IFTA Talking Honeycrisp Apples in New Zealand

IFTA Talking Honeycrisp Apples in New Zealand

It was all things ‘Honeycrisp’ when the International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) 2018 New Zealand Study Tour kicked off in Christchurch, NZ. While most growers on this tour are familiar with the pesky but popular variety, the story of how ‘Honeycrisp’ found its way to the South Island is unique.


As Andy McGrath of M A Orchards told attendees, they were seeing the genesis of a new fruit growing region in Timaru (on the coast, south of Christchurch), and “’Honeycrisp’ is going to be a variety that drives this into a major district,” he says.

When ‘Honeycrisp’ was imported in 1996 to New Zealand, it was among a few varieties tested, but it was discarded, McGrath noted. He says the opportunity arose to bring together a program to license ‘Honeycrisp’ in New Zealand.

Yes, ‘Honeycrisp’ is a managed variety in New Zealand. McGrath says that was a deliberate decision to manage ‘Honeycrisp’ as intellectual property, ensuring high quality from beginning to end of the process. As McGrath began planning ‘Honeycrisp’s’ future in the country, he said the first order of business was to discover where in the North and South Islands the variety flourished. Using knowledge of how the variety grew well in the U.S., McGrath said the hope was that ‘Honeycrisp’ would work well in the existing fruit-growing region of Otago.

However, after testing several sites, it turned out that Timaru at 43.2° latitude “was absolutely the best,” McGrath says. Unfortunately, there was no fruit production infrastructure – it was not a region with a packinghouse or any orchards.
While the ideal site was discovered, ‘Honeycrisp’s’ popularity in the U.S. took off; and by 2011, McGrath met with Bruce Allen of Columbia Reach Orchards who was interested in growing ‘Honeycrisp’ in New Zealand to have year-round production and availability of the variety.

The Nitty Gritty of Production
For now, M A Orchards packs about 550,000 cartons of ‘Honeycrisp,’ and McGrath says he expects the orchards to be corporatized in the next five to 10 years.

“As a variety, it’s challenging,” McGrath says. “It has its moments.”

To avoid production issues, one district was selected and McGrath says that, along with a lot of knowledge coming from the U.S. on how best to handle the variety, has helped stave off many of the production issues that plague some U.S. ‘Honeycrisp’ growers.

“Calcium and sunburn are zeros for us,” McGrath says. “Early on, ‘Honeycrisp’ looked like a no-brainer and it seemed like a dream,” McGrath says. “But as the volume went up, so did the problems [with internal browning and scald issues].”

McGrath says their packing strategy is to “get rid of the junk” before shipping. He says their storage strategy is similar to Chile in that New Zealand apple growers’ fruit has to travel in containers for six weeks since their primary market is for export.

Orchard Manager Red Martin says bitter pit is typically nonexistent in their orchards. But, European canker is present.

As for the trees at M A Orchards, they are about 12 feet tall in a 4-by-12 foot vertical system on M.9. Martin also says he’d like to bring the row spacing in, because it’s harder to vertically grow fruit.

Canopy structures in the M A Orchards are constructed very high, enough to allow for a Munckhof Sprayer, with a grass swath every third row. They also include hail netting, which is about 16 feet high. The cost for the infrastructure is about $40,000 to $50,000 New Zealand dollars per hectare, and it stays up for about 10 to 15 years.

Martin says the target goal is about 80 tonnes per hectare, or about 80 bins per acre. However, Martin did note that on G.202, the yield is a little lower, around 60 bins/acre.

“80 tonnes every year is better than 100 tonnes every two years,” Martin says.

Biennial bearing, Martin says, can occur in part due to irrigation issues. But, Martin says cropping early can help stave that off.

“When these trees are young, you need to take a balanced approach and not push past their natural growing state,” he says. “But, “we’re like everyone else, we like to push the limits.”

Field Notes, Vol. 1

  • WHERE IN THE WORLD IS ROD FARROW?!? — At our welcome dinner for the IFTA 2018 New Zealand Study Tour on Friday, Feb. 16, there was a big presence missing – IFTA President Rod Farrow. Karen Lewis of Washington State University said Farrow had a minor health issue before the first leg of the study tour kicked off and was home recuperating in New York. His doctor said he was unable to fly such a distance. Lewis, IFTA Board Member and a part of the organizing committee, quipped that as Farrow missed two IFTA conferences in a row (in 2017 for family matters), the 2019 conference should be easier for him to attend as it will be in Rochester, NY.

“We’ve arranged for transportation for him already,” Lewis quipped.

  • WHAT’S WITH THE ORANGE VESTS? — While many of the folks in the states may wonder if we’ve all become members of the Village People or joined a construction crew, New Zealanders take their safety in the orchard seriously. At most of the orchard tour stops, wearing high-visibility vests is required; and at most IFTA conferences, a water bottle, hat, notepad, or some sort of small gift was included. So, instead of a T-shirt, we get a vest.

“You’re an outlier in New Zealand without a vest on,” Lewis says. “Even at lunch in Christchurch, you’re the odd man out if you’re not in yellow.”

Lewis particularly tipped her hat to Andy and Sandy McGrath for helping pull off the feat of ordering 200 or so vests and helping gather some sponsors to make it all happen.

For those keenly observant, you’ll notice tour goers sporting two different colors of vests: yellow and orange. Yellow vests indicate IFTA board members.

  • ARE YOU A WHALE, SEAL, OR DOLPHIN? — On the second day of the study tour, attendees broke off into groups for different excursions at Kaikoura, NZ. One group chose to go on a hike to the seal colony, one group swam with dolphins, another group when whale watching. While I can’t speak for the other two excursions, whale watching was quite enjoyable. Our group ended up seeing at least two male sperm whales, maybe three (and a few marine birds to boot). There were three whale sightings in total; however, it is believed on whale was the same. Either way, we saw whales.