Fieldays-goers got to see a one-of-a kind tractor, which is put to work at New Zealand’s only commercial tea estate, at Mystery Creek this year.
The Waikato-based Zealong Tea Estate, which today has 1.2 million plants on 48 hectares at Gordonton, displayed the tractor at their first Fieldays stand alongside a range of the brand’s teas to see, smell and taste.
Purchased in late-2015, Zealong Tea Estate’s research and development manager Fabien Maisonneuve says the specially-designed hydraulic tractor has dramatically reduced the need for manual labour for various jobs at the certified organic estate.
“Due to strict organic regulations, we were unable to use conventional methods – for example, having to manually control weeds, and having limited options for BioGro-approved organic fertiliser.
“We had to think outside the box – using expertise from several different countries within our team, we’ve ended up with a machine with a wider range of applications, less wear and tear, and more power than the mechanical machinery traditionally used on tea farms.”
Zealong Tea Estate’s finance manager Ken Stokes says the tractor is one of a kind. “It is designed around the French wine industry and we sort of used Kiwi ingenuity and Japanese technology to develop it and design all of our attachments,” says Ken.
The tractor can do just about everything on the estate – except picking, which is done by hand for just 60 days of the year.
Affectionately called ‘The Transformer’ by the Zealong team, the large yellow machine straddles two rows of tea as it trims, prunes, mows, weeds, ploughs, or spreads fertiliser.
Before the tractor arrived, due to the width between the tea bushes, it was impossible to drive a tractor between the rows, says Ken.
“Basically, beforehand, because we’re organic we can’t use any sprays to control weeds, we had to have somebody behind a hand-mower to mow manually down each row.
“We’ve got a 48ha estate – the grass and weeds between the rows grow very quickly, so it was a big job before the tractor came along.”
It also spreads fertiliser sheep pellets and this year certified organic soya meal will be applied as well.
Ken says the only machine they use is a helicopter once-yearly to apply liquid fertiliser. “But we are looking at how we can use this machine to apply liquid fertiliser as well.
“Currently, due to using a helicopter, we can only apply liquid fertiliser once a year after an entire harvest.
“If we could use the tractor to apply the liquid fertiliser, we could apply it after we’ve harvested each block.”
The only job the tractor doesn’t do is harvest the tea, which is done by hand three times a year, in November, January and March. Zealong Tea Estate produces about 20 tonnes of made tea per year.