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Big decision but no regrets for busy couple
22 October 2015

Taking on a neglected avocado orchard would be a challenge for any grower. Combine that with devastating storm damage and the job gets even harder, but a young Far North couple are taking it all in their stride.

Maria and Diego Fathollahi look out across their Houhora orchard and feel confident that they made the right decision to buy.

"We went into it with our eyes wide open, and we knew it would be a lot of work to start with," Maria said.

"But with Diego's work ethos and my technical background, we know we can turn it into something special."

With one full season under their belts the couple have made changes to the property and identified room for improvement. Central to their five-year strategy are plans to diversify and replace many of their older, unproductive avocado trees with blueberries and raspberries.

It's a strategy that's already taking shape. In their first year they reduced their avocado orchard canopy to three hectares and planted 1500 blueberry plants for export. They want to plant a further 10,000 blueberries over the next two years, and also supply the local market with raspberries. They've recently developed a website, www.tomoberries.com, and Facebook page to generate interest from berry distributors and consumers.

Maria, a fruit crops technical advisor for Farmlands, says the berry market was growing in New Zealand, and changing their crop had already helped fill the gaps in their orchard left vacant by unrecoverable trees.

"When we came here there was four hectares of avocados, but that's been cut back with the blueberry plantings. Most growers in this area are going through a replanting phase. We're doing the same, but diversifying fruit variety," she said.

Maria and her husband bought the property in December 2013. The decision to move from Auckland was easy. Both craved more space, and when they first visited they looked past the neglected trees and saw nothing but potential.

"Initially there were about 550 trees aged anywhere from 20 to 35 years old. The orchard had had no real management, but we're happy with it. Getting it back to what it should be will take a lot of hard work, but we're here for the long haul," she added.

Maria juggles her orchard commitments with three days of work for Farmlands in Kaitaia. And since moving they have welcomed their first child, Esmaeel.

Maria, originally from South Africa, has a horticultural science degree from Lincoln University, but her knowledge about avocados had expanded since buying her own orchard.

"I deal with orchards all the time in my job. It's not a hands-on role, but now I have an opportunity to put what I know into practice," she said.

After extensive culling and pruning by Diego, the orchard now boasts about 360 trees. He's also redeveloped their fertigation and irrigation systems, which come into their own over summer when they irrigate every seven to 10 days. Improving drainage is also a "work in progress".

Last year's devastating storms limited the orchard's export volume to just 1000 trays, with a further 750 trays making it on to the domestic market. They're hoping Mother Nature will be kinder for 2015-16, when they've estimated a crop of up to 6000 trays.

But they're not letting last season's experience dent their enthusiasm. Supplying Avoco, they feel excited about the future of the industry and its growers.

"I like the support provided by the Far North Packers," Maria said.

"We've been happy with the orchard gate returns and all the developments we see happening in the markets.

"Visiting other orchardists, I know that growers are feeling upbeat and we're all really supportive of each other. It's a great industry to grow into."

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