By Richard Rennie, images by Sarah Marshall
Northland’s humid sub-tropical climate means avocados have always thrived in the top part of the North Island. But the gradual drift to plant them has become a flood in recent years as dairy farms are converted and irrigation projects open up more land for orchard plantings. Through the Far North, vast expanses of the crop are now being planted or recently established, offering a welcome boost to the region’s economy. But Whangarei couple Sue and Shane Culham have been well ahead of the recent arrivals, having grown avocados commercially since 2004.
Today their orchard is a slice of tropical paradise, giving them an enviable place to call home and to earn a living from a fruit that captures all that makes New Zealand produce in demand around the world – quality crops grown sustainably, in stunning locations.
The 17-hectare block just out of Whangarei at Glenbervie was a block of land Shane had long coveted when he lived nearby.
“Every day I went past, I used to wish I could own the place. Then the elderly lady who owned it passed away, she had no immediate family and when her nieces subdivided off 80 acres, I approached them to purchase the property. At the time I paid more than I should, it seemed a lot then but is certainly a lot less in today’s market.”
Both Shane and Sue felt the property was in something of a sweet spot. Comprising high quality volcanic soils with good contour and located at only 80m above sea level made it ideal orchard country, being only 5km from the coast as the crow flies, it promised lower frost risk than higher, more inland properties.
Sue moved in with Shane in 2000 and with them both being busy with their engineering company, they sold off 8ha to the neighbours, but still ran stock on the property.
“When the neighbour opted for avocados, we both decided this would be a great option rather than running stock,” says Sue.
“We originally put in 4ha of Hass for export but have also trialled Maluma variety which ripens earlier, which enabled us to get the fruit off earlier, around June-July for the domestic market. We also have the Reed Variety, another export variety. We were looking for an almost year-round supply and almost achieved that with these three varieties.”
But they could soon see the impact of the Far North plantings, with their earlier ripening crops affecting any advantage Sue and Shane may have had in the domestic market and have since grafted Hass onto the old Maluma rootstock.
“The cost to the industry to gear up for another variety for the export market is significant, and we could see this would be the best move.”
The couple have 300 trees they have grown themselves, something that is relatively rare in an industry where most orchardists source their stock from nurseries.
“A problem for the industry is phytophthora root rot, which means you have to use clonal trees on ground that has had avocados previously planted, but in virgin soil you can plant seedling rootstock, so we have been lucky to do that on extra land we had not yet planted.”
They also inject with phosphites, choosing to avoid spraying which the industry is moving to.
Despite Shane being busy with their engineering business Sue is hands on in the orchard, and pays close attention to tree husbandry and crop management on an almost daily basis.
“We work hard on pruning to keep the trees to an 8m x 8m footprint, and only about 4-5m high, which is relatively compact by avocado tree standards. That regular pruning encourages more new wood to grow from below, and keeps the trees’ cropping ability high,” says Sue.
In an industry averaging 10t a hectare, the couple achieved 29.9t a hectare last year, and over the past four years have averaged 20.5t a hectare. This year they expect to crop about that average again.
Irregular bearing has been an issue in the avocado industry, particularly further south through Bay of Plenty, but Sue maintains with good management and a careful eye on tree development it can be minimised.
“Irregular bearing can be a slippery slope too – if an orchardist has a poor year they will earn less, cut back on key items like fertiliser, maybe spray, and then you find your crop volumes overall start to slip every year.”
The couple have invested heavily in their own plant and equipment, providing much of the manpower and inputs alongside a staff member. Sue has drawn strongly on her years on systems in the engineering company to ensure they have some clear, practical policies in place around routine jobs including spray rotations, pruning and regular fertiliser applications.
“Having that ability to work on all aspects ourselves just gives us a lot more flexibility and timeliness around the orchard, and it does mean we can work to keep our overheads down if it is mainly us having to do the jobs,” she says.
After becoming enthusiastic about planting avos, Sue got herself back to the classroom, studying horticulture at RuralTec at Whangarei, achieving her Level 3 production management qualification.
“I found the business side of things was pretty much covered by my experience in the engineering business, and it was really about understanding the growing and management side of the plants better, knowing to question advice when it was given, and understand better why things were being done the way they were.”
It was this attention to detail and a holistic, environmentally sensitive approach to orcharding that helped the couple claim the first ever orchard award in the esteemed Ballance Farm Environment Awards in 2011 for the Northland region.
“We had been one of the first avocado orchards to start using the NZ GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) standards, we had always tried to be as sensitive as possible to the environment we are in,” says Sue.
NZ GAP provides assurance for the safe and sustainable production of fruit and vegetables in New Zealand, and today is now a required operating standard for all horticultural exporters. We have now upgraded to the Global GAP Standard.
“We really try to keep our spray use to a minimum, and only use soft sprays and oils where we can – we are conscious that our house is right in the midst of the orchard and we are not wanting to have any more chemicals used than anyone else,” says Sue.
The couple also have 20kW of solar power being installed alongside the 20kW they already have, helping power the orchard.
The property has pockets of council covenanted bush scattered throughout it, providing valuable corridors for native birds in the nearby Glenbervie forest. It is not unusual to have drunken Kereru dodging the windows and flitting overhead between avocados and natives – and fortunately not having a taste for their valuable crop.
The couple have had an on-going pest management programme for over a decade, with possums, rats, and feral cats all high on the hit list as they work to try and make it as welcoming as possible for the burgeoning native bird population.
Recently the tough market for New Zealand avocados in Australia has received some coverage in mainstream media, but Sue and Shane are overwhelmingly positive about broader market prospects for the crop, despite any setbacks this year may bring.
“The reality is that there simply are not enough avocados grown in the world to meet demand, and the greatest challenge the industry faces this year is not so much what is happening in Australia, but the fact shipping is so hard to secure for exporters.”
Australia, a traditional market for New Zealand avocados has undergone expansion of orchards similar to what has happened in Northland, with regions like southern Western Australia surging in crop volumes, and some good growing seasons in the eastern states offsetting some earlier tough drought years.
They, like all growers, have been advised that this year could prove a tough one, but it does at least come after last year’s rewarding top end payment of about $17.75 a tray average for their 121t crop, of which 73% was sold for the higher earning export value.
“The domestic market is always worth less, but we were really pleased with that payment in a Covid year, and that will help make this year easier to get through.”
They are also encouraged by the efforts to promote New Zealand avocados beyond Australia, with initiatives including India, and their fruit’s main market, south-east Asia. They export through Freshmax, having remained loyal to them from their early days, appreciating the personalised contact and knowing there is a buyer for their fruit before it has even been picked.
Between them, Shane and Sue have no plans for significant expansion or scaling up in their idyllic location, and with the impending sale of their engineering business, each is looking forward to more time either in the orchard or, Covid willing, travelling.
“We really appreciate living where we do, and as a crop avos have proven ideal, the global demand for them is high, and we have tried to work our orchard environment alongside the natural environment – it’s a great place to work, and to live,” says Sue.
Avo industry upbeat on future prospects
While the surplus of avocados in Australia has raised some concerns about this season’s payout to growers, longer term prospects for the industry remain positive, despite the inevitable disruptions Covid has also bought with it.
The industry surged over the $200 million mark in earnings for the 2020-21 season, including $167 million earnt in exports and $60 million to the domestic market.
NZ Avocado CEO Jen Scoular says the result was extraordinary given the level of disruption faced, particularly regarding lack of freight capacity and the inability to meet face to face with existing and prospective customers.
“It is a credit to the entire value chain to achieve this record result,” she says.
The 2020 season marked a record export volume and total crop volume, totalling 44,000 tonne or 5.1 million trays, exported to 11 export markets. This was an increase of 10% on the year before under trying export conditions.
Just over half New Zealand’s avocado production comes from the Bay of Plenty, and 40% out of Northland.
In recent years Northland has experienced significant growth in plantings as major water development schemes in the Far North open up the area’s fertile soils, enabling growers to capitalise on its sub-tropical climate so well suited to growing the fruit.
Certainty for more development was sealed in September when an application by Far North landowners to extract water from the region’s enormous Aupouri aquifer was granted.
The news was particularly well received by iwi in the region, long looking for more horticultural potential in the Far North to employ its high proportion of young people.
“Instantly we are talking about jobs and we’re talking about jobs that are meaningful and that are related to your own whenua,” says Te Runanga Nui o Te Aupouri CEO Mariameno Kapa-King.
Other water schemes include the Te Tai Tokerau water project that was fast tracked under the government’s Covid-19 Recovery plan.
It includes the construction of a 4 million cubic metre reservoir in the Far North, with the first 750,000 cubic metre reservoir near Kaikohe the first of four planned and now under construction.
Further south the Kaipara project under the same scheme promises to open up 4000ha of land specifically for horticultural development, with avocados a favoured crop.
The value from the project is set to deliver some significant gains to Northland, long deprived of development opportunities, with major horticultural investors now committing to infrastructure and nursery projects in anticipation of the scheme’s completion.
Developing more markets for avocados remains a priority for 2021, particularly given the impact of the surge in Australian supply which is predicted to continue over the coming five years. Australian production this season is anticipated to be up 50% on last year’s and will be double the 2020-21 production volume of 80,000t by 2026.
“Demand for avocados continues to increase in markets across Asia, the key challenge will be meeting export plans and delivering premium quality New Zealand avocados to these markets during a time of continued disruption to global freight and logistics” says Linda Flegg, NZ Avocado Growers Association Chair.
In 2023, New Zealand will be hosting the World Avocado Congress, a four yearly event aimed at showcasing avocados and an opportunity for New Zealand to promote the crop’s sustainable vibrant contribution to the New Zealand horticultural sector.