Franz and Sandy Imlig had a full-time electrical business in Galatea and two young children in 1996.
Their accountant encouraged them to invest, so they purchased 14ha in Lower Kaimai – close to 500ft above sea level – with a plan to “do something with it, sell it, and make money”.
“But we fell in love with the property and the challenge,” says the couple, who have established a consistently-producing avocado orchard while considering their footprint on the environment, and have been named finalists in 2019’s Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards.
At purchase the Imlig’s children were aged four and six. “We put a caravan on and travelled every second weekend for 15 years working on the property as much as we could,” says Sandy.
“My parents would come over on weekends when we were planting and help us.”
What they bought was bare land with some avocados in corner pockets. “It had fences and troughs for horses and cows so we had to take it all out.”
They started planting avocados in 1998, about 200 each year. When they got 1100 trees they undertook a thinning process. Today Springfield Orchard has 4.5ha of avocados, with 480 mature trees and 200 young trees planted two years ago.
Some may question the land’s altitude, and while Franz says they don’t produce as much as lower orchards in Bethlehem, Te Puna and Katikati – since moving to the property four years ago they’ve managed to produce consistent crops.
“We have our regime of doing things, which can be quite different to what others do,” says Franz, who says they’re in the upper percentile of growers for production.
But it’s not all about production. Since living onsite the Imligs say they’ve had more time to focus on the operation and become more environmentally-conscious.
Franz says the altitude brings a lot of rain “so we use a minimum amount of hard fertilisers”. “We did start by using a fert spreader but found we were using a lot of fert where we didn’t need it. We fertilise by hand; this cuts our fertiliser usage and allow us to give more to trees that need it.
“We have installed a fertigation system, putting foliar nutrients in our irrigation, which means we can do small amounts and often to keep the trees going.”
And Franz’s electrical skills have come in handy to limit their water use. The Imligs have an unconsented bore under BOPRC’s Rule 38: Permitted Take and Use of Groundwater up to 35m3/day per property.
“We supply five houses, which can draw what they like, and we’re allowed 35m3 in a 24-hour period.
“We have five 30,000L tanks on-site – and Franz has wired the bore so if in any one 24-hour period we hit 35m3 our bore will stop and not turn on again for another 24 hours.”
For irrigation Franz says they use tensiometers to measure ground dryness and how hard the tree is working to pull moisture.
“We have tensiometers in each block so it’s not one-size-fits-all. The amount of water used will vary to how these tensiometers read per block.”
While this saves water, Franz says it also gives each block the right amount of water it needs, and reduces electrical costs in pumping unnecessary water around the property.
In Galatea Franz was a pumping and irrigation specialist. He has installed a variable speed controller on the irrigation system “so if the system doesn’t need the full power to draw the water, it doesn’t use it”.
Sandy says they use soft sprays wherever possible, even though they’re more expensive “because we have wild bees here all the time and we are a bee stud for our apiarist”.
“And we try to spray at night when we can, when bees are in hives, as it helps get larvae and moths.”
For three years the couple have been using reconstituted gypsum – old processed wallboard from houses that’s been recycled – to use instead of buying it. “While it takes longer to absorb into the soil structure, so you need to use a bit more, it’s a lot cheaper because nobody wants it and it’s a great alternative for waste product.”
In fact, they’ve been part of a number of trials – both to improve their own orchard practices and find ways forward for their industry.
One trial on new plantings with a vermicast company has seen them compare their product with standard methods of planting. “We do a 50:50 vermicast, a standard mulch-type unit and we’re seeing what the differences are in microbiology within the soils.”
Sandy, who is also a Lynwood Nurseries’ BOP rep, says they trial new rootstocks too. “We’ve got 220 Hass on Dusa – that’s not really new anymore – many people have that. We have another 39 Hass on Latas on this property. Up the road we have 150 Hass on SR1.”
A large trial with Farmlands has looked at how much water they need to put chemicals on. “For this, generally when spraying avocados 2.500L per ha is used to get enough coverage.
“What we’re finding is if you reduce to rates like 1500L per ha – and with trialling an adjuvant which contains orange oil – it improves the spreads of chemical over leaves really, really well. We’ve been doing this for three years now and we’re really seeing effects in our monitoring.”
“It’s actually working better than our standard way of spraying, so we’re conserving water in our spraying practices. We used to spray 5.5 tanks; now we spray 4.5 tanks.
Another trial underway is using a different product to lessen use of copper on-orchards. “I think the reason we do these trials is we can see that this is our livelihood, our industry and if someone doesn’t put their hands up to do these trials, we’re not going to get anywhere,” says Sandy. Last year they were also a trialist orchards to supply the new China market.
The Imligs say they love birdlife, have their own aviary and love planting trees to attract birdlife. And this has prompted their passion to restore a BOPRC-listed reserve on the property with native fauna.
“The council has given us list of plants that are less attractive to pests such as pigs, possum and deer.”
So after spending years killing huge old man pines and pulling out Taiwan cherry, wild kiwifruit and avocados, they’ll replant the gully in 200-plus native pigeonwood, kanuka, and Miro this autumn.
As for Springfield Orchard – named after Franz’s father’s farm in Galatea – an effective pruning regime, use of a growth regulator product called Sunny, and treating every tree and its health individually is what the couple credit for enabling their consistency of production every year.
“But we’re still achieving our goals in a really environmentally-effective way. Because the environment is everything to us,” says the couple.
Franz says ensuring their operations become more sustainable hasn’t been very difficult. “It just takes a little bit of thought and ideas and putting them into practices.
“And it not’s just about orchard production – it’s about everything we can do sustainably while still making a profit.”