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.
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.’’
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.