I was going to write about water. But there’s just too much of it about at the moment. Our house sprang a leak in the last deluge, but it’s a nuisance-sized leak and easily fixed. We’ve not had to tear out carpets or wade about in our Red Bands like many of those in the floodplains of Canterbury and Otago.
Driving home on another wet and wintry night, thinking about water issues, I stopped for groceries and found – hallelujah! – Central Otago dried apricots back in New World’s bulk bins. I’m easily entertained by small pleasures, fruit being no exception.
I texted my sister from the freeflow aisle. She makes the family Christmas cake and scoured food markets last December in search of Central’s distinctively tangy dried apricots. There were none to be found. I also bought a kilo to post to my nephew in Sweden. He’s mad about our dried apricots and was not entirely convinced by my “out of stock” explanation when none arrived for his birthday in March.
If you think we’re weird, New World knows better. The Central Otago dried apricots bin had a bright green sticker on the lid with the message, “How did we survive without them?”
Well, of course we survived. We bought dried nectarines. But I figured there must be a story behind the AWOL apricots, so I phoned Kevin Jackson at Jackson Orchards, just outside Cromwell.
Kevin took time out from winter pruning to give me the low- down. It turns out there’s only one apricotdrying plant left in Central and the couple who ran the Earnscleugh business reached retirement age a couple of years ago, with no interested buyer or family successor. “There used to be a bunch of fruitdrying plants in Central, but most struggled,” Kevin says. “It takes 7kg of fresh fruit to make 1kg of dried, and you don’t send second-grade fruit to the dryer. Growers get better returns selling their fresh fruit to market.”
Actually, cherries are now the prime crop for stonefruit growers, who exported $68 million worth of them last year. Wine may be the glamour horticultural export, but it was overtaken by kiwifruit for the first time last year – $1.7 billion to wine’s $1.6 billion. Apples came third. Followed by good old larder staples: onions, peas and potatoes – all bigger than cherries in the export stakes, but not as pretty. Apricot exports were a lowly $6.5 million in comparison.
The Earnscleugh drying plant has new owners, thank goodness, which has put dried apricots back in the supermarkets and in Kevin’s store, alongside his fresh produce. And the Jacksons are doing well in the orcharding business, despite Kevin’s father warning him against it many years ago (too much hard work and fickle rewards). They export 50 per cent of their fresh fruit and supply the two local supermarket chains; their shop hums along year-round and they run orchard tours. “There’s not much to see now, but we still have tourists who want to trundle around the orchard in their gloves and balaclavas.”
The Jacksons’ location close to Cromwell means they don’t have a problem getting seasonal workers: “We don’t need to tap into the Vanuatu [seasonal worker] programme,” says Kevin. “We get a lot of locals – teachers, students, backpackers – also retired folk from the North Island who park themselves here in our campground over summer. It’s healthy exercise – we have super-light ladders – and we’re 40 minutes from Queenstown.” (I start a dream-retirement job list.)
I ask Kevin who he’s going to vote for this election. He’s not silly enough to broadcast this to the editor of a national magazine, but says he’s happy enough with Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean. “National sends me a membership card every year, although I’ve never joined the party. I contribute to all the major parties.”
The conversation circles round to water, fittingly. Stonefruit thrives in Central’s cold winters and hot, dry summers, but Kevin says they have good water supply, with rights to draw from a race off the Pisa Range. He lost his first orchard to a flood of sorts, however; he was forced out of the Cromwell Gorge in 1989 before the controversial Clyde Dam project put his “perfect growing land” under water. “The gorge was reliably frostfree in spring – we never had frost damage there,” he says, wistfully.
But Kevin sounds like one of life’s positive thinkers. He declares his 30ha block – his corner of Central – the “best place in the world”. His son and daughter must agree, as they’ve joined him in the family business. My apricot supply looks safe. Now to figure out how to combat the guava moth that’s attacking feijoas in Auckland and further north. Suggestions from fellow fruit lovers welcome. +