Second-generation fruit growers Craig and Lani Julian have a unique philosophy when it comes to operating their boysenberry and kiwifruit businesses near Whakatane.
While they strive to achieve top-performing operations, they like to do things as sustainably as possible while also enjoying life with their two children and what their backyard of nature has to offer.
“A lot of people ask us about our goals – but our biggest goal is our lifestyle. Sometimes we feel guilty when we see highly-ambitious people – and we do get offered a lot of opportunities in our industries – but we have other things that are important to us,” says Craig.
“We go camping a lot, I’m captain of a surf lifesaving club, we travel quite a bit and spend lots of time surfing – so we like being holistic about our lives rather than getting concerned with making more money.”
However, they are serious when it comes to being able to employ more sustainable and natural methods on their orchards.
Craig was born and raised on his parents Joan and David’s berry farm – they established in 1975 – near Whakatane. Lani grew up on an organic vineyard.
The couple initially leased Craig’s parents’ 4.5ha boysenberry farm before purchasing it. “My brother Paul purchased the retail side of the business. And we’ve re-invented the process side of the business, which supplies boysenberries for processing.
“We proudly grow boysenberries exclusively for Heinz-Watties cans. We also have a small contract with Homegrown smoothies, supplying local operations with boysenberries,” says Craig.
The couple first developed 2.2ha green kiwifruit orchard. “We did that on weekends, on the smell of an oily rag, and got it up and running then leased another green orchard off my father. Then we bought the berry farm and slowly purchased more orchards and developed them.”
Today they grow 25ha of kiwifruit – 50/50 gold and green – and 10ha of boysenberries.
Boysenberries are a raspberry/blackberry hybrid producing a luscious, large juicy berry grown on vines up to 2m high. Craig says a boysenberry grows long canes during summer which are hung over and tied into wires during winter.
“In June-July we do a winter prune, buds burst from the canes mid-august, they flower in October and fruit November-December and each bud produces five fruit– so January through to May you walk away because the plant is growing its new cane.”
“Situated in the sunny Bay of Plenty we’re very fortunate to have an early growing season – so we start picking fruit in early-December, peaking for Christmas then finish early-January.”
Craig says it’s a nice crop apart from the need to pick a couple of hundred tonne of boysenberries in short, sharp three-week window. “It’s really challenging to find 100 people for three-four weeks of the year and get them all up to speed to ensure they’re making minimum wage.”
“And it’s a highly risky crop because you’re battling against fungal diseases, rain and the environment.”
While Craig doesn’t think it’s possible to grow boysenberries organically – “the pressure from fungal infection would be too great” – he does employ as many environmentally-sustainable methods as he can. “Use of agrochemicals is limited wherever possible by using biological alternatives and our plants are provided with strong, healthy, balanced soils, allowing them to use their own natural defence systems to overcome disease and pest pressure.”
The berry orchard floods badly during winter so the Julians are working on a pump system to deal with this. “We’re also pumping water out of sumps in the ground and into tanks for irrigation, recycling water.”
The Julians also use cardboard to package boysenberries. “Watties have asked to shrink-wrap our pallets but we don’t allow that.
“We have a really aggressive attitude towards no plastics. This is because we’re surfers and beach-dwellers – we live in the ocean as much as we can so we really believe plastics are killing the earth.
“We live on our orchard and love breathing the air, so we minimise our spraying programme and are always looking for any innovation that’s softer and kinder on the environment,” says Craig.
On their kiwifruit orchards they’re focused on reducing their carbon footprint. “We don’t want any artificial shelterbelt because we love trees.
“We’ve never been big sprayers of weeds – instead we like to focus on soil biology. We partially do our own fruit programme – and to minimise our solid fertiliser input we increase use of foliar sprays.
“We like seaweeds, we put tonnes and tonnes of compost on and have a pretty busy programme of natural inputs.”
Craig admits he initially struggled with understanding organic methods of growing fruit, so completed some biological farming courses. “Then we started growing a mixture between organic and conventional crops of kiwifruit – and we’re about to develop a solely organic gold kiwifruit orchard this winter.”
At the site they’re looking to put in a native wetland to feed water into the orchard – “from there it can run into tanks for use”.
Craig says their biggest challenge growing kiwifruit is vine-killing disease Psa-v. “We had a few orchards wiped out from it – and that was probably because of our green approach.
“I was a latecomer to adopt copper. I didn’t believe in copper but I soon learnt that it was a bit of a necessity. Although now we’re at the front of backing off on using these types of measures as we’ve begun to understand Psa better and learn what works and what doesn’t.”
And with SunGold, Craig says the work is in understanding the footprint of the plant while trying to get all their orchards up to Rolls Royce standard.
“We never accept average – we always want to be at the top of our game – so we’re constantly striving to adapt and work with the environment to get good yields in kiwifruit.”
Craig is very excited about kiwifruit’s future. “We’ve got new varieties coming – on a recent trip to Japan, hosted by Zespri, everyone was talking about a red variety and when we might see that, and also of a new green.
“The biggest opportunity for kiwifruit growers right now is increasing the value of our current orchards rather than trying to build more. Our approach is to not build another orchard unless the one you have is running at 100 per cent.”
The Julians are also excited their children, Ella, 15, and Jai, 12, are keen to be involved in the fruit-growing business in future.