Zespri's orchard productivity extension leader Chrissy Stokes usually works with kiwifruit growers in regional New Zealand to improve orchard productivity and profitability.
But she’s just returned from a five-week expedition in South Korea, providing technical support to Zespri’s growers there who supply kiwifruit to their local market under the brand when NZ-grown fruit isn’t available.
It’s the first time Chrissy’s role has been deployed to help Zespri’s five-person South Korean Global Supply team.
That’s because Zespri's South Korean growers are in the process of transitioning from Zespri’s proprietary variety Hort16A to SunGold or Gold3.
Chrissy, who’ll job-share the role with colleague William Max to December, says Zespri’s partnered with growers in South Korea for 17 years.
“We have a 12-month supply strategy for our global markets – our South Korean growers fill that gap from December-March, before NZ fruit arrives in April. This keeps supermarket shelves full of Zespri fruit and our brand in front of consumers."
Chrissy says Zespri has 180 growers and 110ha of orchards on Jeju Island, where she is based.
“We also have 15 growers in the southern part of the mainland.” The orchards are small – average size is .5ha – and the fruit is grown in greenhouses.
Harvest is late-October to December, making Chrissy’s presence significant. She’s helping to grow the South Korean orchardists’ confidence to transition to Gold3.
Most of Zespri’s South Korea orchardists still grow Hort16A, which was changed over to SunGold on NZ orchards after Psa was discovered in a Te Puke orchard in November 2010 and the variety was highly susceptible to it.
“They’ve got Psa-V in South Korea but because of the climate all production here is in greenhouses. This means they've been able to keep vines protected from Psa a lot more than we have back home.”
South Korean orchards are spread out, helping protect vines and limit crop damage.
“What's been fortunate, in terms of Psa, is they haven’t got contract labour. Growers do all orchard work themselves – so they’re not like NZ where workers travel to orchards, which can spread disease.”
The plan is to release another 200ha of Gold3 licence over the next few years.
“We currently have 110ha of total production, and the plan involves all current growers transitioning plus new areas being planted – or non-Zespri growers changing to this variety and supplying Zespri.”
Chrissy says all mainland growers have transitioned, and so have many on Jeju Island. “But only a few on Jeju are into their second or third crop – there’s a whole lot more in the transition process.”
One hurdle is most plants have been grafted at ground level. “So to convert they need to put in new vines. There is a big nursery production programme, we have four nurserymen and much technical expertise is needed. Plus we’ve imported and bulked up Bounty71 rootstock to use in areas where soils are challenging.
“My role is really about trying to answer questions the growers have about Gold3. It’s very different growing it in South Korea to growing it in NZ.
“The climate is different – and growing vines in a greenhouse is a different environment. For example, fruit size in NZ is massive but getting big fruit size in Northern Hemisphere countries is challenging. In South Korea size 30 is big fruit. In NZ that’s on the smaller end of the scale.
“We look at things like how crop load affects fruit quality, and the impacts of different management techniques on crop outcomes.
“And for these growers to have confidence to change – they need answers to these questions. But we also need mature crops to try out techniques, so this is the earliest we've been able to see what works and what doesn’t.”
Chrissy says the greenhouses have a double skin – plastic on the outside, which can roll up or down, and a layer of netting underneath to keep out insects.
“Most plastic rooves are open so rain comes through but we know things like plastic and netting cut out sunlight – so what impact does that have on the vines’ growing habits?
“That’s the kind of stuff we’re looking at. Also, the different fertilisers available here – how should they be used to get the right kind of growth?”
In South Korea it snows in winter and summer months are wet with high humidity. “Fungal diseases become an issue, and managing vigorous vine growth – that isn’t good for dry matter – can be challenging.”
Chrissy says the average orchard size is .5ha. “The sheds are about .3ha and growers mostly have one or two.”
And unlike in NZ, where you can call on nearly any horticulture-related service, in South Korea that service industry doesn’t exist.
“And because kiwifruit is a minor crop here products available, in terms of crop protection, are limited.
“The scientific community isn’t focused on kiwifruit as a crop of interest, so getting science support for research projects is challenging.”
So are Zespri’s South Korean growers keen to transition? “Yes, but because their orchards are so little – and the crops are worth so much to them – being out of production for a year or two while they convert is actually a really big deal for them.
“Some have put up new sheds for Gold3, and once that's up and running they'll remove their Hort16A.
“But it’s not like in NZ where a grower could say convert .5ha each year and still be producing cashflow from the rest of their orchard; they just don’t have that safety net.”
Chrissy has never lived overseas and knows little Korean language – and while the end goal is to hire local expertise finding someone with the language skills and technical knowledge isn’t easy. “I’m a long way out of my comfort zone. But it’s an awesome opportunity to have a crazy experience.”
“And I think in NZ we take for granted the support we have as a relatively big industry. The team here is pretty amazing. There’s five of them in the Global Supply team and they’re basically like a mini Zespri supply chain.
“This makes me appreciate our NZ industry and the support we get from government, the science community etc.
“But it’s also pretty exciting to see Zespri kiwifruit here – the retailers are so proud to have it stocked.”
Does it taste different? “No – just the fruit size is smaller.”