Cham­pagne ap­ple with a diva at­ti­tude

The Orchardist - - Contents - By Heather Chalmers

The most sought-after ap­ple in the United States, con­sumers are pre­pared to pay two to three times the prices of other va­ri­eties for Hon­ey­crisp's well bal­anced sweet-tart taste and ex­plo­sively crisp, juicy tex­ture.

Just one of Hon­ey­crisp's diva de­mands is its grow­ing lo­ca­tion, fur­ther south than New Zealand's tra­di­tional pipfruit grow­ing ar­eas. Bred by the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, Hon­ey­crisp is a gen­uine cool cli­mate va­ri­ety, grown around the 45th par­al­lel. In New Zealand, its ideal lo­ca­tion is just north of Ti­maru, close to the coast, where Hon­ey­crisp plant­ings are ex­pected to to­tal almost 300 hectares in the next four to five years.

The South Can­ter­bury de­vel­op­ment is be­ing driven by US in­vestors, who have bought land to plant Hon­ey­crisp or­chards, as well as some lo­cal grow­ers, no­tably Hon­ey­crisp pi­o­neers, brothers Danny and Peter Ben­nett of Waipopo Or­chards and Paul Geaney and fam­ily.

Hon­ey­crisp pro­duc­tion is aimed squarely at ex­port to the US and the top-end re­tail mar­ket, so high­est qual­ity is al­limpor­tant. Tight con­trol over qual­ity and the mar­ket­ing chain are held by Hon­ey­crisp NZ Ltd, which owns the li­cens­ing rights to the va­ri­ety in this coun­try and con­trolled its ex­port un­der the regis­tered trade­mark “Hon­ey­crunch”. Direc­tors of Hon­ey­crisp NZ Ltd are Cam­bridge nurs­ery­man Andy McGrath, South Can­ter­bury or­chardists Danny and Peter Ben­nett and Mur­ray Lin­nell of fruit mar­keter Fruit 2U in Hast­ings. Hon­ey­crisp out-earns any other ex­port ap­ple grown in New Zealand. In the US it sells for about US$80 a car­ton, com­pared with other va­ri­eties which are about US$30 a car­ton.

About 130ha in South Can­ter­bury is planted in Hon­ey­crisp to date, an area ex­pected to ex­pand to 280ha by 2018-19, said Andy McGrath.

“It's vir­tu­ally all new or­chard area, so it's the only ex­pan­sion in the pipfruit in­dus­try that I'm aware of. In essence, we are cre­at­ing a small, but sig­nif­i­cant new grow­ing area.” This would also gen­er­ate the need for pack­ing fa­cil­i­ties, cool stor­age and other ser­vice providers.

In ad­di­tion to the 130ha al­ready planted, another 50ha to 80ha was well through the plan­ning process. “So we are about two-thirds of the way through pro­jected plant­ings.

“It is a planned ex­pan­sion. When we fin­ish plant­ing what we want, we will stop. Part of get­ting a su­per pre­mium price is to have one case of ap­ples too few, rather than one case too many.

“All th­ese con­trolled pro­duc­tion sys­tems are com­plex, but highly or­gan­ised.

“To get the best out of the va­ri­ety, it needs to grow in a very nar­row ge­o­graphic area. We are now se­lect­ing and plant­ing in a planned man­ner to pro­duce in that area only.”

A weak tree, it needs a good struc­ture. Plant­ing rates are 1700 trees/ha, with trees trained on wires to 3.6m.

Some suc­cess­ful plant­ings had also been car­ried out in Cen­tral Otago, but tri­als are be­ing discontinued in Nel­son as fruit qual­ity there was not re­li­ably meet­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

Hon­ey­crisp may be a mar­ket favourite and the cham­pagne of ap­ples, but it comes with a diva tem­per­a­ment.

A 100ha block be­ing planted in four stages in­volves a USNZ in­vestor split, with US in­vestors hav­ing the majority share. Th­ese or­chards, in­clud­ing MA Or­chards, will be op­er­ated by Ti­maru Or­chards, a part­ner­ship which in­cludes Amer­i­can in­vestors and Andy McGrath. “US in­vestors are buy­ing land and plant­ing it. The prin­ci­pals are fruit grow­ers in the US and ver­ti­cally in­te­grated.

“So we are be­com­ing the south­ern hemi­sphere leg of their business.”

Counter-sea­son de­mand from Amer­i­can buy­ers could ex­ceed 1m car­tons, and while New Zealand may not sup­ply all of this, lo­cal ex­port vol­umes are ex­pected to climb steadily to 1m car­tons over the next few years. This year, 1100 tonnes of Hon­ey­crisp was ex­ported to the US, dou­ble the pre­vi­ous year. Ex­pected vol­umes this com­ing sea­son are 2600 tonnes “if we es­cape the hail”.

While cooler cli­mates tend to grow smaller fruit, Hon­ey­crisp is a big-sized ap­ple. “It is a dif­fi­cult ap­ple to grow and pro­duce well and get to the mar­ket in good or­der at very high qual­ity. But if you do it the re­wards are very high. It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say dou­ble the re­turns of any other ap­ple.” This was with the ex­cep­tion of Koru, another Andy McGrath-li­censed va­ri­ety.

“We got up to $125 a car­ton this year, but we had a lot of is­sues, with sig­nif­i­cant repack­ing in the mar­ket­place.”

“You name a de­fect, it has it – bit­ter pit, soft scald and senes­cent break­downs. It is not an easy piece of fruit to han­dle posthar­vest.” Hon­ey­crisp was con­sid­ered a vul­ner­a­ble va­ri­ety that re­quires a strict cool chain regime from pick­ing to stor­ing at the or­chard through to the fi­nal dis­tri­bu­tion on su­per­mar­ket shelves.

“Hon­ey­crisp doesn't store well, so we can come into the US off-sea­son mar­ket with very high qual­ity prod­uct and a very high qual­ity price.”

A large amount of sci­en­tific har­vest, post-har­vest and shipping trial work has been done here and over­seas.

“Hon­ey­crisp has a num­ber of prob­lems that can ap­pear from time to time and be­cause they are not con­sis­tently there noone has been able to get their head around it. It's not a Gala or Brae­burn. It is a dif­fi­cult ap­ple to man­age.

“I think we are close to work­ing out what we are do­ing right and wrong and don't ex­pect to have a re­cur­rence of last sea­son's prob­lems.

“Even with th­ese prob­lems it still re­turns more than any other ap­ple. Once we graded the prob­lems out we got very good re­turns. So the fu­ture is par­tic­u­larly bright,” said Andy.

Tested in New Zealand since the late 1990s, the old­est com­mer­cial Hon­ey­crisp trees are around seven years old. South Can­ter­bury pro­duc­tion was higher than in the US. One of its faults, bi­en­nial pro­duc­tion, had not been ob­served in New Zealand.

Chris Clark, Andy McGrath and Bruce Allen are three of the four in­vestors in MA Or­chards, Ti­maru.

Hon­ey­crisp en­joys a cooler cli­mate.

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