In a country where there are six sheep for every person, it’s no secret that exports are the primary market for New Zealand apples. With only 4.5 million people in the country, there are only so many domestic venues for the fruit produced. New Zealand exports about 41% of its apples to Asia, and growers say this market continues to offer opportunities for new varieties.
Growers constantly talk about how longer shipping times influence production decisions. In the export market, three things are critical: high color, high Brix, and high pressure. Asia is a growing market for New Zealand apples, especially for larger sizes since large fruit can be a delicacy.
“That’s where the income is, I grow for export,” Aaron Drummond of Fairfield Orchards told International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) New Zealand study tour attendees. That statement is echoed by most growers throughout the stops.
The third day of orchard tours during the IFTA event was an abbreviated one, with stops at both Vailima Orchards and Waimea Nursery, where the tour-goers experienced the rainfall from the early start of Tropical Cyclone Gita. Wind gusts were expected to reach 100 miles per hour with heavy rainfall and it was deemed unsafe to continue into the afternoon.
Nevertheless, in the morning, tour-goers got a chance to see ‘Royal Gala’ being harvested on a Zucal harvest platform at Vailima Orchards, as if there was no impending storm. In fact, Karen Lewis of Washington State University says she was at Vailima about 10 years ago and they were using a solar-powered platform then.
“They’re the ones that are pushing the envelope,” she says.
Exports to Asia and Canada are the target market for apples produced at Vailima. About four years ago, Vailima Orchards owner Richard Hoddy said they made the switch to a V-system after a trip to Washington State renewed their interest.
The ‘Envy’ block was first spaced at 4-by-10 feet, with some of the later plantings at 2.6-by-10 feet on Pajam 2. Trees that were originally going to be a fruiting wall were converted to a V-system. Branches were going to be filled in, but converted to V, pulled one way or another.
“This system lends itself more to robotic harvesting than the fruiting wall,” Richard’s son, Tristram Hoddy says. “One thing we learned is the V takes a lot more labor in summer growing season.”
He says crews came through and applied Regalis (BASF), a PGR, when the limbs meet up and notched trees to create branches and spurs in mid-to late spring. Excess vigor is also a problem, as the area gets abundant sunlight and rainfall.
“Once it fruits, it settles down,” Tristram Hoddy says of ‘Envy.’
Growers also got a chance to see a block of ‘Smitten’ on Pajam 2.
“’Smitten’ is a hard variety to thin,” Tristram Hoddy says.
The Nursery Side
While at Waimea Nursery, discussions surrounded rootstocks and new varieties as well as availability.
“Part of the challenge of operating in New Zealand is we have a small market so we have to be diverse in the market,” says Bruno Simpson, Development Manager for Waimea Nurseries. “New Zealand has some good opportunities for apple exports.”
Simpson says ramping up production of G.41 has been a challenge for his family’s nursery, and he’s seen good results with its replant disease resistance. But, Simpson says their trials indicate that large trees can make for a brittle graft union, and smaller trees seem to have fewer issues.
Importing material into New Zealand is a challenge, Simpson says.
There are four levels of quarantine as dictated by plant health. Typically, Waimea works within a level two, where plant material is imported from an accredited institution. But, there is still a 36-month quarantine.
“New Zealand has a risk of falling behind because the rest of the world is less strict,” he says.
Simpson, a fourth-generation nurseryman, was asked by tour-goers about the future of container production. “What we see is the people making decisions to grow need to have a range of systems,” he says. “Container production is going to be a part of that world.”
While his family invested in an Ellepot machine in order to focus on production, he cautioned growers that they’re still testing and figuring out how production is going to go.
“We don’t want to get it wrong and send growers down the wrong path,” he says.
But, “tissue culture and container production is part of the future,” he says. “We think it will be here sooner than you think.”
The fourth day of orchard tours continued with a stop at Hoddy Fruit Co., which was rained out the day before. Prior to an afternoon at Abel Tasman National Park, tour-goers stopped to see the innovative production at the orchards at Hoddy, which came through the storm just fine.
“You’d look today and say, ‘What cyclone?’” says Andrew Kininmonth, Hoddy’s Orchard General Manager, who welcomed the clearing skies.
“We are actually farmers of light,” he says. “We want light on the buds, and light on the trees and we end up growing bloody good fruit.”
Plantings at Hoddy Fruit Co. grows on 2-D, 3-D, and even 4-D canopies. What spurred this change, Kininmonth says, was the 4-D system was 10-by-16. Currently their spacing is about 4-by-12 feet. Kininmonth says a big driver was maximizing the number of high-quality fruit produced.
“We’re 12,000 miles from our major export market, obviously Asia is a lot closer,” he says. “Every piece of fruit has to be a top quality piece of fruit because that is the only point of difference we can have in little New Zealand.”
The folks at Hoddy’s Orchard see the next generation as a vital part of the fabric of the orchard. In fact, Kininmonth estimates the average age for decision-makers on the farm is about 33. Canaan Balck, now Orchard Operations Manager for Hoddy’s Orchard, won the Nelson Young Fruit Grower in 2015 and competed in the national Young Grower competition.
“We push them, we empower them, we give them respect, and work to get them involved on the ranch,” Kininmonth says.
As for the growing systems, part of the motivation to for a 2-D system was to simplify the canopy and make it easy for workers.
“I had a pruner who never touched a pair of secateurs (pruning shears) before and I taught him how to prune on the 2-D system,” Balck says. “That goes for thinning and picking as well, it’s all on a plate.”
Another part of the motivation to move to a 2-D canopy was also to have the ability to move toward automation. Kininmonth says there are limitations, though, on row spacing, when it comes to automation and platforms.
“I think we just need to put skinnier tires on it,” he says. “We’ll Kiwi-ize it.”
Field Notes, Vol. 3
B-I-N-G-O— As part of the Cyclone Gita “watch party” (I’m only kidding, it wasn’t a watch party, just a party), tour-goers participated in a heated BINGO game, where winners could take home prizes such as Manuka honey, socks with kiwi birds or fruit, New Zealand wine, sunscreen, and more. While a few people tried to play multiple bingo cards at once, house rules were established, and the fun began.
The city of Nelson, NZ, also told residents not to go out, so evening IFTA activities were relocated to the host hotel, including music and dinner.
CANKER SORE—One issue that is plaguing New Zealand apple growers is European Canker. While at a tour stop at Wairepo Orchards the day before, growers Simon and Matthew Easton discussed the challenges of producing popular export varieties while coping with canker susceptibility.
“European Canker loves ‘Royal Gala,’” Simon Easton says.
Easton said they lost 8,000 of 10,000 trees. This caused them to restructure their entire orchard in two years. A process that in what would normally take about 10 years. Now, those trees are averaging about 70 bins per acre.
“You wouldn’t even know we had canker,” he said.