New Zealand Fruit Growers Look to the Future of Production, Varieties

New Zealand Fruit Growers Look to the Future of Production, Varieties

The International Fruit Tree Association’s New Zealand study tour brought tourgoers to the North Island, where the first stop in two days of Hawke’s Bay Orchard tours was the Plant and Food (PFR) Research Station in Havelock North, NZ.


New Zealand’s PFR has pioneered many varieties that have make their mark on the apple and pear industry in New Zealand, Australia, and abroad. The research station is the home of ‘Jazz,’ ‘Envy,’ ‘Rockit,’ ‘Smitten,’ ‘Pacific Rose,’ and ‘Southern Snap.’ New variety development continues and the research team has recently released newcomers such as pears ‘Reddy Robin’ and ‘Pica Boo’ as well as apples ‘Lemonaide,’ ‘Sweetie,’ ‘Cherish,’ and ‘Dazzle.’

All new PFR releases are licensed through Prevar, which has several stakeholders including 45% by Apple & Pear Australia, 45% by Pipfruit New Zealand, and 10% by PFR. The goal of Prevar is to ensure New Zealand (and Australian) growers are able to receive returns on new varieties developed and to advance the growth of the tree fruit industry in the Pacific countries.

The breeding focus is for the export market. However, as breeder Richard Volz, noted, there are at least 100 different markets New Zealand and Australian apples can be sent, which can complicate narrowing down the needs of an entire industry.

“That’s a heck of a lot of different consumers,” he says. “Our breeding program is tailored to meet that industry.”

Volz says he’s breeding for interesting characteristics, but the primary focus is on flavor, disease resistance, soluble solids, and now red flesh. Instead of looking at only one Vf gene, all new varieties must have at least two to three Vf genes.

Performance also is an important focus, especially for an export-based industry. As each new variety is screened prior to release, the variety must also hold up in postharvest.

“An apple needs to be quite robust,” he says. “We need to be thinking about how robust that apple is in terms of performance.”

Red flesh, while might sound surprising, is just another part of the interesting characteristics that Volz and the research team is breeding for.

“Red flesh that is equal to or greater than modern white-fleshed varieties,” Volz says he’s hoping to find.

Enhancing Fruit Production
Also at PFR, tourgoers got a chance to see the Future Orchards Production System — or FOPS — where trees are grown in a planar cordon system, with multiple vertical stems to control and distribute the canopy growth.

Stuart Tustin, Science Group Leader in Fruit Crops Physiology, Pollination, and Sustainable Production at PFR, had introduced the FOPS system at the 2017 IFTA conference in Wenatchee, WA. But, the chance to see the production system up-close was invaluable.

“The tendency is to see the tree design as innovative,” Tustin says. “We use the natural growth of the tree to enhance fruit production.”

The oldest of the FOPS 2-D planar cordon system is in its fifth leaf. Trees in the systems are about 7 feet or 5 feet apart, in either a vertical cordon or a V-cordon. In the vertical cordon, 10 uprights are spaced about 11 inches apart. In the V-cordon, 12 uprights are spaced about 10 inches apart.

Tustin says the research team is looking to harvest about 80 or 90 bins per acre this year, with the goal of reaching 100 or 110 bins an acre next year. The target with this system is to reach yields of 150 to 200 bins per acre. But, goals also are measured in light interception, as well. Tustin estimates the 7-foot tree spacing is showing about 60% light interception and the 5-foot tree spacing is getting 70% light interception. The goal is to reach 80% light interception.

“We’re well on the way to going to where we want to go,” Tustin says.

These canopies also are designed with the focus on future automation.

“We need to have very simple 2-d canopies designed to be machine amendable,” Tustin says. “Any benefit being done by labor has a higher return (on investment).”

The Bite-Sized Apple
Among those new Prevar releases is ‘Rockit,’ a bite-sized apple. Tourgoers got a chance to see an orchard which had one light color pick already. Smaller apples obviously bring their own set of handling and packing needs, and the folks at Rockit Global Limited have innovative ways to address them.

Chris Hurrey, Operations Manager for ‘Rockit’ Global, says each tree hangs about 120 to 250 fruit per tree. With small apples, the team acknowledged it was easy for pickers to try to pick three or so apples at once. So, they implemented the one hand, one apple principle.

“You’ve just got to be careful,” he says.

Pickers also are paid $54 a bin, to ensure care is given to the small apples because it takes 2.5 bins of ‘Rockit’ to reach the number of apples picked in a standard variety, or about 5,000 apples per bin. And Hurrey says psychologically they don’t struggle to get pickers, since progress down an orchard row and bin filling would seem much slower with smaller-sized apples in a dense canopy.

“A lot of pickers would rather stand and pick in one place,” Hurrey says.

‘Rockit’ Global sees 667 acres of the variety coming online in the next few years and with that comes with growth in the packinghouse, which has been increasing figures year over year.

“We have to get tonnage right because the fruit is so small,” Hurrey says.

‘Rockit’ apples in New Zealand are sold in tubes of three, four, or five apples. With about 5,000 apples per bin, Andrew Mason, Postharvest Manager for ‘Rockit’ Global, says the team will go through about 9,000 bins at about 98% packout, commit-to-pack. There are only two sizes for ‘Rockit,’ the smallest about 2.17 inches and the largest about 2.8 inches.

“We only pack one color grade,” Mason says. “Premium grade is the only color grade.”

The packinghouse in Hawke’s Bay packs about 60,000 tubes a day, with about 20 people manning the stations packing about 55 to 60 bins a day. The packinghouse has its own proprietary tube loaders, built by a local Hawke’s Bay engineering firm. It is estimated they’ll go through about 7 to 7.5 million tubes this season.

“We don’t compete against one another [apple varieties], we compete against the snack market,” Mason says.

The most interesting thing is how ‘Rockit’ is being approached from a sales side. To them, it’s not produce, it’s a healthy snack and is sold as such, witho promotions.

“It’s one price for the whole year, as any other snack product would,” added Mark Pay, Business Development Manager for ‘Rockit’ Global. “Moving apples away from being a commodity.”

Field Notes, Vol. 4
ISLAND HOPPERS — Those of us traveling on the first week tours ended our time in Napier, NZ. For those of you well versed in geography, that means we needed to travel from Nelson, NZ, in the South Island to Napier, NZ, in the North Island. And, for those of you who know Air New Zealand’s flights like the back of your hand, you’ll know that no nonstop flights run from Nelson to Napier. But, the fine folks at Onward Travel who helped plan and organize us orange vesters, stepped in and chartered direct flights to our North Island destination. It’s my first time on a charter, and the experience was refreshingly easy and it was a blast knowing everyone on the flight.

SPECTACULAR VIEW—Prior to a full day of orchard tours, the “orange brigade” headed to Te Mata Peak, where growers soaked in the breathtaking views of Hawke’s Bay. According to Maori legend, Hinerakau, the daughter of the Pakipaki chief was a part of a plan to stop Te Mata, the giant chief of the Waimarama tribes from the constant threat of war. The plan was to have Hinerakau get Te Mata to fall in love with her.

Hinerakau demanded that Te Mata prove his devotion by performing impossible tasks, the last was to bite his way through the hills between the coast and the plains. Te Mata died choking on the earth, and his unfinished work can be seen in the hills and silhouette of the mountains look like a giant laying on his side.

JOHNNY APPLESEED – Jon and Paul Paynter of Johnny Appleseed and Yummy Fruit Co. treated us to a fine lunch at The Old Church in Napier, NZ. Built in 1863, the church is the location of the first vineyard in New Zealand, where French missionaries planted vines and eventually established a seminary. The Paynters gave tourgoers a warm Kiwi welcome and included demos on some of their innovative horticultural techniques.

“You’re looking resplendent in orange,” Paul Paynter said to the crowd.

The Paynters talked about vigor control with pruning, opting to prune right after harvest to ensure it doesn’t promote growth and creates a refined tree with the same width. But what struck the group was their approach to the “sprayer revolution” as the Paynters dubbed it.

“The biggest thing we’ve found out with getting closer [in canopy density] was over spraying,” Paynter said. “You have to manage what’s happening with wind and drift.”

And with the standard aeroblast sprayers, Paul said, “we seriously have the wrong sprayer for our industry.”

The Paynters said they moved to European sprayers because they are more effective at managing sprays in a canopy, seeking to find sprayers that assess wind and sea breezes and keep materials applied in the canopy.

“If we’re going to specialize, we are going to have the best equipment to match,” Paul added. “You need to evaluate your own varieties and what you want to do with your system.”