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Far North avocado grower reaps rewards
10 March 2014

A Far North avocado grower is reaping the rewards of a bumper season on his orchard, which continues his winning streak in the industry that's going from strength to strength.

Favourable climatic conditions coupled with prudent orchard management has seen Ian Fulton set a new production record on his large avocado orchard on the Aupouri Peninsula, about 30km north of Kaitaia. With still one “clean up” pick to go in the first week of May, Ian has produced 31,400 trays of avocados in 2013/14 – up from 22,500 trays the previous season.

It’s a rewarding result for the 54-year-old which comes just months after he was judged Team Avocado’s Grower of the Year for the second year running. Team Avocado is a grower group which joined forces with Primor in 2012 to form AVOCO - New Zealand's largest exporter of avocados.

Ian's main production orchard is 8.3 canopy hectares, with avocado trees ranging in age from eight to 13 years old. His first year on the orchard generated about 1000 trays of fruit. Eight years on, he’s producing 31,400 trays, including 25,240 trays for export.

The Grower of the Year title, which will be up for grabs to all AVOCO growers this year, is awarded to the grower that industry experts judge to be running the best operation. Pack houses submit their nominations, which they make based on grower results from the previous season and their ability to meet best practice orchard management standards.  Field staff scrutinise each nominee until they find a grower who ticks all the right boxes - with Ian coming out on top for the second consecutive year. Only two other growers have managed this since the award was introduced in 2007/08.

Humbled by the acknowledgement, Ian says it’s a nice reward for all the hard work he’s put into his orchard over the past eight years. He believes his orchard management systems are no different to most other growers, but he likes to be “hands on” and focus his energies on maintaining tree health and fruit quality by doing simple things well. That involves regular fertiliser applications, good irrigation systems, phytophthora controls, spraying and an aggressive pruning programme.

“You always try to do your best, don’t you? I focus on trying to be the best in my region and any Grower of the Year title that comes my way after that is a real bonus.”

Ian is confident the avocado industry has a bright future, especially under AVOCO, a marketing and grower group responsible for avocado exports to Australia and the rest of the world through the AVANZA channel.

AVOCO director Alistair Young says Ian’s commercial success exemplifies the incredible year many growers across the Far North and Bay of Plenty are enjoying. “Ian is one of our most successful growers who enjoys the hands-on side of growing as well as the technical aspects of managing an orchard.

“With the exception of Northland, which faced some real climatic challenges in November, most of our other growers enjoyed favourable conditions at exactly the right time in spring and they’re also feeling incredibly positive about the 2013/14 season, which looks like it's going to be the biggest on record."

Ian bought his block at Waiharara in 2006 after working for a short time at the pulp and paper mill in Kawerau. It was his first job back in New Zealand after spending about 20 years working in land management and environmental mining rehabilitation in Australia.

For 10 years he lived in the remote town of Gove in the Northern Territory where he was responsible for restoring an ecosystem on land stripped bare after bauxite mining, as well as the tailing ponds of the residue waste stream from an alumina refinery. Earlier conservation work took him to the Mary River wetlands next to Kakadu, Australia’s biggest National Park, near Darwin.

Those places seem a world away now, but the experience and skills he gained in his professional career have come in handy on the orchard.

“When you first come into the industry as a grower, you get bombarded by consultants and salespeople. It could be very easy to be led up the garden path based on all the different advice you get from them and what’s available on the internet,” he says.

“The trick is to know how to search and I think my technical background has helped me quickly sort out what’s valuable advice and what isn’t.”

Motivated by wanting to have a more relaxed lifestyle, Ian says he spent time “doing his homework” before buying his Far North orchard. His environmental background meant horticulture was the logical next step in his career but he knew choosing where to grow could mean the difference between success and failure.

“The Far North is the country’s most suitable area for growing avocados because temperatures up here are warmer and fruit sets best when conditions are warm. The rest of the country is climatically marginal, hence the industry’s problem of irregular bearing. I also like it up here for the great fishing."

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Partners: Southern Produce, Primor, Team Avocado