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Avocado crops thrive under different systems
23 November 2016

The phrase 'chalk and cheese' has been bandied about when referring to Katikati avocado orchardists Barry Mathis and Bruce Polley. It is true that the neighbours have a fair amount of differences in both their personalities and the way they grow their fruit, but it must be said that there is also a number of similarities at play.

The subjects of a recent Apata field day, the two orchards were compared in terms of production, intensity and pruning and funnily enough, the old adage seems to be true: There is no right or wrong, just what works for the grower - and the results may very well be the same.

Mathis and Polley, both former dairy farmers (Mathis farmed friesians, Polley jerseys) are on track to yield around 100 tonnes of Hass fruit each this season. Each orchard is around 4.61 canopy hectares, divided into six blocks (Polley) and three blocks (Mathis).

The orchards are on the same reasonably flat terrace with good, volcanic free-draining soil, which slopes into creeks on each side - perfect for preventing hard frosts as cold air tends to run off.

But that's where the similarities end. Mathis runs a more intensive operation than Polley, the catalyst for which was a rough couple of years establishing the trees.

"The first year here we lost 12 trees to the wind," Mathis says. "We did one lot of thinning seven years ago, but we decided we needed to keep the trees smaller and open them up so the wind wouldn't affect them so much. We have a lot more pruning work keeping the height down, compared to what Bruce does."

The hard work has paid off and now, in their tenth year at the orchard, the Mathis' trees have been in full production for the last three years. 

For Mathis, along with wife Grace, avocados are "life after farming". After dairy farming in Whakatane for 26 years, they tried their hand at planting and growing 80 avocado trees on a lifestyle block at Awakeri, but the frosts were hard.

The couple decided to look for a frost-free block further west and after much searching they found the Katikati block, co-owned by Polley and his wife Michelle, and Michelle's family. 

"The block didn't have a house but we needed the bigger, commercially-viable orchard of 800 trees," Grace says. "We bought a caravan and lived in that until our house was built six years ago."

While the trees were becoming established, Mathis worked for Horizon Energy and Grace trained as an early childhood teacher, a job she still does two days a week.

Polley agrees it is unwise to "give up your day job" until an avocado orchard becomes established, an easy 8-10 years. He too suffered crop failures of unknown cause in the first two years.

He made the decision about three years in to reduce the block size as the trees on the sheltered side of the block were much larger than those on the exposed side. 

"It reduced the area in which we could plant trees but it also reduced our risk from storm damage and damage to the fruit," he says. 

He went into agriculture with the clear intention of creating equity. He studied a horticultural science degree at Massey University before managing a kiwifruit orchard for four years. 

"I initially left horticulture for dairy farming as I could see a clearer path to success," he says. "After three years I was 50:50 sharemilking, which I did for eight years."

Polley and his family bought the 12ha block in Katikati in 1999 and he developed the orchard while continuing to sharemilk. In the dairy boom of 2001 he sold his herd and moved to Katikati.

He went back to sharemilking for four years while the orchard became established and in the dairy boom of 2008 he again sold his herd, moving to Katikati permanently. 

As he also owns two other businesses, Polley deliberately runs a less intensive operation than Mathis. Polley's avocado trees are planted 14 metres apart (Mathis' are 10 metres apart) and as the wind is less of an issue on his block, his pruning regimen is far less labour-intensive.

"What takes Barry a month in pruning takes me about a day," he says. 

Polley prunes in October-November and Mathis prunes from May onward, which may be either heavy or "cosmetic" depending on which stage the biennial bearing trees are at. Flowering also occurs at that time and is indicative of what the tree's crop will be next year, provided the orchard doesn't get any severe frosts.

After a decade on the block, Polley believes his orchard won't reach its full potential for some time yet, while Mathis says he won't get much more out of his trees.

Avocado trees are fairly resilient and have only a few pests that need managing, including leaf rollers, thrips and mites. Phytophthora, or root rot, is a disease that in recent years has been well-managed by injecting older trees with phosphate to prevent the fungus from taking hold.

Contractors apply insecticides and foliar fertiliser, with Mathis applying humates to the ground himself. 

Fruit is picked in spring, usually in two picks, by a combination of contractors, family and friends and the orchard owners themselves. 

The first and second grade fruit goes to the local market in New Zealand, and the export fruit is sent to Australia and Asia where demand is strong.

Because of this reputation, New Zealand's relatively young avocado industry is starting to look very positive indeed. Orchard values, production and profitability are all increasing to match increasing overseas and local demand.

Polley and the Mathises agree that the formation of the Avocado Industry Council (AIC) has been good for the industry with its capable leadership, and its own exporter, Avoco, has great vision for the future.

"We like that Avoco doesn't channel all its fruit into Australia," Grace says. "It is getting out there and really developing some good markets, as they know Australia's own market is growing rapidly so we can't just rely on that."

Biennial bearing of fruit (high crop, low crop) has its limitations but clever pruning is helping to grow more fruit in an "off" year. But at the end of the day, the avocado tree has a mind of its own.

"We find it interesting that although Barry and I do things quite differently in terms of pruning and thinning, at the end of the day Mother Nature still rules," Polley says.

"This year's crop was the biggest we've had, but it was accompanied by two major fruit drops in February and April, where the tree basically says I can't carry anymore."

Mathis says it can be a little disconcerting to see so much fruit falling off the tree.

"But as orchardists say, don't look down," he laughs. "Instead, look up – there may be heaps of fruit on the ground, but tonnes still on the trees."

 

Source: Stuff website

 

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