The number of orchardists in New Zealand’s Nelson region has been dropping, as corporate growers take over family farms.

Steve Moriarty, general manager for Inglis Horticulture, said his company has been expanding by buying land from other growers who have decided to leave the fruit industry. Although the number of growers is shrinking, production has been fairly steady.

A year ago, Inglis formed a joint venture with ENZA, which is part of Turners and Growers, one of New Zealand’s major produce distributors and marketers.

"It’s getting too hard for the small family farmer," Moriarty explained. "The average family farm is 40 to 50 acres. Those people are opting out, and we’re buying their land. Other companies are doing the same thing."

The Inglis family has been farming for three generations, originally growing tobacco. The second generation moved into hops, and it became the largest hop-producing farm in New Zealand. The third generation moved into apples. Inglis has 150 hectares (370 acres) of orchard and will more than double that within the next two years. The New Zealand variety Jazz accounts for more than 65 percent of its plantings.

Jazz

"Jazz is a fantastic eating experience," commented Craig Hornblow, one of two consultants who work with Inglis. "It will change the world. This apple, if we market it right, could change consumption. It starts out at 10 kilos [22 pounds pressure] at harvest, stores well, and holds pressure in ambient temperatures. It will sit in your fruit bowl for six to eight weeks and it will still taste good."

A disadvantage, however, is small fruit. The apples average 118 count, compared with 102 count for Gala.

The orchard also produces Gala, Fuji, Pink Lady, and Granny Smith. New varieties, including ENZA’s T.22, will be planted in the next 18 months. The long-term goal is to pack a million cartons of apples that will be harvested over an extended period.

The land has been in production for almost 100 years, so the effects of replant disease are severe. Hornblow said that tree growth can be suppressed by as much as 70 percent in old land. In addition to fumigating with chloropicrin, he recommends adding compost to the soil and planting the trees on ridges. Although the soil has good water-holding capacity, it does not retain nutrients, so fertigation is used.

During an International Fruit Tree Association tour, Moriarty showed members a block of Jazz planted in 2004, before the family went into partnership with Turners and Growers. The trees are on M.9 rootstocks and are spaced 1.1 by 3.2 meters (3.5 by 10.5 feet) apart.

Moriarty aims to harvest 20 apples per tree in the second leaf, and 60 to 80 apples per tree the following year. At maturity, they should yield 72 tons per hectare.

He had been hoping to harvest 70 to 85 apples per tree from the block this season, but lost some fruit to hail, despite the fact that the block was protected by hail netting. Some hail can still come through a 16-millimeter mesh, so future nets will have a 12-millimeter mesh.

A hail netting costs N.Z.$25,000 to $30,000 per acre (U.S.$17,000 to $21,000). Inglis is experimenting with red netting, which is said to promote fruit color, and evaluating the quality of the fruit to find out if that’s true. However, research in Spain shows that a light color is better, and that would appease local residents who consider the red nets a blot on the landscape, he said.

An advantage of the netting is that it creates a less windy environment for spraying, which is important since the area’s growers may spray fungicides up to 20 times a season to control powdery mildew and black spot (scab).

Tree training

The trees are supported by a five-wire trellis and are trained to what Moriarty calls a South Tyrolean system. He aims for consistent tree growth so that all the branches are the same and can produce 15 apples each. Strong branches are removed and upright branches are tied down.

Moriarty said people think of dwarfing systems being hedges, but they still need good light penetration. "You have to have windows in the trees and windows in between the trees," he said.

Hornblow said training is done as needed at various times of year, rather than all at one time. The cost of training is about $1 per tree in the year after planting and another $1 in the second year.

"It doesn’t have to be difficult," he said. "If you try to make it too difficult, with the amount of people we employ, it’s not doable. We have to have a philosophy to try to make it as easy as we can."

The company has more than 70 staff and hires 350 to 400 people at the peak of the season. It hires backpackers and has been working with Immigration New Zealand to bring in workers from overseas.

"We use a lot of Czechs," Moriarty said. "We entice them to come back the following season and bring new people with them. We can afford to pay the more experienced people a little more money."