Why be organic?
Falling returns, declining mature markets where the organic category is well established and sought after, and a lack of understanding of the difference between organic and nonorganic in emerging Asian markets all mean tough times for organic kiwifruit growers. Or do they?
In a recent presentation to organic growers, Zespri representatives demonstrated that declining orchard gate returns per hectare (OGR/ha) for organic Hayward growers were not due to marketing issues but rather lay in declining yields. The tray price over the period 2005 to 2013 had varied from $5.34 to $6.38 with an average of $5.85, but yields had declined from a high of 6,947 trays per hectare (tr/ha) in the 2008/09 production year to 5,634 tr/ha in the 2011/12 year. Indeed in the high production year of 2008/09 the tray price was a low $5.67 but growers received an average OGR/ha of $39,403. In the 2011/12 year with yields at 5,634 tr/ha and a tray price of $6.18 growers consequently made only an average OGR/ha of $34,846. See table below.
whaT has led To The declining Yields foR oRganic kiwifRuiT gRoweRs?
Certainly the high production year of 2008/09 leading up to the payment year of 2009/10 had good winter chilling in the Bay of Plenty. But so did the following year, when production fell to 6,180 tr/ha. The early high chill in 2009 should have favoured high yield. The two production seasons 2010 to 2012 did follow on from lower winter chill years and possibly this contributed much to the lower production figures for these two seasons. See Chart 1. Early winter chill in 2012 was more extreme than in either of the previous two winters and may have assisted growers in lifting yield to 5,799 tr/ha; but in 2013 chill was on a par with 2010, which could indicate that organic growers will struggle to get a good crop over the coming season. See Tauranga Winter Chill Chart. Does a lack of rainfall account for the low production in the 2009/10 year? There was rain up until the end of January, though much of that fell as dribs and drabs with the biggest fall being 21mm on January 31. From February to the end of April there was little rain, and some earlier harvesting growers may
have got caught out with light fruit that had appeared to size showing up at the packhouse. Overall though, the fruit size increased from the previous year. Indeed over the period of our data, organic fruit set a record for its large size in the 2009/10 growing season. The very dry season to the middle of April 2013 did not alter the size profile from previous years, coming in at a 35.4 count average. See Tauranga Rainfall chart.
There was a substantial increase in organic hectares in the 2008/09 and 2009/10 seasons. If some of these new orchard hectares were new plantings of organic kiwifruit that may explain some of the loss of production, but usually orchards register as organic after a 3-year conversion period during which growers also get to grips with the challenges of the new growing regime. This seems less likely to be part of the cause of reduced yield affecting organic growers.
The decline in yield has also coincided with the discovery of Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae (Psa). There were at least ten organic orchards (or orchards in transition to being organic) in the immediate vicinity of the first quarantined orchards when Psa was announced as being present in New Zealand.
Organic growers may have discontinued practises such as trunk girdling with the discovery of Psa to reduce the risk of infection. Knowing that they have a reduced toolbox to protect their vines chemically, risk reduction through mechanical means will have been high in the minds of organic growers. Organic Hayward growers however were not just using trunk girdling to raise dry matter and fruit weight but to increase return bloom to set a larger crop the following year. With the loss of this technique yields are likely to have reduced for those growers who used trunk girdle prior to the discovery of Psa. Conventional Hayward growers were also using trunk girdling and some have discontinued this technique in the face of the Psa risk, but application of bud break enhancers such as HiCane means that they place less reliance on girdling as a yield lifter.
Organic growers also used spring cane tipping to increase early budburst and consequently yield. The sap flow that results from spring tipping, in a period of the year with frequent spring showers, increases Psa risk and so makes this practice much less likely to be used by organic growers in Psa positive areas.
There are several factors that may have impacted individual organic growers’ yields in recent years. Without knowing why organic growers have suffered such declines in yield it is hard to advise what they should do. The climate factors are beyond growers’ control, and caution around the use of tools such as trunk girdling and tipping at bud burst since the arrival of Psa has made it harder for organic growers to lift yields back to pre-Psa levels.
So to return to the original question of why would you be an organic kiwifruit grower? Are green organic kiwifruit growers
a) a bunch of greenie hippies with no concern for the bottom
line; or b) a bunch of over-achievers who think conventional growing
is for pussies?
The green organic kiwifruit growers I know are neither, but do often have a strong commitment to environmental values and are very high achieving people who certainly want to make a buck. Despite the challenges, the changeable climate and Psa, there is still a buck to be made growing organic kiwifruit.