Nashi numbers low but quality world-class
While in general most of our A-grade produce in New Zealand is exported, the best of one fruit crop is sold to Kiwi customers, with only a fraction of each harvest heading overseas.
Known as ‘the fruit you drink’, Asian pears, or nashi, remain largely under the radar. Many people know little about how to handle and store these crisp, juicy and sweet fruit.
First grown in New Zealand 35 years ago, in its heyday, the nashi industry had 460 growers. That number is now only 22.
Back in the early 1980s, nashis were going to be the next big thing and for a number of years the industry enjoyed healthy returns from exporting to the United States. That was until the global financial crisis of 2008.
One self-taught nashi pear grower, Warren Sexton, has been described as this country’s best producer of the fruit. His Ohaupo orchard is just outside Hamilton city. Waikato remains the main nashi growing area with five orchards, and other growers are located in Tauranga, Gisborne, Otaki and Nelson.
The fruit is available from late January until June and has a shelf life of about three weeks.
Some nashi pears are a rich gold colour, while others are mottled green or yellow. They are low in acid and are a particularly suitable fruit for babies and the elderly. Nashi are best stored and eaten straight from the fridge. If left in the fruit bowl, they dehydrate because of the high water content.
Warren, now a seasoned veteran, definitely sees himself as a pioneer, and continues his everlasting quest for better quality and innovative practices.
His parents were dairy farmers who, in 1953, bought a fruit shop in Raglan. Warren wanted to work on the land but couldn’t afford to buy land, so he trained as a builder and started his own business.
In 1982 he purchased a dairy run-off surrounded by hawthorn hedges and completely cleaned everything off.
“I bought it off my uncle and he didn’t sell it to me cheap. The land round here is reasonably expensive. It’s Horotiu loam, an elite soil.
“Everything that’s here, every tree, every piece of trellis – has been done by us. A lot of cost has gone in. Having a hand in your pocket to fund something else is everlasting,” he laughs dryly.
A walk around the place and anyone can see that Warren’s a man who likes to do things right.
Quality has always been a driving force even when he was in building. His company had contracts for high-end homes, but in 1987 the sharemarket crashed and his clients couldn’t pay for their projects.
“I gave the building away and started to develop the orchard,” he recalls.
Warren carefully researched all the options when deciding what to plant.
“I looked at persimmons and kiwifruit, but this property suited nashi better than any other. We’re too frost prone here for kiwifruit, and we don’t have the water to irrigate. Our nashi survive without too much water,” he says.
In the 1990s Warren was this country’s biggest exporting grower, and today his family orchard remains one of the largest nashi operations.
Most fruit went to the United States, however, nine years ago exports stopped abruptly.
“Just prior to the economy falling over in 2008, we were finding that Chile, a big grower of the fruit, was sending a lot of cheaper nashi to the States. Our marketing window was getting squeezed.
“Because of the crash, the exchange rate went haywire. We couldn’t get a return for the fruit, so we had to find new markets within New Zealand.
“We were trying to get $3 to $4 more per tray than Chilean growers. I think there are still opportunities into Asia, but some of the rules have changed dramatically.”
When the industry was young there were more than 400 growers, but most have been whittled away because they found it too hard, he explains.
The nashi growers group is now amalgamating with Pipfruit NZ. Nashi orchard owners are mostly in their 60s, he says, and it will be interesting to see what the future holds.
His son Glenn and daughter Leanne have active roles on the orchard, which is now in a family trust. The operation includes coolstores and a packhouse, along with other lease blocks.
“I’ll never sell,” he says defiantly.
The operation comprises 8.5ha with more than 6,300 trees. The main variety grown is Hosui, along with Kosui, and a Korean pear named Dan Bai. Warren says Dan Bai pears are more like an apple, with more solid fruit than most nashi. On his orchard he says, Hosui are the prettiest, Kosui are the juiciest, and Dan Bai are the firmest.
Warren feels the domestic market is reasonable and fairly steady.
“Last year we had a huge crop and we struggled to sell it all. This year we have a lighter crop so we’ll probably sell it all and do just as well.”
Only a fraction of the crop is seafreighted to resorts in the South Pacific.Warren would like to find an exporter interested in handling small lots.
One of the most exciting development for Warren is that his fruit are now confirmed to have no detectable residues at harvest.
It’s almost impossible for any non-organically grown fruit to achieve a residue free certification, but Warren’s figured it out.
“We do four sprays a year for insects, mainly for coddling moth, leaf roller, mealy bug and bronze beetle earlier in the season. We very seldom find a problem in the shed. Unlike apples and pears, nashis don’t suffer from black spot,” he says.
“We monitor, and then spray with soft chemicals. Samples are selected from four different orchards one week before picking.
We haven’t got the results back yet but we’re confident there will be nil detectable residues.
“Not many crops are easy to get a non-detectable residue certification. Feijoas can because they don’t need spraying.”
AsureQuality tests for hundreds of chemicals, and the Sextons’ fruit comes up clean every time.
The family is proud of this achievement. The Sextons are trying to be as organic as possible without being certified organic because it’s simply not practical for their operation.
For example, one grower they pack for once applied a chemical that organic growers can supposedly use, but that crop ended up showing a residue.
“We haven’t used a copper spray on our nashi for more than 20 years because it hangs around in the wires, branches, drips and stains the fruit. We’ve had to try other ways.”
Mother Nature, Leanne says, is the biggest challenge. Right from bud set, fruit set, she’s the biggest challenge and there’s not much you can do about her, they both laugh in agreement.
One of the main disadvantages of nashi is not being able to match the huge tonnages of other crops, for example, compared to new apple varieties which enjoy yields of 100 tonnes per hectare. Pears achieve about 60 tonnes per hectare, with nashi around 35 tonnes per hectare.
Currently this season’s best price for nashi is $3, with smaller sized fruit achieving $2.20.At retail, they are usually priced around $4.69 on average.
Waikato growers also make 100% pure nashi juice which is sold at local farmers’ markets.
So why does the Sexton family stay with nashis?
“We enjoy growing them, and we fairly well understand them now,” says Warren with a smile.
“We’ve started to branch out away from nashi, and planted some apples in the last five years. We’ll shrink the nashi crop down but never go totally out of it.”
As Leanne says, it’s a tough life being a nashi and they are easily bruised and marked.
They’re a particularly delicate fruit. Growing a nice nashi crop means keeping birds off. Blocks are netted but it’s still struggle to keep them entirely bird free.
Leanne is clearly frustrated when she recounts how birds put just one peck in a fruit and move onto the next.
“They tap-dance on top and their claws scratch fruit to bits. Wasps love them too. Birds make the hole, and then the wasps take over.”
There was a time when each fruit was individually bagged on the tree for bird protection.
“That was just hell, it really was,” groans Leanne.
“Birds are so smart – they would eat through the bags and then you’d get spiders – it was extremely labour intensive.”
Those days of bagging fruit are in the past, but a smart new trick has been employed to outwit birds which targets their sense of smell.
Every week for a month an uncovered block is sprayed with a homoeopathic liquid made from stinging nettles by BdMax organics based in Hastings. This works well because birds don’t like the smell, and Warren doesn’t notice any particular odour.
Getting good cross-pollination has been a challenge. Bees don’t seem to be naturally attracted to nashi flowers, and beehives are used. Sunny days are needed for pollen to flow.
At harvest, each nashi is hand-picked by being carefully cut from a branch – not pulled or twisted off. Then each stalk has to be trimmed below the top with special scissors so they don’t stick out and damage others in the bin.
After harvest, the pruning regime is ruthless and time consuming, with trimming taken down to the frame.
RED RIBBON QUALITY “We’re uppermost,to Red grow Ribbon prettygood and is the fruit, pedantic outweighsSextonthat’s abouta family quantity.whole quality brand.new Anyoneto Formerly challenge,”be can honest. growthe says brand Qualityfruit, Warren.wasbut is owned2008 afterby 13 the Waikatocrash, Warren growers took for overthe the export rights. market, but in The line’ walk. quality journey is a slow and patient ‘straight down the Being doing curious,things and learning setting from standardstheir mistakes,that are trying non-negotiablenew ways areof key Sexton philosophies. ‘It’s taken time,” says Leanne. “I’m the quality person in the shed, which leads to interesting conversations because I’m pedantic about quality. You set your standards, and that’s it. When our packers come into the shed, I show them ‘this is what we want to achieve, this is okay, this isn’t okay’ while working with and alongside them. If ever I pull fruit out I explain why, because our reputation is on the line.” Warren’s philosophy is stunningly simple – create fruit that people want to buy. The answer Sextonis no, questionthen why is would always, they ‘would expectI buy anyonethat myself?’else to buyIf the it. GROWING UPRIGHT Warrenwho orchard.One hasof those is always steadfastly improvementshad the his courageown man.has to alreadyHe’stry innovationsa trailblazingborne fruit on individualhis – so ownto speak perfecting– and the otherart of fruitgrowersTatura trellis may training. benefit from his years of At the start, the young saplings were trained on the Ruakura Y frame. “We used to grow trees up and fan everything out, but you couldn’t replace the branches. Once they got to eight years old, production was going backwards. “It was a matter of trying to tuck in more branches to get fruit on. We ended up with shading and lots of other problems.”
A nashi(andago wrong.“After monumentalthe now growerhe Americanhas went,in 2,428ha)the changewe told Unitedgot Warrenof camein nashi States,a chainsaw,afterin that who California.a his visit whackedat growingthat from Nearlytime downthe systemhad 25 biggestall 809hayears wasthe trees, of-factly. and started growing again on Tatura,” he admits matterWarrentrees properlyand Glennon this feel upright confident system. they’ve learned to grow “All the Waikato growers do it now because we worked as a group.Years ago there wasn’t any scientist or wizard to tell us, we just had to learn ourselves. Conventional upright systems have one row at every two metres. Warren’s orchard has rows placed at every 4.5m. He
says no specialised machinery is required to get down rows
to spray, pick and prune. The system is easy to work, he says. “Earlier on, I found it difficult to tell a person how to prune because the style of pruning was just too complicated, but now it’s simple. “If branches are getting too big, they’re marked for the pruner to either leave a gap or put in a replacement.”
EXPANSION PLANS Nashi mulchedbut the crops fruit. into don’tA the sprinklingneed ground, muchof so calcium fertiliser,nothing ammonium however,is taken nitrateoff pruningsthe every farm are couple of years seems to be enough and you don’t have to feed them, he says. Warren and his family love what they do. “As long as I’m capable and able to get around, I’ll be here. There are always plans to expand. I’d love to build another coolstore and packing shed, plant some more trials, such as Piqa Boo.” Warren is quietly proud of what he’s achieved but says there’s always more to be done, more to learn and more to enjoy in his orchard operation. Nashi pears may be flying under the radar for now, but for those of us who love top-quality fruit, these hardy growers who are still left in the industry are doing this country proud.
“Warren’s philosophy is stunningly simple – create fruit that people want to buy.”
From left: A bin full of mouth-watering beauties. (Inset) Beautiful golden-skinned nashis – ready for the picking. Warren Sexton with a trial crop, the exciting red skinned Piqa Boo. Ready for the market. Warren and Leanne proudly show the Red Ribbon bran
Warren Sexton and daughter Leanne gather in the fruits of harvest.