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Striving for Consistency
Maria Watchorn

Even when Maria Watchorn isn’t in her avocado orchard, she’s thinking about the health of her trees.

Sitting down with her at her Prole Rd home in Omokoroa, her ears prick up and she quietly asks her husband Andrew if an irrigator has been switched off in a nearby block. It’s this attention to detail before the interview begins that illustrates how closely the Watchorns are in tune with every aspect of their orchard.

It’s a management approach that has seen them rewarded with consistent production and last year, industry recognition. They were judged Top Growers for 2016 after achieving a four-year average yield of 24 tonne/ha – the highest of any export grower in New Zealand.

More recently, they were judged Apata’s Growers of the Year (producing 5231 trays per canopy hectare) on Prole Road, as well as achieving runner-up status for recording one of the highest export pack outs (87.6%) in the under 10,000 trays category during their first year of production on a second orchard.

Consistent production is something the Watchorns, who supply export leader AVOCO, have always strived for since purchasing their home orchard 12 years ago. They believe a combination of pruning, injecting, pest control and water management have been critical to their success.

Having struck a formula that works, they backed themselves to invest in the Walker Rd East orchard 18 months ago and they’ve been hard at work ever since whipping it into shape.

The new property produces fruit off 6 canopy hectares and features Hass trees ranging in age from 20 to 35-years-old. Some 100 Dusa clonal rootstock were planted five years ago by the previous owner which Maria says they are learning more about as the trees age, with further Dusa and Bounty being planted in 2017.

“I’m part of a new Bay of Plenty industry group looking at new cultivars and the trials and research into varieties like Bounty and Dusa, which are grown in our new orchard, have been interesting to follow. I’ve always been open to learning and expanding my knowledge and our second orchard is a good place to learn about those.”

The decision to take on a second orchard came off the back of careful planning, consistent financial returns from AVOCO and a desire by Andrew to give up corporate banking to join Maria, also an ex-banker, in day-to-day orchard management.

“Over the years, we wanted to expand and we felt we had the experience and knowledge to take on something more challenging that we could do as a couple and as a family,” says Maria.

“Andrew was involved in banking for about 30 years but since he’s been home, he’s really got stuck in. By nature, he’s a very practical person and he loves the outdoors. He’s adjusted to orchard life really well.”

With Andrew overseeing the second orchard, the couple have installed irrigation for frost protection and tensiometers to measure soil moisture levels which alert the couple when their soil becomes too dry.

The orchard’s upgrade has been a significant investment but one they believe will reap rewards in the long run. “For the past 12 months, we’ve worked 10 hour days to get the orchard to the stage that we’re happy with and where we think it needs to be to do what it does best: grow fruit to produce an income and give us a lifestyle that we enjoy.”

Planning ahead

For Maria and Andrew, planning for both production and business success has always been their focus. Their business acumen comes from strict disciplines they developed working in the banking industry where they were taught the benefits of strategic visions and long-term planning.

“In the bank, we had a really good work ethic and to set goals and work hard to achieve them. It’s not just about planning for what’s in front of you; you need to think about five or 10 years down the track and understand where you want to be and how you’re going to get there.

“We’ve always had really defined plans and goals we work towards. We want to be relaxing a bit more and be in a position where if we want to travel, we can do that in the next few years”

To achieve those goals, the couple are 100% committed to producing fruit every season and ensuring their trees are in optimum health for both the season they’re in, and for the following year ahead.

With growing in her blood – Maria’s Italian family grew fruit and vegetables in Whakatane – it’s clear Maria has a natural affinity for horticulture and everything Maria has learned about growing avocados has come from sheer hard work and surrounding herself with the right people. 

 “When I’m in the orchard, I’m living and breathing it. I’m visually in tune with the trees. I’m always thinking ‘what next’ and what their requirements are. That comes from a lot of reading, understanding your trees and having a passion for what you do.

“AVOCO technical manager Colin Partridge says the best fertiliser you can put into your orchard are the grower’s footprints. You need to invest that time in going around and looking at your trees. That comes from experience and it takes a few years to understand what you’re looking at. Over time you learn how to manage some trees differently.”

Working with the right people

Their corporate background has also taught them to think hard about the people they surround themselves with. They believe they made the right choice to supply AVOCO who, with its team of experienced marketers and technical advisers, have their best interests at heart.

 “You have to pick the right people to make your journey with you and we believe we’ve done that. Without those people, it makes life really challenging. Growing avocados is a serious business now and there’s real potential to make money if you have the right people on your side. We don’t leave our future in other people’s hands, we are actively involved in the decision-making process and collaborate with our contractors, keeping the best people around us.”

Maria believes smaller blocks in the Bay of Plenty could increase their earnings if they treated their blocks more like a business, and less like a lifestyle block. There is even greater potential for production growth with the New Zealand Avocado Industry investing in more research and development to improve orchardist best practices and future proof the industry’s growing potential.

Maria is a coordinator for one of the Avocado Industry Council’s Canopy Management Working Groups which aims to identify and evaluate pruning techniques. Its research work she enjoys seeing everyone benefit from as the industry matures.

“We are on the 3rd tier of a 10-tier ladder and compared to the kiwifruit industry, our industry still has a lot of evolving to do. Research is a big part of that.

“I think we can learn a lot from other industries as well – we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

As the avocado industry becomes more successful, Maria can see a time when it may need to start controlling fruit and tree volumes to maintain their values. “It’s a matter of controlling supply to match demand to keep grower returns high, this could be through licencing or other measures…. it’s all about profitable margins at the end of the day.

“At the moment, we need more supply and more consistent cropping so exporters like AVOCO can better meet customer demand. But it’s important to be mindful of how that balance could change.

“We’re always looking forward.”

 

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