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Orchardist finds his passion later in life
Orchardist finds his passion later in life

At almost 70, Neil Thompson should be gearing up for retirement, but instead he wants to focus on a new career.

The electrical contractor is looking forward to giving up work – so he can spend more time in his avocado orchard.

Neil got into growing avocados later in life, planting 1400 trees eight to nine years ago in Motutangi, in the Houhora area of the Far North, with his brother Steve.

The orchard, which has a sandy peat soil, is 4.5 Canopy hectares. The Thompsons planted a further 80 trees in a new block last year to take better advantage of their land, which totals 9 hectares. The new trees are expected to begin producing next year.

Despite the fact that nobody works in the orchard full time – Neil fits it in around his business, and Steve travels from his Whangarei home when the brothers are “doing a project” – it’s been a success story.

Last season the orchard produced between 16,000 and 17,000 trays – the best year to date, and an increase of 80 bins on the previous season, Neil says.

“It was a good year for us, mainly because there was a shortage of fruit and the prices were good.”

Many of his avocados last year were destined for Australia and Japan, with second-grade fruit going to the local market.

One of Neil’s tips for success is acknowledging that he’s not an expert, and taking advice from more experienced growers.

“I’m always open to suggestions and like to get advice from other growers who have been doing it for a while, and pick their brains.

“I’m a learner, I’m not a horticulturalist. We hadn’t grown them before. We just had the mind to buy this piece of land and thought we would plant these avocados.

“It’s always a learning curve, life’s full of learning curves.”

His biggest challenge has been around pruning the orchard.

“They always say the grower shouldn’t prune his own orchard; that you should get a contractor and not be around when they do it.

“The biggest problem has been getting my head around cutting trees down. Once we see the fruit on the trees we don’t want to cut them.

“But you have got to look at what it’s doing – going higher is not what you want. So we have bitten the bullet; it’s the best way forward for the quality. I’m resigned to it now. We are in the process of pruning but we still have a lot to do.”

Neil originally planted the orchard in an eight by four formation, and more than eight years later, the trees are now “all growing into one another”.

The plan is to now cut out, on average, every second tree.

Neil expects reducing the height of the trees will get the fruit growing lower on the tree – making it easier, and cheaper, to pick. It will also allow more light to access the trees.

“We find most of the fruit tends to go to the top, so we have got to work on keeping down tree height.

“They are getting too high – some of them a 6.5m ladder is struggling to reach them, and it’s hard to get the spray up there.

“And if they’re too high, the picking becomes too expensive.”

When it comes to fertiliser application, Neil goes back to his philosophy of asking the experts.

A consultant from Primor works out his fertiliser programme, which Neil says has been successful.

Being based in the Far North, irrigation is important to combat the dry weather.

“In the summer months, when the ground gets really dry, you have to irrigate to keep on top of it or your tree will suffer. Irrigation also a helps in sizing.”

Neil is not a fan of spraying for pests unless necessary – but this year the orchard has had a problem with greenhouse thrips.

Neil is supportive of the AVOCO model, which he believes has been positive for growers due to “consolidating the market”.

“I think it’s one of the best things that could have happened to the industry.

“You have got less people fighting for the same sales and thus reducing prices, that’s the way I think about it.”

As for Neil’s own plans, once he’s sold his electrical contracting business, there will be no resting on his laurels – he’ll be out in his avocado orchard.

“I’ve got to do something. Working on an orchard is like going on holiday.”

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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado