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Harry Roberts of Alexandra, New Zealand, is growing new varieties of apricots.

Harry Roberts of Alexandra, New Zealand, is growing new varieties of apricots.

Orchardists in the South Island of New Zealand are planting new varieties of apricots developed to give consumers a good eating experience and give growers a marketing advantage.

John McLaren, fruit breeder with the Nevis Fruit Company, Ltd., based near Cromwell in the Central Otago region, has developed apricot varieties that mature as late as mid-April in New Zealand when there are no others on the world market.

Nevis fruit varieties are released under a managed system, with Le Fresh, one of New Zealand’s leading exporters, as the exclusive marketer. Growers pay no tree royalties but do pay a production royalty. The fruit is marketed and produced internationally. Some varieties are being planted also in the United States, France, and Hungary.

Earnscy Weaver, of Le Fresh, said eating quality is a key characteristic of the Nevis varieties. "If we don’t have a good eating experience, we don’t get the second sale. If we haven’t got a good piece of fruit, there’s not going to be a future for us," he told members of the International Fruit Tree Association at their annual conference.

Growers tend to be nervous about managed varieties because they think they’re losing control, but the Nevis apricot varieties have been returning a N.Z.$1.50 to $2.00 per kilo additional margin to the grower, Weaver reported. "At the bottom end of this is the grower who has to make his money and the breeder who has to make money."

Harry Roberts of Earnscleugh is one of the New Zealand growers producing Nevis apricots. He got into the fruit business 40 years ago with two brothers, but is the only one still involved.

Twelve years ago, he bought about 80 acres of property that he described as a horrible, rabbit-infested hillside with "beautiful dirt."

"I saw a good future in it," he said, explaining how it took extreme measures to prepare the ground and rid it of rocks.

He transplanted trees from an existing orchard on flatter land. The trees thrived in their new location, which he says has a microclimate that is good for apricots.

"The country we had down on the flat was too cold, and they weren’t performing," Roberts said. "As soon as we shifted them up here, it’s a totally different story."

The temperature on the hill is between 1° and 3.5°C warmer than the flat land, which he said makes a huge difference in the spring in terms of frost potential.

He trains his trees to an open vase system and counts on yields of 20 tons per hectare (20 bins per acre).

Ideal place

Earnscleugh is located at 48°S, which Weaver said is an ideal place for growing apricots.

Roberts describes Genevieve (formerly Nevis 168) as a brilliant piece of fruit. He also grows Sundrop, Clutha Gold, and Vulcan apricots for export to the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia.

His Nevis apricots destined for Europe are shipped by sea as far as Los Angeles and then by air, a journey that takes about three weeks.

Roberts also produces cherries and plums. The late apricots stretch his harvest season out to five months. He hires some backpackers to pick the fruit but finds they don’t like to stay long—perhaps only a couple of weeks. He brings in foreign workers, from places such as the Czech Republic or the Solomon Islands, who stay for several months to earn money to send home.

New Zealand no longer produces canned apricots because of competition from Turkey. A few growers supply dried apricots for the top end of the market.