Our grower base stretches from the Far North to Opotiki in the east of the North Island and includes a diverse bunch of people passionate about growing premium quality avocados.
Environmental stewardship and careful management of natural resources is generating top results for an Athenree family.
Focussing on “the basics” has enabled an Athenree family to increase their orchards’ production without compromising their ability to support new industry initiatives and care for their environment.
The successes enjoyed by Kevin and Ann-Marie Evans over 20 years of growing avocados is also shared by daughter Rochelle Kean who, in 2018, took over the day-to-day management of the family’s two orchards near Waihi Beach, north of Katikati.
Last year was a baptism by fire for Rochelle who was handed the reins in a season punctuated by the industry’s fruit quality challenges, compliance costs associated with picking for China and a random workplace safety audit carried out by Worksafe.
Despite the extra workload, Rochelle also found time to enter their Walnut Grove and Waiau Park properties into the 2019 Ballance Farm Environment Awards. Judges rewarded their efforts with a Bay of Plenty Regional Council Award, recognising the work they do on and off orchard to protect their environment while still striving for consistent production.
Award recipients (from left) Rochelle Kean, BOP regional councillor and award presenter Norm Bruning, Ann-Marie Evans, and Kevin Evans.
Rochelle says entering the awards turned out to be a season highlight for her whole family.
“Dad has been growing avocados for more than 20 years so this was a chance for him to reflect on how much progress he’s made during that time.
“We also learned a lot from the whole process and the recommendations passed on by the judges are giving us more to work on, which is great.”
With a background in sheep and beef farming, Kevin and Ann-Marie started their avocado business in 1995 with the purchase of their first orchard at Athenree. Three years later, the opportunity arose to purchase a second orchard only 3.5km away. Both properties required remedial work to bring them into full production. This included a programme to replace their most mature trees, including a 2ha block originally planted in 1978. These were progressively removed and replaced at a rate of about 20 trees per year.
Their 3.45ha and 2.8ha orchards produce an average of 13 tonnes and 19 tonnes/ha respectively – well above the industry’s average yield of 11 tonnes/ha.
The family’s approach to growing avocados makes tree health a priority. Often this means working alongside nature to create an environment in which avocado trees can thrive.
“We put a huge focus on injecting trees and we put in a lot of syringes to protect them from phytophthora,” says Rochelle. “They are big, old trees but we manage them by keeping them well pruned so everything stays in balance. Once they’re well, Dad’s idea has always been to feed them and leave them.
“His experience in the industry means he is comfortable now to trust the trees to do their thing.”
Operating a low-cost system, Kevin and family do as much as they can on the orchards themselves. Working across both blocks, Kevin and Rochelle are tuned in to each tree and respond quickly to any changes they see happening. “Dad knows the history of just about every tree and can tell a few stories about each one when we’re working together,” says Rochelle.
They use contractors for pruning and mulching and rely heavily on this mulched product to help them establish a dense, moisture-rich environment under each tree.
“We don’t irrigate so the dense mulch helps us replicate what a rainforest looks like by keeping the orchard floor rich with organic matter. It definitely helps us get through the hot summers, “ she says.
Mowing infrequently also allows grass to reach longer lengths, a strategy that award judges praised for its positive impact on soil moisture and local bee colonies.
“We keep long swards of grass over the whole orchard to keep soil moisture levels up and give bees an alternative food source where wild flowers naturally grow.
“Dad still mows the blocks twice a year to keep the grass manageable. But living off orchard about 3km away, we’re not concerned about the cosmetics of the two properties.”
Both orchards receive a heavy prune in March every year, with Kevin and Rochelle favouring the “umbrella” shape so fruit sets all the way down the sides of each tree.
The shape also allows for good spray penetration when the orchard is sprayed using a helicopter. This method also helps prevent spray drift affecting neighbours.
Rochelle does the pest monitoring for both orchards and closely follows AvoGreen protocols whenever pests are spotted.
“We use softer sprays but because Dad has been here for so long, we have a better understanding of the seasonal life cycle of a lot of pests too. This means we will occasionally hold off on a spray based on our knowledge that thrips, for example, would be coming to the end of their season and will naturally die out when the weather gets colder.”
AVOCO technical manager Colin Partridge advises the family on nutritional inputs and their timing. Their fertiliser programme has remained steady, receiving some “tweaking” to ensure their applications are kept up over winter.
Copper is applied to their trees and the family supports further research examining the viability of possible alternative applications that would also help to preserve fruit quality.
The industry-wide problem with fruit quality means growers and the whole supply chain needs to examine its practices, says Rochelle.
“There seems to be different ideas on what’s occurring throughout the supply chain and we need to better understand where the problems lie.”
With the experience of managing two orchards, Rochelle says finding solutions won’t be easy.
“We treat our orchards exactly the same. One is slightly higher but they get fed and pruned the same. We can definitely say though that the higher one gets more pest pressure and more fruit affected by wind rub.
“Dad has seen the cycles now and with his experience, he’s not so overly concerned about trying to control everything. He always tells me that in this industry, you need to roll with the punches.”
It was for the benefit of the New Zealand avocado industry that the family also chose to support market development in China. Their orchards were among those that successfully supplied China with fruit last season – a decision that required Rochelle to spend an additional four days in her office.
“There was a lot of extra paperwork and there are costs that come with that but we did it to support the industry.”
Both on and off the orchard, the family prioritise their environment and take every measure to protect it from pests.
Ann-Marie set up the Athenree Harbour Care group to help eradicate rats and remove mangroves. Working bees are organised twice a year to hand-pull mangroves from the water and rats traps are set to protect the local fern bird populations.
With a family succession plan in place to ensure ownership of the orchards is progressively transferred to family, they know the efforts they make now will ensure grandchildren can experience all the benefits of native plants, birds and insect life.
And while her first year was full of challenges, Rochelle says entering the awards was a satisfying experience. “All the participants were energetic and enthusiastic about making a difference in their own farms and orchards for the benefit of the environment and themselves.
“Certainly, everyone agreed that no one can do it alone and you need to have a good team around to support you.”
Franz and Sandy Imlig have taken best practice orcharding to the next level with their innovation and environmental passion recognised with three wins in this year’s Bay of Plenty Ballance Environment Awards.
Motivated by a desire to improve their orchard’s performance and find ways forward for the industry, the hard-working pair are proving that profit and environmental sustainability aren’t mutually exclusive.
The awards are held in 11 regions annually to recognise and celebrate good farm practices which promote sustainable land management. Sandy says entering the Bay of Plenty competition was an opportunity to share their orchard initiatives with people outside the avocado industry.
Award presenter (left) with Sandy and Franz Imlig, collecting their Waterforce Integrated Management Award.
“Developing our orchard has been an enjoyable journey so far. Of course, there are always challenges along the way but we still enjoy what we do. With our focus on sustainability, we’re always challenging ourselves to do things smarter.”
The Imligs bought their 14ha block in the Lower Kaimai, north of Tauranga, in 1996 while living in Galatea where they owned and operated an electrical business. The property had around 60 avocado trees planted around its fringes but steadily over the course of 15 years during weekend visits, they extended the canopy by planting about 200 trees a year.
Today Springfield Orchard has about 5ha of avocados, with 480 mature trees and 200 young trees planted three years ago.
Selling their electrical business and moving to the orchard in 2011 has given them more time to focus on their property and adopt more environmentally sustainable practices.
The couple has always been prepared to do things differently due to the orchard’s elevation. At nearly 155M above sea level, the altitude means their orchard doesn’t produce as much fruit as nearby lower orchards but that has never phased the pair who are still able to generate a crop every year by turning limitations into opportunities.
Their Hill Laboratory Agri-Science Award recognises their management successes and ability to consistently crop in a marginal climate.
Franz says there are advantages to producing a crop at higher elevation. “We can hold our crop for longer which suits AVOCO’s flow plan, having fruit available for the valuable Australian market after Christmas. “We’ll hold half our crop for harvest in late January early February and we’ve done that for the past three years.”
They fertilise by hand which lets them evaluate each tree and give more to those that need it. Fertigation enables them to use less hard fertilisers and allows them to apply nutrients little and often.
For three years, they have been applying reconstituted gypsum, made from old processed house wallboards, due to its sustainable qualities.
The Imligs are also active participants in research trials run in conjunction with NZ Avocado and industry partners. Trials have explored planting methods, new rootstocks, soil microbiology, copper alternatives and use of the plant growth regulator, Sunny.
Like many growers, they’re also advocates for autumn structural pruning. They’ll prune 20% off a tree to let more light in and make it easier, and more cost effective, for hydraladas.
Due to climatic conditions flower pruning is carried out but not as heavily as the lower orchards because set can be variable so they choose to re-evaluate it after fruit set and prune where necessary.
Sandy’s passion for insect life and their combined love for birds was recognised with the Predator Free Farm award.
She handles their pest monitoring, takes photos and collects insects for NZ Avocado so they can be preserved in resin to educate other growers on what to look for in their orchards. Every February, she also hosts Level 4 Horticulture students from Toi Ohomai on the orchard, teaching them about pest monitoring.
They use soft pesticide sprays, when possible, and spray at night due to wild bees in their area.
Local bird life has been increasing since they started restoring 2.5ha at the end of the property where they’ve been killing large pine trees with a view to replacing them with 200 native trees this autumn. Over time, they expect the native fauna and plants will become less attractive to pests such as pigs, possum and deer.
They are very proud of the Waterforce Integrated Management Award which recognises Franz’s strong interest and background in electrical engineering. His skills in this area led to him developing a smart irrigation system that optimises use of water and electricity.
The Imligs have an unconsented bore, permitting them to take and use no more than 35m3 of groundwater every 24 hours in their orchard.
They don’t go over their water allocation thanks to a system of five 30,000 litre water tanks. If they reach their allocation of water, the pump will switch off and not turn on again for another 24 hours.
“The aquifer that we draw water from is under demand from other irrigation users as well. But by ensuring that we draw only small amounts that are sustainable, the aquifer can keep up,” says Franz.
For irrigation they installed tensiometers in five blocks to measure soil moisture. This is to determine how much water to apply and avoid situations of under or over-watering the different blocks.
Franz installed a variable speed controller on the irrigation pump which controls the power output depending on the size block being irrigated at the time. “This has led to power savings of up to 46% on some blocks, “says Franz. “Little things like that are making a huge difference.”
After eight years living full-time on their property, they have a strong sense of how to get the most out of it – from both a financial and environmental perspective.
“Our aim is to remain sustainable while still making a profit,” says Sandy. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that works, so we’ll continue to carefully monitor what we do and how we do it to improve our performance,” says Franz.
No stranger to awards, this year Te Puke grower ROBBIE MOORE got his name etched on the AVOCO Grower of the Year trophy for a second time. He shares with ALISON BROWN his own formula for success.
By his own admission, Robbie Moore isn’t always one to follow the rules. Not that it matters.
The success he has consistently achieved on his Gridley Rd orchard is proof that sometimes, being unconventional can be very rewarding.
At the AVOCO conference in June, Robbie and wife Julene picked up the AVOCO Grower of the Year award – four years after winning it the first time. The couple, who this season will have 4.5 canopy hectares of mixed age Hass avocados, have enjoyed two strong successive crops, producing an average of 25.45 t/ha over the past two seasons. Nominated for the award by their packhouse Apata, they also took home the Primor Grower of the Year trophy.
Earlier success came in 2005/06 and 2007/08 when they were judged Growers of the Year as suppliers to Team Avocado. But Robbie, an ex-dairy farmer, says it is consistent production that drives them – not trophies for the mantlepiece.
Robbie Moore in a section of his orchard affected by heavy rainfall.
The Moores bought their property in 1994, when the trees were only about two years old. Production was held back by soil starved of nutrients – a problem that took time to resolve. He hand-fed them every month through spring and summer with fertiliser to replenish the neglected soil. His trees were also suffering from the effects of phytophthora. Early years on the orchard, which also grew green kiwifruit, were tough.
“We got a small amount of avocados for a few years then one big crop before we were hit with a major frost. It took a while to recover from that.”
The icy blast in August 2011 swept across Te Puke and saw overnight temperatures plummet to -5degC, burn flower buds and split stems on trees which meant their export crop was completely wiped out for the 2012-13 season.
But the forces of Mother Nature weren’t enough to deter the couple who saw long-term value in replacing their kiwifruit vines with more avocado trees.
They had already replaced half a hectare of kiwifruit with young avocado trees in 2004 and followed that up with a second planting programme in 2014. Planting under the male vines limited their spacing options and they were forced to adopt a 12m x 7.5m spacing. These young Dusa and Zutano rootstock thrived regardless, and will produce their first fruit for export this season.
Although the Moores no longer have kiwifruit on Gridley Road, they continue to have a stake in the industry. Three years ago, they purchased a 3.6ha green kiwifruit block on No 2 Rd in Te Puke. Managing kiwifruit and avocado on separate orchards makes it easier to manage spray applications by helicopter, says Robbie.
With now 4.5ha of mixed age avocado trees on Gridley Road, Robbie’s focus has turned to pruning to further boost production.
Historically, the most mature trees have been very tall and the aim is to reduce their height from 13m to 10m and remove two or three big limbs on each tree to let in more light.
“We want to transfer light from one side to another, with a focus on letting in more light on the south side where it’s generally always colder, making it hard to set fruit.
“Reducing their height slowly over time should also make it faster for the harvesting teams to pick,” he says. “Costs mount as a result of tree height and it also makes it harder to spray them effectively.
“When you’re making $40/tray you can afford to take your time picking but it’s not always going to stay that price.”
Pruning will also minimise damage on the orchard caused by wind. The Moores have lost a few very large, healthy trees in one block that were all close to 20 years old, due to strong winds lashing the trees, causing them to tip over.
The family’s orchard contracting business, run by son Duncan, means the Moores regularly visit other orchards and see what pruning techniques work most effectively for other growers. Robbie is adopting more of his son’s pruning principles and has learned that it pays to prune more than just the tops of trees.
“They just grow back so quickly. If you want a crop all around your tree, you need to prune to let in more light and warmth, which is so important on that south side.”
The ever-present threat of frost damage through late winter/early spring are reminders that the Moores are never in full control of their orchard. With no water irrigation systems, Robbie relies on his wind machine and diesel heaters (frost pots) to combat severe frosting in the most sheltered spots.
He also knows from experience the benefits of taking action when it comes to spraying for six-spotted mite. One year, in the early 2000s, they were set up to pick a 40 tonne/ha crop but could see all the leaves falling off the trees as they walked through their orchard after mite swept through.
“It was a bit frightening because we hadn’t been hit before and didn’t know what to do. In the end we took off about 60% of our crop to reduce the fruit load and take stress off the trees.
“We started spraying the following season and that immediately made a big difference.”
He injects every year to combat phytophthora and also applies a foliar spray with phosphorous acid to support his trees and reduce root dieback.
Aware that root health is critical to his trees’ success, he’s keeping a close eye on soil erosion in parts of his orchard most affected by heavy rainfall. The area experienced a very wet autumn and visiting the orchard in late July, Robbie points out signs where the water and lack of sunlight have taken their toll on the soil, especially in areas of rolling contour.
He expects more light entering the orchard floor as a result of pruning should help the top soil and grass to eventually recover.
Extending the avocado block has meant ordering additional beehives, 16 instead of 12, ahead of flowering in mid-October. He takes a relaxed approach to pollination, noting that his older Hass production block had no pollenizer trees, but still managed to produce more than 40 ton/ha.
These results are met with disbelief from observers to the industry and some of his peers. But he says it is proof that there’s no clear right or wrong approach.
“There’s some practices that come at quite a cost but they don’t lead to any dramatic production gains.”
It’s for this reason that he supports more research into growing avocados in New Zealand.
“It can be frustrating at times when you get conflicting advice from various sources on what kind of fertiliser you should be applying and when. This is especially true if you’re new to the industry or new to an orchard.
“Do they listen to the guy telling them to put their fert on in larger quantities four times a year, or to the others who say it should go on little and often?”
Having worked on his orchard for a number of years, Robbie has learned to trust his gut for what’s likely to work and not work, cherry-picking the advice he receives from trusted sources. His instincts are paying off, because he’s seen his fruit size and overall tree health improve. “I just understand the trees a bit better.”
Robbie expects to pick three times this season – firstly in October and again just before Christmas. There will be a final harvest in late January.
Not one to become complacent about production, Robbie has set some lofty targets for the future.
Wanting to get away from the high costs associated with helicopter spraying, he intends to progressively reduce the height of his trees over the next five or six years, all the while striving for more consistent production.
“I won’t ever compromise on injecting or fertiliser so the leaf and soil testing will continue. Otherwise, it’s very easy for everything to get out of kilter and suddenly your fruit set and size are affected.
“But having previously achieved figures of 42 tonne/ha every second year, I’d like to achieve at least 30 tonne/ha every year and I do believe it’s possible.”
Primor Growers of the Year for 2014-15, Brian and Jenny Goldstone share their approach to avocado growing with Alison Brown.
It’s with a great deal of tongue-in-cheek that Brian Goldstone describes his approach to the serious business of growing avocados.
But what’s clear is that the self-described “casual” orchardist knows a thing or two about how to get the most out of his trees.
Brian and Jenny were named Primor Growers of the Year for the 2014-15 season after harvesting 30.8 tonnes/ha off their Prole Rd block in Omokoroa. It’s an award the couple are grateful for after spending the best part of 16 years developing their orchard from scratch.
“I guess this award shows you don’t need to keep your block well-mown and manicured all the time,” jokes Brian.
Indeed, it’s what’s growing on the trees – not what’s growing around their feet – that really counts and the couple, who live off the property, prefer to focus their time and efforts on production rather than be side-tracked by orchard cosmetics.
Brian Goldstone has built up a wealth of knowledge about avocados since planting his orchard with wife Jenny 16 years ago.
Brian spends most of his working week operating his earthmoving business and Jenny works all hours as an ambulance officer, leaving them little time to be too hands-on outside their busy harvest period.
But since planting their first Hass tree, they have accumulated a tonne of knowledge about their orchard and know how to best make it tick with the support of family and local contractors.
The couple operated the block as a grazing block before they were married, eventually subdividing a bit off before establishing their trees across more than 7.5ha. Aside from the knowledge their free-draining soil and flat contour was well-suited to horticulture, the couple say they knew very little about growing avocados to start with.
“At the start we read a lot and listened to a lot of people and that was helpful. But like a lot of things, it’s not until you’re really doing it that you realise the true extent of what’s involved,” says Brian.
They planted 1400 trees before establishing any shelter but after a few seasons, they could no longer ignore the impact of wind rub on their export pack out. They rectified that by planting shelter trees around their boundary but even now, Brian says their orchard, which has been thinned out to about 750 trees, isn’t immune to the effects of a bad storm. “Wind rub is still the biggest influence in our reject rate. After a good size wind event we can pick 12 bins of fruit off the ground.”
While shelter trees had a positive impact on their pack out, the biggest game changer influencing their production each season has been the installation of water irrigators for frost protection. Their orchard records as many as 30 frosts a year, with the worst frosts as low as -4degC. Under those conditions, Brian says his budding fruit was falling victim to severe frost burn. “We spent the first 8 or 9 years affected by that before trialling things to work out what kind of frost protection worked best for us.”
Some blocks within the orchard have irrigators at the base of each tree while the blocks most frost-affected have overhead irrigators which are more effective at dispersing water amongst the tree.
The irrigators are set to switch on when temperatures drop below 2.5degC and they stay on until they rise to 3degC. Brian monitors everything from his smartphone and, living off the orchard, resists the temptation to get in his vehicle and check they’ve switched on when they should.
“I’m pretty relaxed about it now and don’t feel the need to constantly check things. From my place, I can see what’s happening and it’s a system that’s worked well for 6 years. We’ve got about 4.5ha under frost protection and I’m comfortable we have as much as we need now.”
Pruning and production
Like many growers, the Goldstones have experimented with pruning and have settled on a programme that appears to be working well. They use a contractor to structurally prune for “tree height and light” in April after they’ve injected all their trees to protect them from phytophthora.
“We like to keep our trees to a height that means we can still pick off a 6m hydralada and we’re trying to open things up so the sun can get through from one side to the other,” says Brian. “We like to see a lot of grass between the trees.”
It’s their aim with pruning to also eventually break the cycle of irregular bearing in their orchard, which historically has seen their production see-saw from as many as 750 bins in a season to as little as 75 bins the following year.
In 2014-15, the Goldstones picked three times and say they prefer to pick as early as they can in the season for orchard husbandry reasons. “It helps the trees if they’re under less stress later on,” says Brian.
The couple are looking forward to another bumper 30 tonne/ha crop in 2016-17 and expect it will be all hands-on deck come harvest-time.
“Even Jenny gets called on to do the picking and I’ll be there counting bins as they go out the gate. At other times during the year, our schoolboys will do the weed spraying and we do our own mowing but beyond that, we use outside help.”
Contractors are called on for ground spraying and pest monitoring and Brian ensures this is done every 2 or 3 weeks. “You need to stay on top of the pests to avoid doing a lot of spraying. Thrip has probably caused us the most damage in the past.”
A positive future
Looking ahead to what is likely to be a significant year for the New Zealand avocado industry and its exporters, Brian is happy to be supplying AVOCO.
“We do need to get into different places other than Australia and that’s where AVOCO is very forward thinking. This season could be the biggest they’ve ever had and we’ll need those other export markets.”
He takes his hat off to Primor and Team Avocado for successfully working together for the benefit of growers.
“It’s great that they were able to pool their expertise, given the two companies were previous competitors. So top marks to them for pulling it off. It’s really since the two joined forces that attitudes toward the industry changed. We’re now seeing lots of demand for plants and decent returns for us growers.”
As for the future of their own orchard, the couple know there could come a time when the trees give way to pressures from neighbouring residential development. But Brian is in no rush to sell.
“Realistically, that’s a long way off and with the great returns growers are getting, why would you anyway?
“We’re more focused on growing more consistent crops through getting the young fruit and new shoot balance right. That’s probably our biggest challenge but we’re working towards that goal.”
With their do-it-yourself attitudes and commitment to best practice, David and Kay Wallace have lifted production in their small Bay of Plenty orchard and won an award along the way.
Good management combined with Mother Nature’s gentle hand has seen David and Kay Wallace break free from biennial bearing on their small orchard, north of Tauranga.
The couple have produced a crop on their 0.8ha lifestyle block at Omokoroa for the past three seasons and say their challenge now is for consistent production to become the norm.
“Our first few seasons here saw us produce about 2000 trays one year then virtually nothing the next. But we’ve addressed this and hopefully we can keep doing it,” says David.
It’s that commitment to best practice and a thirst for learning that is rewarding the pair, who have been growing avocados for nine years after buying their property, an established orchard with 53 trees, in 2007. They had been looking for a lifestyle block for some time after spending most of their working lives together dry stock and dairy farming near Te Puke. But Kay says as soon as they turned into the driveway off Old Highway they knew they’d found the one.
“We just loved all the different trees here and we still do. Looking out from the house we can see them change with the seasons. There’s always something to look at.”
Primor Growers of the Year for 2015-16 David and Kay Wallace.
Given the size of their orchard, the idea of becoming serious avocado orchardists was never a priority for the Wallaces after they first took over the property. But over time, they’ve discovered they have a knack for getting the most out of their trees by applying best practice techniques.
In 2015-16, the Wallace’s produced 4014 trays, or 34 tonnes a hectare – a record for their orchard. It came a year after they produced 1594 trays, with a further 2834 trays produced in 2013-14. While some degree of crop fluctuation still remains, they believe their production figures are proof their orchard has shrug off its biennial bearing history.
Blessed with free-draining soil and situated in a part of Omokoroa that receives few severe frosts, their trees were first planted by previous occupants in two separate blocks. The older sloping block, closest to the road, is about 40 years old, while the second block is about 20 years younger. They were planted at 12m intervals and that spacing is something David has maintained.
“Someone knew what they were doing because I haven’t had to cut any out as they’ve grown,” he says. “They’re incredible growers and since we’ve been here, we’ve brought their height down from 8-10m to no more than 7 or 7 ½ metres tall. It makes them a bit easier to manage.”
Crucially, it means the Wallaces can also pick all their own fruit using the 6.5m hydralada they co-own with another grower. David prefers to do as much work as he can himself, both for self-fulfilment and for the cost benefits. “Having a smaller block, our per hectare costs are higher so the more we can do ourselves, the more financially viable our orchard becomes. Picking is a big cost on many orchards and we’re mindful of the economies of scale in everything we do.”
Learning on the job
Being a first-time grower and wanting to learn as much as he could, David picked for Apata for a few years which gave him exposure to other orchards around the area. However, most of the Wallaces learning has been from attending orchard field days.
“There are lots of places you can go to pick up different things and people are only too happy to share their information,” says Kay. “You apply the information you learn to your own orchard but it might be two years before you know if you’ve done the right thing.”
On hearing about the benefits of irrigation, they installed metre-high irrigation on their youngest block. “All the consultants said we needed to put it in so we did that about 5 years ago. When the trees are growing flat out and they’ve got a big crop on, they use a lot of water. Our older block doesn’t dry out as much so we’ve left that and the fact that the trees are more established there mean they survive well enough without irrigation.”
More recent best-practice advice they’re following is to take out larger branches on the north side of their trees to let more light in and around the canopy. David is using this pruning technique in conjunction with the “fruit bowl” effect which they believe has yielded good results. “There’s still a lot of big wood in our larger trees and we’re trying to cut it out but we’ll do that gradually.”
He prunes after their second pick, usually in January, and is vigilant at maintaining the desired spacing and height. “They say any pruning is better than no pruning. It feels like a big thing, taking off the bigger branches at first, but it’s the best thing you can do for your trees and is the main thing that has helped us overcome irregular bearing. That and Mother Nature.”
Their larger prunings get processed for firewood and the balance is broken down into mulch for the trees. They benefit from good rainfall and have only experienced one severe air frost in nine years. “We’re not immune to frost but we’re in a good spot generally,” says Kay. Established trees around the property provide shelter but like most growers, they’re vulnerable when any severe gales sweep through. AvoGreen compliant, they monitor for pests with leaf roller, thrip and six-spotted mite, the most unwelcome visitors to the orchard. Avomax sprays when required but in keeping with their DIY philosophy, David does all his own injecting for phytophthora. “We’ve had the odd tree affected by rootrot but the ones that get it seem to soldier on regardless. You notice they struggle a bit more when they have a heavy crop on but they do come right with a bit of TLC.”
Zutano avocado trees were strategically planted around the orchard and are an added pollination-booster, supporting the efforts of pollen-hungry bees which are brought in for five or six weeks at flowering time.
The Wallaces soil test every two years and apply the recommended fertiliser, usually a blend of nitrogen, phosphate and potash. Owning a smaller property means David has the luxury of becoming familiar with the individual needs of all 53 of his trees. “I talk to them every day,” he says. “If they’re looking hungry, I’ll feed them and so on. It would be very different on a bigger orchard.”
Last season’s production earned David and Kay a runner-up placing for the Apata Grower of the Year title for 2015-16. With AVOCO judging criteria now factoring in production figures for two successive seasons, the top Primor award was awarded to them for 2015-16 – a win that came as a complete surprise.
“We definitely never expected an award,” says Kay. “We’ve been more focused on striving for constant production – any award is gratefully received, we were both thrilled to win it.”
Loyal to Apata and AVOCO, they’d love to see more growers join the company and support its efforts to grow the markets outside Australia. They see Asia, in particular, as critical to the future of New Zealand’s industry.
“I think AVOCO has done a great job of introducing avocados to the people there under the Avanza brand. There’s a huge population in Asia it’s a smart move by them to supply these markets,” says Kay.
“But even in New Zealand, we’re seeing more awareness about avocados generally. I think the work that’s gone on here with Nadia Lim to promote avocados is good as well. More people are eating them everywhere these days and it’s only going to help grow the industry and our country as well.”
Wandering around her orchard, Helen Orlowski has become accustomed to finding Calla Lilies springing up out of nowhere.
“Previous owners grew them but they still pop up even 13 years later. Everything that gets planted here just grows like topsy.”
The fertile, free-draining soil on Helen and Roy’s Prole Rd orchard is well-suited to growing all kinds of crops – avocados especially. The couple, who celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year, are looking forward to a bumper crop in 2016-17 which may well be their biggest since buying the property in 2003.
“Like a lot of growers, we had a good fruitset after just one pick last year,” says Roy. “Our production can be up and down but generally the big crops make up for the small ones and we’re very happy with what we’ve got coming on for the season ahead.”
GROWERS OF THE YEAR: Roy and Helen Orlowski took out top growing honours for both Team Avocado and AVOCO in 2014-15.
Boosting their production will be new fruit from trees planted over a period of three years in a small 0.1ha block at the back of their property previously occupied by commercial glasshouses. The oldest, three-year-old trees are “fully laden” with avocados which has given the couple confidence about their decision to re-invest and expand their orchard canopy.
The glasshouses were built by a previous owner to commercially grow tomatoes and the pair carried on supplying produce markets with a variety of fruit during their first few years on the property. However, the satisfaction they gained from working in the avocado orchard outweighed their interest in growing tomatoes so the couple eventually pulled the buildings down.
“That was a big job,” says Roy. “But that’s what it’s like running an orchard – there’s always something to do.”
A love for the country
The decision to buy an avocado orchard and move from Mount Maunganui to Omokoroa was driven by their desire to retire to the country. Roy had spent a good part of his life as an electrician while Helen worked for 35 years in the racing industry. Neither were attracted to the idea of growing kiwifruit but they both desperately wanted more space around them.
“We grew up in Gisborne and spent our married lives in different parts of the country but where we are now is just beautiful. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” says Roy.
Despite having little horticultural experience before buying their orchard, the couple backed themselves to learn as much as they could, taking on board the advice of consultants and more experienced growers when needed. However, having a much greater understanding now of how their orchard ticks, Roy is cautious about listening to too many people.
“We filter out the information. If you ask 10 different people, you’ll get 10 different answers. We figure out what’s the best for us.”
Roy knows he was late to adopt conventional advice about canopy management, aggressively pruning for the first time only just last year. They recruited contractor Mike Dillon to give them some pointers, opting to open up the north side of each tree and keep them no higher than 6m tall.
“Our issue now is to manage the re-growth but we’re taking advice from John Cotterell to leave pruning until autumn or winter to avoid excessive re-growth over spring.
“The aim will be to balance the top of each tree with its root structure underground. We’ll endeavour to keep them trimmed and open but it’s always hard to cut out branches when they’ve got fruit on them.”
They enjoy the size and mostly flat contour of his orchard which they say make it a lot easier for them to manage. He fertilises by hand and with Helen, injecting to treat and prevent phytophthora, using about 15 syringes on each tree. “It’s a necessary chore,” says Roy.
They use Fruitfed to advise them on fertiliser inputs and Avomax for all their ground spraying for pest control, with leafroller and thrip their orchard’s most invasive species.
Undoubtedly though, one of the biggest challenges to their production each season is managing frost. Last year, their orchard recorded 32 nights when temperatures dipped below 2.5degC, triggering automatic irrigators. Never content to risk frost damage to young buds, however, Roy will get up to check the water irrigators have successfully switched on. “If there’s a fault and we miss it, that could be our season gone.”
The couple pack with KauriPak and in a good season, the couple will pick twice – around the first week of November and early in the New Year. Roy says harvesting can be a stressful time but the picking gangs on their orchard always arrive with a great work ethic.
A surprise win
A loyal supporter of AVOCO, Roy and Helen say they’re proud about their new “AVOCO Grower of the Year” and “Team Avocado Grower of the Year” status. “We certainly weren’t expecting it but yes, it’s quite an achievement and a nice reward for all the work that we put in.”
The couple agree that AVOCO brought about financial stability for growers, many of whom will never forget the disastrous year of 2011 when competition between exporters resulted in the Australian market being flooded with avocados. “With the two big exporters working together, we’re getting better prices more regularly and the industry is growing again. Young trees are in such demand that you can’t get your hands on any until June next year and orchards are being quickly snapped up.
“A lot of that has been achieved off the back of what AVOCO is doing in the markets for us.”
The McBride Family Trust picked up this year’s Team Avocado Grower of the Year award. Alison Brown visited their orchard on the outskirts of Tauranga and discovered a couple enjoying a change of outlook.
Peter McBride is best known for his association with the kiwifruit industry, but its avocado trees that surround him at home.
It’s a private love affair that he shares with wife Linda at their orchard in Te Puna, a property that Peter fondly describes as their “oasis”.
Linda and Peter McBride.
It’s a sprawling setting that welcomes the couple and their visitors on arrival – a feature that Peter never tires of seeing.
“I enjoy the trees and their park-like qualities. They’re very different to kiwifruit.”
As productive as they are attractive, the trees are proven performers, collectively earning the Zespri board chairman an award at this year’s AVOCO Grower Conference. The McBride Family Trust was named Team Avocado’s Grower of the Year in recognition of consistent production for two successive seasons.
The award was the first of two presented to Peter this year. At the Horticulture Conference in July, he received the Bledisloe Cup, horticulture’s premier award, recognising his outstanding leadership in the kiwifruit industry, which he’s been involved with for 40 years.
“I’ve never received any awards before so to get two in a row was a surprise,” Peter says. “The Grower of the Year is pleasing though. We’ve improved the orchard and learnt a lot.”
The couple bought the property, an established block with 400 mature trees, 15 years ago. Previously based at Paengaroa, Peter and Linda had been searching for an avocado orchard for some time.
“We had children at Bethlehem College and the orchard’s location at Clark Rd was appealing,” Linda recalls. “But we were prepared to wait for the right one because we were aware that finding the right site is important for avocados.”
The orchard had a history of irregular bearing but that didn’t dissuade the couple who decided to transform it and build a family home.
“When we took over, it had a big crop on it. But we took out half the trees and started re-engineering the place,” says Peter. “We bowled whole rows, taking out about 200 trees and built a house in the middle of the orchard.”
It was Peter’s first experience managing an avocado orchard, but he has enjoyed overseeing its re-development.
“Avocados, like many other horticultural crops, have their challenges and they’re very different to kiwifruit. But in owning the property for a number of years now, I’ve achieved a much better understanding of the nuances of what works here.”
Irregular bearing remained a problem for the first decade but changes adopted over the past five years have led to significantly healthier trees, boosting production.
“It wasn’t immediately obvious but most of the trees were suffering from sub-clinical phytophthora. This had been masked and misdiagnosed as a lack of nutrients.
“We started injecting all the trees twice a year and that really was a critical decision. I had tried different ideas prior to that but they didn’t work.”
Aggressive pruning programme
Their proactive management approach also extends to pruning. The McBride’s contract Mike Dillon to prune late autumn and again in November.
The strategy is to target a tree height that means fruit can be picked from a 6m hydralada and prune to allow more light into the centre of each tree.
For Peter, it’s all about getting the balance right to enable more efficient harvesting.
“Many growers that see Mike pruning here would freak out because at times, he’s removing fruit and big branches. But he’s making 12 or more different pruning decisions on a tree all at once. It’s really complex. But I give him licence to do it.”
Aggressive pruning also makes it easier for sprays to penetrate the orchard canopy. As a result, the number of sprays they’ve had to apply each year have reduced.
Avomax apply their sprays in response to pest monitoring carried out by Fruitfed. Thrip and six-spotted mite still make appearances and Peter says he’s learnt to be aggressive with sprays to get on top of problems early. “Pest pressure is a lot higher on avocados than it is on kiwifruit.”
He also supports the industry’s use of copper hydroxide to mitigate against fungal disease and postharvest rots. Until alternative sprays are found, growers need to do all they can to protect fruit from infection and minimise outturn failures in export markets.
“It’s not fair on other growers in the pool if you’re not spraying coppers. Under performances by those growers is letting the pool down and best practice around these applications is an important part of the export story.”
At flowering time, the McBride’s bring in eight hives and rely on other pollinators in the area to work alongside their bees. Harvesting typically occurs twice, in November and January, although the McBride’s have picked as late as February.
Although their area isn’t known for early maturity, their fruit is maturing slightly earlier each season and grower larger, in line with overall improvements in tree health. It’s no surprise then that Peter wants to remain disciplined in his orchard management approach and “stick to what works”.
“It’s a sheltered block but we don’t irrigate, aiming instead to maintain appropriate soil moisture levels by applying vegetation to the canopy floor and mulching it back into the soil.
“The formula isn’t rocket science. The focus is on injecting and pruning. If you don’t, there’s a much higher risk of heavy cropping one year and that’s when you get those massive swings in production.”
One of Peter’s business strategies has always been to work with the right people and build long-term relationships with them. He applies the same principle to orcharding, choosing to work with experienced service providers, including consultant Lyndsay Heard and Hugh Moore at KauriPak.
He believes that the AVOCO partnership between Team Avocado and Primor was a turning point for the industry five years ago. Wearing his director’s hat, he also recognises the value of market development throughout Asia, under the AVANZA brand.
“Our reliance on Australia needs to come down and the advent of China will make a difference,” says Peter. “The industry should be applauded for its patience and attention to phytosanitary requirements that allowed it to gain access to China.
“When avocados catch on, the potential is massive for New Zealand. But now that market access has been won, we can’t afford mistakes. Quality is critical in China where the customer is very discerning.”
With consumer demand for avocados growing worldwide, he predicts the New Zealand industry will grow with it, with the most visible growth in the Far North. This will be driven by greater management efficiencies and economies of scale. “Northland orchards also have the benefit of a preferable growing climate, resulting in higher yields per hectare. Smarter orchardists should be looking now at higher density planting and smaller trees to mitigate any future risks to their business and ensure their survival.”
On his own orchard, he plans to plant more pollenizer trees to fill gaps, while maintaining an aggressive pruning strategy. While he’s aware that avocado blocks around the Bay of Plenty are being pulled out to plant gold kiwifruit, he won’t be doing that on his home block.
“I’ve grown apples, kiwifruit and been a dairy farmer. I just enjoy the challenge of growing different crops. It’s fun and what I’ll continue doing.”
Judged the industry’s best avocado growers in 2016, Maria and Andrew Watchorn have set themselves the challenge of lifting production on a second orchard north of Tauranga.
Even when Maria Watchorn isn’t in her avocado orchard, she’s thinking about the health of her trees.
Sitting down with her at her Prole Rd home in Omokoroa, her ears prick up and she quietly asks her husband Andrew if an irrigator has been switched off in a nearby block. It’s this attention to detail before the interview begins that illustrates how closely the Watchorns are in tune with every aspect of their orchard.
Maria and Andrew Watchorn at home on their Prole Road orchard with son Caleb.
It’s a management approach that has seen them rewarded with consistent production and last year, industry recognition. They were judged Top Growers for 2016 after achieving a four-year average yield of 24 tonne/ha – the highest of any export grower in New Zealand.
More recently, they were judged Apata’s Growers of the Year (producing 5231 trays per canopy hectare) on Prole Road, as well as achieving runner-up status for recording one of the highest export pack outs (87.6%) in the under 10,000 trays category during their first year of production on a second orchard.
Consistent production is something the Watchorns, who supply export leader AVOCO, have always strived for since purchasing their home orchard 12 years ago. They believe a combination of pruning, injecting, pest control and water management have been critical to their success.
Having struck a formula that works, they backed themselves to invest in the Walker Rd East orchard 18 months ago and they’ve been hard at work ever since whipping it into shape.
The new property produces fruit off 6 canopy hectares and features Hass trees ranging in age from 20 to 35-years-old. Some 100 Dusa clonal rootstock were planted five years ago by the previous owner which Maria says they are learning more about as the trees age, with further Dusa and Bounty being planted in 2017.
“I’m part of a new Bay of Plenty industry group looking at new cultivars and the trials and research into varieties like Bounty and Dusa, which are grown in our new orchard, have been interesting to follow. I’ve always been open to learning and expanding my knowledge and our second orchard is a good place to learn about those.”
The decision to take on a second orchard came off the back of careful planning, consistent financial returns from AVOCO and a desire by Andrew to give up corporate banking to join Maria, also an ex-banker, in day-to-day orchard management.
“Over the years, we wanted to expand and we felt we had the experience and knowledge to take on something more challenging that we could do as a couple and as a family,” says Maria.
“Andrew was involved in banking for about 30 years but since he’s been home, he’s really got stuck in. By nature, he’s a very practical person and he loves the outdoors. He’s adjusted to orchard life really well.”
With Andrew overseeing the second orchard, the couple have installed irrigation for frost protection and tensiometers to measure soil moisture levels which alert the couple when their soil becomes too dry.
The orchard’s upgrade has been a significant investment but one they believe will reap rewards in the long run. “For the past 12 months, we’ve worked 10 hour days to get the orchard to the stage that we’re happy with and where we think it needs to be to do what it does best: grow fruit to produce an income and give us a lifestyle that we enjoy.”
For Maria and Andrew, planning for both production and business success has always been their focus. Their business acumen comes from strict disciplines they developed working in the banking industry where they were taught the benefits of strategic visions and long-term planning.
“In the bank, we had a really good work ethic and to set goals and work hard to achieve them. It’s not just about planning for what’s in front of you; you need to think about five or 10 years down the track and understand where you want to be and how you’re going to get there.
“We’ve always had really defined plans and goals we work towards. We want to be relaxing a bit more and be in a position where if we want to travel, we can do that in the next few years”
To achieve those goals, the couple are 100% committed to producing fruit every season and ensuring their trees are in optimum health for both the season they’re in, and for the following year ahead.
With growing in her blood – Maria’s Italian family grew fruit and vegetables in Whakatane – it’s clear Maria has a natural affinity for horticulture and everything Maria has learned about growing avocados has come from sheer hard work and surrounding herself with the right people.
“When I’m in the orchard, I’m living and breathing it. I’m visually in tune with the trees. I’m always thinking ‘what next’ and what their requirements are. That comes from a lot of reading, understanding your trees and having a passion for what you do.
“AVOCO technical manager Colin Partridge says the best fertiliser you can put into your orchard are the grower’s footprints. You need to invest that time in going around and looking at your trees. That comes from experience and it takes a few years to understand what you’re looking at. Over time you learn how to manage some trees differently.”
Working with the right people
Their corporate background has also taught them to think hard about the people they surround themselves with. They believe they made the right choice to supply AVOCO who, with its team of experienced marketers and technical advisers, have their best interests at heart.
“You have to pick the right people to make your journey with you and we believe we’ve done that. Without those people, it makes life really challenging. Growing avocados is a serious business now and there’s real potential to make money if you have the right people on your side. We don’t leave our future in other people’s hands, we are actively involved in the decision-making process and collaborate with our contractors, keeping the best people around us.”
Maria believes smaller blocks in the Bay of Plenty could increase their earnings if they treated their blocks more like a business, and less like a lifestyle block. There is even greater potential for production growth with the New Zealand Avocado Industry investing in more research and development to improve orchardist best practices and future proof the industry’s growing potential.
Maria is a coordinator for one of the Avocado Industry Council’s Canopy Management Working Groups which aims to identify and evaluate pruning techniques. Its research work she enjoys seeing everyone benefit from as the industry matures.
“We are on the 3rd tier of a 10-tier ladder and compared to the kiwifruit industry, our industry still has a lot of evolving to do. Research is a big part of that.
“I think we can learn a lot from other industries as well – we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
As the avocado industry becomes more successful, Maria can see a time when it may need to start controlling fruit and tree volumes to maintain their values. “It’s a matter of controlling supply to match demand to keep grower returns high, this could be through licencing or other measures…. it’s all about profitable margins at the end of the day.
“At the moment, we need more supply and more consistent cropping so exporters like AVOCO can better meet customer demand. But it’s important to be mindful of how that balance could change.
“We’re always looking forward.”
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