Two thousand wrecked cars, countless household appliances and other debris were among the challenges facing Wilson and Barbara McGillvray when they bought an avocado orchard near Katikati in 2011.
Previous owners had collected cars and much of the property had been used as a rubbish tip before it was converted to an avocado orchard by developers. Most of the car bodies have gone, but the ground continues to give up remnants of buried trash.
Barbara and Wilson bought the orchard in partnership with Wilson’s brother and his wife in 2011, farming it in partnership until 2013 when the orchard was subdivided. By that time Wilson and Barbara had built a home with views to Mount Maunganui and were heavily involved in the restoration of the land and management of their 5.41 canopy hectare block.
The avocado trees are of mixed ages and quality. “The initial planting was done at a time when the sale price of avocado orchards was based on how many trees were planted,” says Wilson.
“This orchard was developed as cheaply as possible with some young trees, but also older transplanted trees. We are still learning how best to manage the problems created by the original development.”
The orchard, on Stokes Road just north of Katikati, still retains evidence of the Katikati to Paeroa railway which ran through the area. Elsewhere its contour is a mix of steep to sloping, with the avocado trees planted on the easier land which affords some protection from frosts.
On steeper areas, some of them originally planted in pines as a cash crop, Wilson and Barbara have planted a mix of native and exotics to help retrain the banks and promote biodiversity including providing food for birds, bees and other insects.
Two banks are planted in flaxes and one in front of the house is mostly in natives, with specimen trees planted for their grandchildren a particular highlight.
“Another bank we call our bee bank, where we have planted trees, shrubs and herbs for bees with the intention of providing a continuous food supply,” says Barbara.
These plantings include rewarewa, kowhai, five finger, borage, lavender and Pittosporum eugenioides. Other grassland “weeds” such as self-heal and pasture species like plantain are encouraged to grow as food for insects.
“One of the interesting things about avocados is we don’t know for certain that bees are the only pollinators,” says Barbara.
“There might be a number of night time insects, including native moths, which pollinate the flowers and even the blowfly might have a role.”
Stoat and rat traps are placed throughout the orchard and in 2016 a pest contractor removed 31 possums from the orchard surrounds in just three nights.
The couple carry out much of the orchard work themselves, taking direction from Danni van der Heijden and Dr Jonathan Cutting of Trevelyan’s Pack and Cool. Barbara holds an Avo-Green owner/grower qualification and carries out regular inspections for insects, while Wilson holds a Growsafe certificate and sprays the orchard.
The couple’s aim is to produce a consistent volume of crop annually, and they’ve largely achieved that in the past four years. “Despite producing the biggest yield in 2016 of 88,496 kg, we were bitterly disappointed to suffer a very poor export yield due to heavy wind damage.”
Avocado orcharding is new for Wilson and Barbara. From 1978 to 2003 they developed and farmed kiwifruit at Oropi, and from 1980 to 2001 were partners in the Waimapu Packhouse and Coolstore and Waimapu Management Ltd, an orchard leasing company.
In 2007 they embarked on a completely different venture, restoring a small bush block at Whakamarama and at the same time becoming involved with wider conservation initiatives.
After 25 years of owning and managing well-manicured kiwifruit orchards, coming to terms with the “unruly” nature of their Stokes Road avocado orchard has taken time. Despite the extensive work already carried out, much remains to be done.
This includes a small wooded area, dominated by wattle trees, surrounding a stream which Wilson and Barbara would dearly love to see restored. Seeking advice on just how to do so was among the reasons they entered the Ballance Farm Environment Awards.
“We entered this competition as a learning experience. Our ambition is not to produce the highest yield supplied to our packhouse, but to produce fruit in a healthy environment, in a sustainable manner.”