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.

The Orchardist - - Profile - By Denise Landow

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.

MAR­KET CRASH

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.

FAIRLY STEADY

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.

NON-DE­TECTABLE RESIDUES

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.

TON­NAGES

TAP-DANC­ING BIRDS

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