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Mother nature knows best
Mother nature knows best

If there’s one thing that John Cotterell has learned in 15 years of growing avocados, is that Mother Nature has the final say.

“As a grower, you can try your best to get your timing right and manage everything to the enth degree but you can only have so much influence on things. The weather plays a big part in the final result.”

In the 2013/14 season, Mother Nature has been kind to many Bay of Plenty-based growers, with many reporting bumper harvests.

John, who also works full-time as a grower services rep for Southern Produce, attributes this year’s record-breaking season to warmer than average temperatures through the critical flowering period in spring. This was when he noticed trees in many local orchards bearing male and female flowers open at the same time.

“It’s something I reported back to Colin Partridge [technical manager] at Southern Produce at the time as something I had never actually seen before. Normally we’d see the flowers opening one day as female then opening next day as male.

 "To get fruit set we have to have two consecutive night temperatures of 11degC or more with consecutive day temperatures of 17degC-plus. This would be followed by consistently warm temperatures with no cold snaps, which is unusual for the Bay in spring".

Like other local growers, John and his wife Cindy have enjoyed a very good harvest on their 8.5ha orchard, 5km south of Katikati. This is made doubly pleasing by the fact that they have another good fruit set. It's the first time in almost 10 years the couple have good consecutive export crops.

It’s a rewarding result and one that John knows would not have come without the introduction of a major thinning programme which has seen his Walker Rd West orchard undergo a few changes in tree size and number since they bought it in 1998.

When they arrived, it was planted with 800 avocado trees. The plantings were increased to 1100 avocado trees, with some over 35 years old. Among the older 14m tall trees, they soon discovered the fruit quality was poor, mainly due to wind rub. These trees were removed and the area replanted on new Dusa rootstock.

However, over time it became clear less crowding would improve the overall fruit quality and generate more fruit because of better light penetration.

Consequently, the couple have thinned out their orchard, cutting out more than half of their trees, leaving them with fewer than 400. Trees are spaced 12m apart and their height is restricted throughout their whole orchard with regular pruning though autumn and winter.

Their efforts are quickly paying off. Their youngest trees, now three years old, are producing between 80 and 100 fruit each, compared to just 20 last season.

They select only the largest fruit when they pick, leaving smaller avocados to size up for later picking. This season, the Cotterells have picked in September, December and February for export and will pick for the domestic market in April.

With 9400 export trays under his belt for the season and tray prices fetching record prices as well, John says 2013/14 will be remembered for all the right reasons.

“It’s been helped by the fact Australia’s been short of fruit the whole way through but certainly, there’s a lot of happy growers around at the moment.”

As more growers adopt best practice methods and the industry continues making innovation strides, John is confident this year’s result won’t just be a one off.

“AVOCO gives us a powerful marketing tool in Australia and we should see some business efficiencies generated as well. This becomes important when our Aussie neighbours recover from the season they’ve just had and their fruit starts to flow again.”

Exporting our fruit into Asian markets is also critical, he says.

“This season New Zealand sent a trial shipment to India for the first time. Logistically, there’s work to do there but when you consider there are 160 million middle-class consumers in India for us to market to – that’s really exciting.”

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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado