In the last two years since setting up his Western Bay of Plenty orchard management business, Ryan McDonnell has seen half of his green grower clients begin transitioning to growing fruit organically.
Today all except one of 15 orchards he manages have turned away from growing fruit conventionally, beginning a three-year journey to achieve organic kiwifruit certification.
Ryan, who started working in kiwifruit 28 years ago, says the main push for green growers to go organic is the price it yields compared to conventional growing. “We’re getting a higher differential between conventional and organics now.”
And so going organic is a viable option for green orchardists to grow returns – especially if they’re at a stage in life or business where they wouldn’t consider a long-term investment to change to the G3 variety, says Ryan.
“The cost of everything to run an orchard and grow kiwifruit is going up, and the price of conventional green fruit is not rising to support these costs,” says Ryan.
And worldwide, more people want to know where their food comes from and how it is grown. So Ryan doesn’t see demand for organic fruit slowing down. “Not at all – there seems to be a big increase in demand for organic fruit in North America and Europe. And there’ll be a big increase in China as the middle class grows.”
One grower converting his family’s Whakamarama 8.28ha Hayward green orchard, under Ryan’s management, to organic is Dan McGovern.
Dan says going down this road first requires a change of mindset. “When we first came onto the orchard we were thinking of going organic and we had five years of conventional growing while we got our heads around requirements.
“Then you become fully aware of the fact that the only asset you have is the soil,” says Dan. “With all the sprays we’re chucking on soil we’re killing all the beneficial flora and fauna – the microbiology.
“Going organic ensures soil is healthy and compatible as it is, says Dan. “Then the rest of the whole organism will work well.”
Owned since the late-1970s, Dan’s family orchard is one year into the journey. “We were fairly close to organic when we began. The only thing we did that wasn’t really organic was use spray bud enhancer, hicane.
“Our weed control was through chemical means, however we had changed to under-vine mowing. Also our Psa-V was minimal, so our copper inputs were fairly minimal to begin with.”
Ryan says going organic requires looking at all elements of an orchard operation. “It is soil condition, pest control, vine management etc.”
He creates a BioGro-certified organic spray programme, organic fertiliser programme and employs growing techniques to bring the health of an orchard back to the fore of its management.
“By increasing bacterial activity in the soil we can try to prevent diseases, but this also helps break down things in the soil we don’t want.”
Organic certification is monitored by BioGro, plus growers follow GlobalGAP and NZ law requirements. In transition the first two harvests are classed conventional; year three fruit is classed organic.
Ryan says organic fruit tends to be smaller in size “but I swear black and blue that – and some people will disagree with me on – it tastes better”.
To counteract smaller sizing and fruit numbers, Ryan puts huge emphasis on male pollen and pollination. “Spraying hicane on conventional orchards helps bud-break happen simultaneously and flowering occurs during about seven days.
“In organics we could have four weeks of pollination. So we put on a lot more male pollen to pollinate flowers because taste and dry matter and size is all about how many seeds are in a Hayward fruit.”