IFTA Talking Honeycrisp Apples in New Zealand

'Honeycrisp' was the theme of the first day of orchard tours during the IFTA New Zealand Study Tour. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Senior Editor Christina Herrick is in the field and is thinking safety first, along with former IFTA President Evan Milburn. The trip to New Zealand is Milburn's 51st conference. (Photo: Jenny Kohn)

Steven Murray Jr. poses for a photo taken by his father, Steve Murray Sr., in a 'Honeycrisp' block in Timaru, NZ. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Red Martin, orchard manager of M A Orchards says the 16-foot high canopy structure not only holds hail netting but it also allows for their Munckhof over-the-row sprayer. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Orange (and yellow) safety vests will be worn any time the IFTA New Zealand tourgorers are in an orchard or packing house. When a group leaves en masse, it's quite a bright sight. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

M A Orchard Manager Red Martin (left) says this V system 'Honeycrisp' block is easier to manage and to grow with 5 continual cordons, two above the wire and two below, while former IFTA President Phil Schwallier looks on. This V system was planted in 2014. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

M A Orchards uses both Bin Bandit platforms and a platform from Huron Fruit Systems. Karen Lewis of Washington State University says "Using platforms is in the right direction." (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Even the refreshments are Kiwi-centric as IFTA Board Member and part of the study tour organizing committee passes out an afternoon treat of the famous Denheath gourmet custard squares. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Gary Mount of Terhune Orchards and Evan Milburn of Milburn Orchards catch up during the sightseeing day in Kaikoura, NZ. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Bob Tritten of Michigan State Universty Extension takes in the waves at Kaikoura, NZ. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Bill Gardner of Florida Fruit, Bill Dodd of Hillcrest Orchards, and Evan Milburn of Milburn Orchards pose for a photo on the whale watching boat off the coast of Kaikoura, NZ. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Fellow Canadians, Brian Rideout of Manitree Orchards and Arthur Moyer of Moyer Orchards & Vineyards pose for a photo while awaiting a whale sighting. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

Pam Mount looks on as the crew spotted another sperm whale on the IFTA New Zealand Study Tour. (Photo: Christina Herrick)

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

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

“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.