Howard and Lois Strahan didn’t have a succession plan in place for their kiwifruit orchards, and in fact were on the verge of selling up when son Braden said he’d like to join them in the business.
“Braden was working as a mechanic in the Manawatu and we thought he was happy with his career choice,” says Howard, who after nearly 15 years of orcharding in the Bay of Plenty had decided it was time to retire.
Howard Strahan (left), son Braden (right) and the next generation Mac, part of a tradition of kiwifruit orcharding.
However, he and Lois were delighted when Braden and wife Toni said they wanted to move north and buy into the orchard. The timing was both fortuitous and fraught.
The good fortune was if Braden and Toni had left their move any later the orchards would have been sold. The bad luck was the year was 2010 and the destructive vine disease Psa-V was shortly to be discovered in Te Puke kiwifruit orchards, including one owned by the family.
In 2012 the family harvested the last of the gold kiwifruit Hort16A from their 4.6 ha Te Puke orchard, and Howard and Braden began the daunting task of cutting out the canes and re-grafting with the new gold variety G3.
“Although it was an uncertain time, I actually enjoyed the re-grafting process,” says Howard, who admits he likes hands-on structural work and working with people.
Braden says it was hard having to cut out vines on what had been a productive orchard but now he and his father take satisfaction in the results of their work – an orchard which has returned a full canopy and increasing production.
“When Psa-V hit it was hard to know what the industry would be like in future but we came out the other side okay, thank goodness.”
Horticulture wasn’t “in the blood” for Howard or Braden or his older brother Matthew, but they’ve all ended up involved in the industry in one way or another. The family were sheep and beef and cropping farmers in the Manawatu.
“Matthew, our eldest son, began work with PPG Wrightson and came to Ballance Agri-Nutrients in Tauranga after the Christchurch earthquakes. He has recent gone to Etec Crop Solutions based in Pakuranga as business development manager for horticulture and cropping,” says Howard.
It was 1997 when Lois and Howard sold the farm and moved north, initially buying a kiwifruit orchard in Tuapiro Rd and living in Katikati, where Howard became involved in Lions and Lois with a number of community and charity groups. Later they moved to Te Puna and the orchard where Toni, Braden and son Mac now live.
“Dad converted the 2.9ha green orchard to organics, a process which took three years to gain certification and we’ve had four good years averaging more 10,000 trays a hectare. The costs of production are about the same as conventional orcharding and the Orchard Gate Returns per tray are above that for conventional fruit.”
Liquid fish fertiliser and compost is applied to the vines and instead of spraying. Weeds are controlled by mowing when necessary by Braden, who admits to preferring to have a tidy-looking orchard. The environment, he says, is a pleasant one for him and Toni and two-and-a-half-year-old son Mac to live in.
Before Braden became involved in the orchards, Howard employed well-known orchard consultant Mike Muller to manage his orchards; and today he and Braden employ the services of Shane McNeil of McNeil & Associates as a valued member of the team.
The Strahan family are long-time clients of Apata Group Limited, where both their organic and conventional fruit is packed. It’s a relationship the post-harvest company and the family value.
In fact they are the ‘poster family’ for Apata, with a photo of Howard, Braden and Toni proudly displayed on the wall in the company’s office.
“The Strahan family epitomises what it is that Apata is all about and that is family and community,” says Apata Grow general manager Sonia Whiteman.
“Howard and Lois are long-time suppliers of Apata and now the next generation, Braden and Toni, are clients. This kind of family succession is also part of the Apata story, which began with our founders, our patriarchs and matriarchs who recognised the advantages of working together to harvest and pack their fruit; and now we are seeing the next generations involved in Apata as growers and at board-level.”
Sonia says not only has the Strahan family set up an equity partnership, they have also diversified by growing conventional gold kiwifruit and organic green Hayward. “Braden has further diversified by investing in soft-ride bin trailers and contracting out his services during harvest.”
This season’s harvest on the Strahan orchards has been a little later than normal. Usually the Te Puna orchard is part of the early start harvest but fruit was still on the vines in mid-May.
“It’s been an unusual season all-round. We were expecting an El Nino weather pattern with a hot dry summer, and that didn’t happen,” says Braden.
Howard says even though it wasn’t in the long-term plan, he’s more than happy Braden and Toni have decided to take up orcharding.
“I enjoy working with Braden. He’s the boss, but he does ask my advice about management decisions, not that he always takes it,” says Howard, who admires how Braden has adapted to his new career.
Attention to detail
“Braden had an excellent tutor when he did his mechanic’s apprenticeship and the good habits he learnt, including attention to detail and thoroughness, are really paying off in orcharding.”
The fact his retirement has been put on hold is also not of concern to Howard. “I’m not one to sit around doing nothing.”
In turn Braden enjoys working with his father and values the fact his parents have made it possible for he and Toni, who is an administrator for Health Care New Zealand in Tauranga, to transition towards orchard ownership.
Lois and Howard now live at Bethlehem, where they are both very much part of their local community and happy to see the next two generations of Strahan family involved in kiwifruit.