The ki­wifruit strain

Ki­wifruit grow­ers are about to take on the Gov­ern­ment in court over the dis­as­trous PSA dis­ease, in a case that could have huge ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the pri­mary sec­tor. Tony Wall re­ports.

Sunday Star-Times - - FOCUS -

Psa cost Craig Jef­fries his or­chard, and it al­most cost him his home. Six years af­ter the dis­ease was dis­cov­ered on the or­chard he’d proudly bought from his fa­ther, Jef­fries still gets emo­tional talk­ing about it.

The 16ha or­chard near Te Puke used to pro­duce 209,000 trays a year of the green, Hay­ward va­ri­ety of ki­wifruit.

Jef­fries also had a trial block of new va­ri­eties he was grow­ing for Ze­spri, and it was in that block that he first dis­cov­ered the symp­toms of PSA in early 2011.

‘‘One morn­ing I went up there and the trial va­ri­ety had tipped over com­pletely.’’

Grow­ers had been led to be­lieve that Hay­ward ki­wifruit was more re­silient to Psa, but the dis­ease got into his green fruit as well.

Sud­denly his out­put was down to 40,000 trays and he was un­able to sus­tain his debt.

Jef­fries was faced with a stark choice: bor­row more and put his home at risk, or cut his losses and sell.

He took what felt like the less risky op­tion and sold up – get­ting just over $2m for an or­chard that had been val­ued at $4.5m be­fore he dis­cov­ered the dis­ease.

‘‘My fa­ther passed away the year Psa hit – his legacy to me was that or­chard and I’d lost it.

‘‘The dam­age that did to me – we talk about th­ese dark holes peo­ple get into, farm­ers, rugby play­ers. There was no sup­port around.’’

Now, Jef­fries is one of over 200 grow­ers who have joined the Ki­wifruit Claim, a class ac­tion su­ing the Gov­ern­ment for neg­li­gence over the Psa in­cur­sion.

The class ac­tion is be­ing run by lit­i­ga­tion fun­der, the LPF Group, and the trial will be­gin in the High Court at Welling­ton on Au­gust 7.

The grow­ers claim the Min­istry for Pri­mary In­dus­tries (MPI) had a duty of care to pro­tect them at the border and breached that duty.

The claimants be­lieve their ‘‘smok­ing gun" was a ship­ment of an­thers, the pollen-bear­ing part of a flower’s sta­men, that was al­lowed in with­out any re­stric­tions or quar­an­tine re­quire­ments in the mis­taken be­lief that Psa couldn’t be trans­mit­ted by pollen.

It was brought in by Te Puke com­pany Kiwi Pollen in 2009 from the Shaanxi prov­ince in China.

They be­lieve the ev­i­dence is over­whelm­ing that Psa came in on that ship­ment – the first symp­toms were found on an or­chard across the road from Kiwi Pollen and DNA test­ing has sub­se­quently con­firmed New Zealand’s strain of the dis­ease is iden­ti­cal to the Shaanxi one.

Ev­i­dence will be called that biose­cu­rity failed badly, with no for­mal process for as­sess­ing the risk of pests com­ing into the coun­try with pollen.

MPI de­clined to com­ment, but on its web­site says it acted ap­pro­pri­ately against the biose­cu­rity threat, in ac­cor­dance with its in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tions and with sci­en­tific knowl­edge avail­able at the time.

It says stud­ies are in­con­clu­sive as to ex­actly how Psa en­tered New Zealand.

MPI is also ex­pected to ar­gue any li­a­bil­ity on the Crown for losses is cov­ered by the $25m com­pen­sa­tion scheme made avail­able to grow­ers.

The stakes couldn’t be higher – the grow­ers are claim­ing losses of $376m and suc­cess could ex­pose the Gov­ern­ment to claims by other sec­tors af­fected by dis­ease and pests.

The claim has split the in­dus­try. Many of the coun­try’s 2500 grow­ers do not want to rock the boat by tak­ing on the Gov­ern­ment in court.

Former New Zealand Ki­wifruit Grow­ers pres­i­dent Neil Tre­bilco warns the case could drag on for years and cost mil­lions. He says the in­dus­try de­pends on the Gov­ern­ment, so it’s not in their in­ter­ests to have an an­tag­o­nis­tic re­la­tion­ship.

My life path was changed ir­re­versibly be­cause Psa was let into the coun­try and no­body’s been held ac­count­able. Grower Michael Mont­gomery

There was a ‘‘sil­ver lin­ing’’ from the in­cur­sion, says Tre­bilco, with the de­vel­op­ment of the more Psare­sis­tant G3, or SunGold, va­ri­ety lead­ing to record or­chard prices and fruit sales. A spokes­woman for Ze­spri, which mar­kets New Zealand­grown ki­wifruit around the world, says the claim is spu­ri­ous. Rachel Lynch says the claim lacks trans­parency, doesn’t prop­erly com­mu­ni­cate on­go­ing un­cer­tain­ties to grow­ers and was an­nounced with­out con­sul­ta­tion. ‘‘We firmly be­lieve the way for­ward for our in­dus­try is in work­ing with the Gov­ern­ment, not against it.’’ Lynch also points out that the in­dus­try has re­cov­ered, with record vol­umes and grower re­turns. Michael Franks doesn’t buy that ar­gu­ment. Chief ex­ec­u­tive of Seeka, the coun­try’s largest pro­ducer of ki­wifruit, Franks says the ar­gu­ment that the in­dus­try some­how pros­pered be­cause of Psa is il­log­i­cal.

‘‘If the in­dus­try is in a pos­i­tive place now, then that’s good, but those grow­ers still suf­fered loss. The fact is Psa is still here, along with its costs.’’

He says Seeka joined the claim be­cause some­one needs to be held ac­count­able for the lack of se­cu­rity at the border.

‘‘Peo­ple suf­fered not just fi­nan­cial loss but also emo­tional stress and harm and it’s right that the cause of the loss is tested through the ju­di­cial sys­tem. All pri­mary pro­duc­ers will ben­e­fit as a re­sult of this ac­tion.’’

Bob Burt, an or­chard management con­trac­tor and share­holder in the large grow­ing com­pany Strath­boss, which has also joined the claim, says there has to be ac­count­abil­ity for the way the Gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try han­dled the in­cur­sion.

His firm has re­cov­ered well, but at the time Psa was dev­as­tat­ing, he says. Gold pro­duc­tion went from 145,000 trays to zero and peo­ple had to be laid off.

‘‘We were at the mercy of the banks, it was pretty har­row­ing times. It was al­most like Aids – or­chards were get­ting hit and you were al­ways hop­ing you wouldn’t be af­fected.’’

Burt says the com­pany had a debt struc­ture in place that al­lowed it to sur­vive.

Psa is still present in his or­chards. ‘‘You can never say we’re out of the woods.’’

Te Puke grower Michael Mont­gomery was one of about 40 grow­ers who il­le­gally in­jected his vines with an­tibi­otics in an ef­fort to save them from PSA.

He re­grets it, but says he was des­per­ate – he’d gone from hav­ing $23m worth of as­sets and $8m of debt to around $4m of as­sets and the same debt.

‘‘You started to make plans for what life might look like. The banks were very un­in­ter­ested in sup­port­ing you – my bank said ‘if you can work out how to pay your in­ter­est and your bills, we’ll leave you alone, but don’t ask for any more money be­cause the an­swer is no’.’’

He was able to get through the cri­sis be­cause an or­chard in Gis­borne that hadn’t yet been hit by Psa con­tin­ued to pro­duce.

Mont­gomery says Gov­ern­ment and the in­dus­try should have done more to pre­pare for the Psa threat.

‘‘We ab­di­cate parts of our busi­nesses to the Gov­ern­ment, and in this case I feel we were let down.’’

Af­ter he lost his or­chard, Jef­fries got by work­ing as a rugby coach and an or­chard man­ager.

With the help of Seeka, he’s been able to con­vert a small block to SunGold, but he ac­cepts he’ll never get back to where he was.

‘‘My life path was changed ir­re­versibly be­cause Psa was let into the coun­try and no­body’s been held ac­count­able.

‘‘That’s what mo­ti­vates me – hold­ing them ac­count­able and mak­ing sure this doesn’t hap­pen in the fu­ture.’’

PHOTOS: TOM LEE/FAIR­FAX NZ

Craig Jef­fries, who sold the Te Puke or­chard he in­her­ited for less than half what it was worth be­fore PSA hit, is among 200 grow­ers lodg­ing the Ki­wifruit Claim.

The Gov­ern­ment re­jects the grow­ers’ claims, say­ing the in­dus­try has re­cov­ered..

Con­trac­tor Bob Burt says the fi­nan­cial un­cer­tainty made for har­row­ing times.

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