their orchard left vacant by unrecoverable trees.

“When we came here there was 4ha of avocados but that’s been cut back now with the blueberry plantings. Most growers in this area are going through a replanting phase and replacing their older trees with the clonal Hass variety which is more resistant to phytophthora. We’re doing the same where we can but at the same time, diversified for some fruit variety.”

Maria and her husband bought the property, 45 minutes north of Kaitaia, in December 2013. They moved up from Auckland where Diego, who’s handy with a hammer, renovated their home while Maria worked out of Farmlands’ Helensville store, covering West Auckland growers.

The decision to move was easy. Both craved more space and when they visited the property for the first time, they looked past the neglected trees and saw nothing but its potential.

“When we first came, there were about 550 trees aged anywhere from 20 to 35 years old. The orchard had had no real management for a while. But we’re happy with it. Getting it back to what it should be will take a lot of hard work but we’re here for the long haul.”

Maria juggles her orchard commitments with three days of work for Farmlands out of the cooperative’s Kaitaia office. Since moving, the couple also had their first child, Esmaeel, who is now 10 months old. Add parenthood into the mix and there’s not a lot of spare time but Maria, 27, who moved to New Zealand from South Africa, says they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We both love the outdoors and the horticulture industry is doing well. Yes, we’re very busy but we’re both learning and that keeps us motivated too.”

Maria, who has a horticultural science degree from Lincoln University, admits her knowledge about avocados and best orchard practices has expanded since buying her own orchard.

“In my job, I deal with avocado orchards all the time. It’s not a hands-on role but now I have an opportunity to put what I know into practice. Visiting other orchards too, I’ve learned what works and doesn’t work.

“Now, we’ll consider two or even three approaches to doing something before deciding if it’s for us because what works on one orchard may not work for everyone. My husband questions me on all my theories and wants to know why we’re doing what we do. I think it’s making me a better technical adviser along the way.”

Their orchard now boasts about 360 productive trees after Diego, who has stepped up to manage the orchard, has undertaken a massive culling and pruning exercise which will be finished over the next year.

Most of their trees are at least 16m tall but Diego is reducing their height slowly and removing some massive limbs so their trees can put their energy into growing fruit.

He’s also redeveloped their fertigation and irrigation systems which come into their own over summer when they irrigate their orchard every seven to 10 days. Improving drainage is also “work in progress”.

Committed to Avogreen, they do pest monitoring every fortnight. “We’ve got our pests under control now,” says Maria. “They’ve been the biggest threat to the orchard really as we suffered from a lot of leaf roller damage after we came. Aside from that, we’re always at risk from the big storms and heavy winds that the Far North gets.”

They experienced just how devastating storms can be when their region was hit last June. Wind rub badly affected their pack out, limiting their export volume to just 1000 trays.

They’re hoping Mother Nature will be kinder for 2015-16, when they’ve estimated a crop of 4000 to 6000 trays.

But they’re not letting last season’s experience dent their enthusiasm for their business. Supplying AVOCO, they feel excited about the future of the industry and its growers.

“I like the support provided by the Far North Packers,” Maria says. “We’ve been happy with the orchard gate returns and all the developments we see happening in a lot of the markets.”

“Visiting other orchardists, I know that growers are feeling upbeat and we’re all really supportive of each other. It’s a great industry to get into and grow into.”

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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado