Growing kiwifruit organically gives them a licence to be different, but that doesn’t mean compromising on quality – believe supreme winners of the 2018 Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards, Opotiki orchardists Catriona and Mark White.
They aim to sustainably produce the best quality organic kiwifruit above industry average levels, and benchmark themselves to not only the organic category, but the industry as a whole, while adhering to the traditional Maori ideal of “kaitiaki” – acting as guardians, protectors and conservers of the land and environment for the future.
On a bitterly cold and wet day in early-April, the Whites, in their role as BOP Ballance Farm Environment Awards supreme winners, hosted a field day attended by 70 people, including environment award entrants past and present, horticultural students, representatives of the kiwifruit, dairy, sheep and beef industries and rural professionals.
Despite the weather, visitors inspected the orchard to see the impressive crop of kiwifruit hanging on very healthy vines. As has become a tradition for Mark when hosting visitors, he dug a spade-depth hole, revealing the orchard’s rich dark soil and large earthworms.
Green and gold
Today Coastal Kiwis is a 7.5ha BioGro certified organic kiwifruit orchard with 4.3ha of Organic SunGold and 3.2ha of Organic Green.
The gold crop, with 2.5ha grafted to SunGold in 2015 and 2016, has yet to reach full production. However, based on production from the White’s mature vines, they are exceeding the whole industry average in SunGold production.
However, there was a time when they considered abandoning the kiwifruit industry and becoming passionfruit growers. Their organic gold kiwifruit orchard was in its infancy when the vine disease Psa-V arrived, forcing them to cut out and re-graft the vines.
Mark and Catriona were also growing Hayward green kiwifruit, but to get through the next few years until the new gold variety G3 came into production they grew passionfruit as a cash crop.
“Passionfruit grows well here at Opotiki and we enjoyed the crop so much we nearly decided to leave the kiwifruit industry and become passionfruit growers,” says Mark.
Suited to organics
However, Catriona and Mark decided to persevere with kiwifruit, and their hard work has resulted in today’s highly productive organic green and gold orchard – and their win in the environment awards.
“On reflection grafting to G3 is the best thing we could have done; the variety is well suited to growing organically as it produces good-sized fruit. We struggled with fruit size when growing Hort16A,” says Mark.
For Catriona and Mark, caring for the soil and feeding all that lives within it is crucial to the success of the orchard they developed from part of an organic dairy farm 10 years ago.
Both grew up at Opotiki, meeting as students at Opotiki College, before leaving their hometown chasing careers, marrying and having two children, Letisha and Lochlan. Mark was operations manager for NZ Post in Auckland, while Catriona was a busy mum to two children under five when Catriona’s parents offered the chance to buy part of their dairy farm near Opotiki to develop as a kiwifruit orchard.
“My family has been farming this land four generations and our children are the fifth generation to live here. For most of that time the land has been farmed using organic principles,” says Catriona.
The couple, who knew little about kiwifruit, had some initial family assistance with planning and then decided to do most of the physical development work themselves, keeping down costs and “learning by our mistakes”.
With a clear vision to grow kiwifruit organically, they planted Cryptomeria Japonica (Japanese Cedar) and Casuarina Cunningham shelter trees. “Both are excellent shelter and were chosen because pests such as scale do not live in either of them.”
The orchard’s soils are predominantly Opotiki Sandy Loam which is free draining and its top soil encourages root growth. “Our strategy during the development of the orchard has been to minimise earthworks in order to lessen damage to our soil structure. In situations where earthworks have been completed in order to re-shape the land for orchard use, the strategy has been to put the cows back into that area for a few years to assist with replenishing the soil biology that is disturbed.”
In winter organic sheep graze beneath the vines, controlling weeds and negating the need to mow the grass, so reducing compaction and machinery emissions. During the growing season, the sheep graze the perimeter of the orchard, controlling pest plants including those which play host to unwanted insects.
There are “unpaid pest experts” at work in the orchard too, including native weka and fantail, which prey on insects. Bird seed plants are also grown to encourage birds away from eating kiwifruit flower buds. Organic sprays are used as required, based on regular pest monitoring and close study of life-cycles so spraying can be timed for maximum effect.
Even slugs are welcome living in what Mark calls “slug hotels”, large clumps of grass beneath the vines. “Slugs assist in recycling organic material on the floor of the orchard and provide a source of food for birds. With plenty for the slugs to eat on the ground, they don’t bother to chew on the newly-grafted vines.”
The orchard sword is kept long to conserve moisture and clover helps create more nitrogen. Water, via the Tablelands Irrigation Scheme, is applied as required, based on soil probes and visual assessments and no irrigation is used from the end of January, in so as not to inhibit fruit dry matter levels.
Organic compost is applied annually, after Mark has carefully assessed an analysis of its make-up. “Not all compost is equal and it’s important to know exactly what it contains.”
Fish-based foliar fertiliser is also used and based on the results of regular soil and leaf tests, minerals are applied directly to the soil as required.
While much of the orchard work is carried out by Mark and Catriona, they are assisted by two full-time staff Linda Midwood and Todd Carter who are paid above the minimum wage. Paying staff well and treating them well is not only the right thing to do, it will also, in future, help ensure market access, says Mark.
“I recently went to America with Zespri and visited Whole Foods where I was questioned about the working conditions and pay rates for staff. It was clear to me that the quality of our organic product was a given, but customers wanted to know that our workers are well looked after.”
Whole Foods Market Inc is an American supermarket chain that specialises in selling organic foods.
Catriona says the couple are realistic about the risks orchardists face from unseasonal weather events, unexpected diseases like Psa or the potential threat of new pests such as the brown marmorated stink bug. “It’s for those reasons that we budget for one year in seven with no income.”
As supreme winners, Mark and Catriona will represent the Bay of Plenty at the 2018 National Sustainability Showcase on June 7, 2018, at Te Papa, Wellington.
This will be a formal event showcasing the 2018 Regional Supreme Winners of the Ballance Farm Environment Awards and at which the Gordon Stephenson Trophy will be presented.