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Journalist has the 'write stuff' for avocado growing
Journalist has the 'write stuff' for avocado growing

As an agricultural journalist, Hugh Stringleman felt it was time to get out of Auckland and move to the country.

Inspired by a friend with an avocado orchard in Maungatapere, Northland, Hugh and wife Noelene bought land in the same location in 2002 and made the shift in 2004.

“Our friends had taken on and renovated a mature orchard, and the lifestyle appealed to us,” says Hugh.

“We were moving out of Auckland partly for personal reasons, and partly for professional reasons, because an agricultural journalist should be living in the country.”

The couple bought a lifestyle block already planted with mature shelter belts, grown by a previous owner for kiwifruit planting which had never gone ahead.

“It’s particularly good land. It’s volcanic soil on a gentle slope,” says Hugh.

Whatatiri Hill, where the orchard is located, is a large extinct volcano with a gentle slope. Avocado orchards are dotted all around the mountain.

“We could be 10km away from each other but they are on the other side of the mountain,” says Hugh.

In 2002 Hugh and family members planted 175 trees on 1ha, complete with pollenisers and irrigation, and two years later built a house on the orchard and moved in.

Production over the years has been mixed. Last season was poor and just five bins – a tonne of fruit – were harvested. The harvest before resulted in about 12 tonnes.

“Last year was the only failure we’ve ever had,” says Hugh, “but that was a general failure for the whole of Whangarei district because of the cold spring in 2012.”

While it was a good season for New Zealand in general, Whangarei growers had “hardly any fruit at all”, Hugh says.

“It was pretty frustrating, but there’s not much you can do about it.”

By contrast, Hugh is expecting next season to be a bumper one, and the Whangarei trees are plentiful with “fruit galore, perhaps double what we have ever had before”.

Hugh still works as a full-time journalist, which he says gives him a different perspective to full-time orchardists. He emphasises he is a learner grower and is happy to take advice from the experts, which has always been readily given.

“The fact that I have a non-commercial orchard, and it’s not my full occupation or income, means I can experiment a bit more than maybe somebody else who was relying on the fruit income every year.”

The main “experimentation” he has embarked upon was to retain the original spacing of his trees, which was 7m by 7m when planted.

The recommendation at the time was that every second tree would need to be removed after eight to 10 years and the remainder left to grow ever bigger.

Now, the recommendations have changed and Hugh’s aim is to keep all 175 of his trees by way of annual pruning and shaping, which is carried out in autumn by Primor’s technical manager, Jerome Hardy.

“Pruning is now common practice but used to be a no-no in avocado advice due to losing production for that year and probably the year after,” Hugh says.

Now Jerome’s practice is to trim one or two branches only, exposing the tree to more light, and endeavouring to keep each tree to a maximum of five metres in height.

Previously, the thinned trees would reach 10m tall and would be “large and ugly”, unlike today’s shaped ones which are reinvigorated with lush foliage and bigger fruit.

Keeping tree height down has also been beneficial when it comes to spraying.

Hugh does all his own orchard maintenance, and uses a 600 litre air blast sprayer which was made in Brazil and designed for grape vines.

“Most sprayers are 2000 litres and need a big tractor to run, but we can run ours on a small tractor.

“It’s another reason why we must keep the tree height down, because if we didn’t, the small sprayer wouldn’t reach the top of the trees.”

Another unconventional approach Hugh took was implementing a dual cropping system by planting tamarillo trees in the headlands and wetter areas.

The orchard has been producing tamarillos for eight years, and has been successful – particularly in the last two to three years, which have seen high tamarillo prices.

The success comes despite the proliferation of the tomato potato psyllid pest, which has affected more than half of New Zealand’s tamarillo trees.

Hugh’s orchard lost 30 per cent of its tamarillo trees.

Fortunately, pests have not been a big problem for his avocados.

Hugh is not sure why that is, but says he’s never used “hard” chemicals, and prefers to use soft chemicals which take out the target species only.

He sprays for pest control four or five times a year, and so far his avocado trees have been in good health.

He also injects his trees every year to combat the root disease phytophthora. This year the diseased trees also got a hard prune for reinvigoration because they were carrying small fruit, mostly worthless, plus a heavy gypsum dressing.

The orchard is picked twice a year – before and after Christmas – and Hugh brings in professional pickers and ladders.

Hugh is impressed with AVOCO’s work in the diversification of markets, particularly into Asia.

“Export volumes of New Zealand avocados are at least going to double, and possibly treble over the next 10 years, so that means we are going to have to find a lot of new markets.

“Unless that diversification occurs, all of that fruit will sell at low prices and will probably over-supply both the Australian and New Zealand markets.

“We have got to keep exporting and looking for the new markets.”

Hugh believes New Zealand can build a strong reputation overseas for supplying “big, handsome-looking Haas fruit”.

“One of the big pluses with the Haas is it goes black when ripe. The Asian consumer really wants to pick up an avocado and know it’s ready to eat.

“I believe you have to keep your fruit really clean and well protected with regular copper sprays, which is what the exporters want and recommend.

“While it’s quite expensive to pick and ship avocados and to store them, it’s essential that they are presented at the very best quality.

“New Zealand is going to have to produce some of the best quality avocados in the world.”

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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado