North & South - - Columns - Vir­ginia Lar­son

Bear­ing fruit.

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. +

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