“My gold is is here with Te­viot Orchard”

When a Sum­mer­fruit chair­man re­tires does he still at­tend meet­ings, have a project to com­plete or does he just hang up his pick­ing bag?

The Orchardist - - Profile - Story and pho­tos by Dianne King

Sum­mer­fruit NZ chair­man, Coal Creek or­chardist Gary Ben­netts who re­tired af­ter eight years as chair­man at the an­nual meet­ing of Sum­mer­fruit NZ in June last year, has been up a lad­der or two, and at two cer­e­monies he’s been the man be­hind the knife as he cut into a cel­e­bra­tion cake.

Bet­ter still he is an “al­most” full-time fruit­grower at Te­viot Orchard Com­pany Ltd… again.

How­ever, when Cen­tral Otago Pre­mium Fruit brand grow­ers hosted a vis­it­ing group of Asian ex­porters and trade of­fi­cials near Cromwell last year, it was Gary who cut the cel­e­bra­tion cake… shaped like a cherry.

But not be­fore he had been the man be­hind the knife for the Te­viot Orchard Com­pany Ltd cel­e­bra­tions mark­ing 100 years of his­tory. At the end of the fruit sea­son he will be back hol­i­day­ing on a bike, look­ing for­ward to reach­ing a to­tal of 1,500km rid­ing in Asia en route on his jour­ney from Shang­hai to Beijing.

When in­ter­viewed in his pack­house of­fice in Fe­bru­ary, Gary was tot­ting up fig­ures as he at­tended to the tax re­turns, and was proud to an­nounce he is now the grand­fa­ther of eight, with twins born in Perth, Aus­tralia in late Jan­uary.

But he says the best re­sult since step­ping down af­ter eight years to make way for fresh views is that he now has week­ends to spare, in­stead of catch­ing up on the work he missed when off to meet­ings in Welling­ton.

While he no longer ven­tures out in all weath­ers to prune orchard trees, he does frost-watch and works in the Clutha Pack­ing Cen­tre pack­house in charge of the apri­cot sec­tion, while his cousin Stephen Jef­fery looks af­ter the cher­ries.

In De­cem­ber last year Te­viot Orchard Com­pany Ltd cel­e­brated its 100th year and Gary and his wife Teresa hosted a fam­ily func­tion in the old orchard pack­house to recog­nise the achieve­ment. Many sto­ries were told of work­ers as re­mem­bered by Gary and other guests.

The high point of the night was the cut­ting of a cake by Gary and his fam­ily.

Gary’s great-great-grand­fa­ther Richard Ben­netts, from Corn­wall, ar­rived in Otago in 1861. He even­tu­ally set­tled at Coal Creek and was gold­min­ing around the area, out as far as the White­combes (north of Waikaia) where his party, known as the “Hit and Miss claim”, were some of the ear­li­est min­ers.

In 1875 Richard planted fruit trees and be­came one of the pioneer fruit­grow­ing names in the district. In 1886 his son John Ben­netts es­tab­lished about 40 acres on Richard’s prop­erty still known as Fairview Orchard. There he brought up his fam­ily, in­clud­ing

sons Fred and Robin.

The fam­ily has one story that has stood the test of time about the broth­ers of the early gen­er­a­tion.

One Sun­day while fam­i­lies were at Church, they swapped the Coal Creek and Dum­bar­ton horses over to op­po­site gigs. When or­dered home, the horses out of habit headed in

the wrong di­rec­tion much to the mirth of the pranksters.

The cy­cle of Te­viot own­er­ship flows from John Ben­netts as his son Fred be­came owner. Next in line was Fred’s son, Bill Ben­netts, and the prop­erty is now owned by Bill’s son Gary, a fifth-gen­er­a­tion or­chardist.

Robin Ben­netts stayed on the orig­i­nal orchard, “Fairview”, and in 1986 own­er­ship passed from Robin’s son Keith to Stephen Jef­fery, an­other fifth-gen­er­a­tion Ben­netts fam­ily fruit­grower.

The Te­viot Orchard prop­erty of 40 acres has been ex­panded over the years and is now about 49ha of orchard – sum­mer­fruit and pipfruit – as well as a 409ha sheep and beef farm. When Gary was off on Sum­mer­fruit com­mit­ments his right-hand man Derek Ar­ne­sen and loyal staff man­aged the prop­erty in his ab­sence.

The cousins, Gary and Stephen, es­tab­lished the Clutha Pack­ing Cen­tre where the fruit from both prop­er­ties is packed for the do­mes­tic mar­ket and for ex­port. They have also es­tab­lished an ex­port com­pany, New Zealand Orchard Di­rect, which Gary sug­gests will take up more of his time over the next cou­ple of years. Gary says as in all hor­ti­cul­ture in­dus­tries each gen­er­a­tion has had to make changes, firstly through mech­a­ni­sa­tion, lat­terly through new tech­nolo­gies. To be more ef­fi­cient both he and his father have made many changes since the prop­erty was first owned by his grand­fa­ther Fred.

“Each gen­er­a­tion has had to make changes, firstly through mech­a­ni­sa­tion, lat­terly through new tech­nolo­gies.”

One of the forced changes has been moving away from grow­ing apri­cot va­ri­eties to sup­ply the nearby Rox­dale can­nery and the do­mes­tic mar­ket.

“Many grow­ers would have gone out of busi­ness if they were re­ly­ing on sup­ply­ing the can­nery and the lo­cal mar­ket.”

Once a half-case of fruit would re­turn enough cash to buy a good pair of shoes, he said.

“A good pair of shoes to­day would be more than $100, but that’s not what we get for our fruit now, is it?”

Newer more ex­port-ori­ented va­ri­eties of cher­ries and apri­cots were planted, which in turn in­volved cap­i­tal spending for big­ger cool­stores, net­ting to cover cherry blocks and in 1991 the new pack­ing cen­tre. In 2012 a de­fect sort­ing cherry grader was pur­chased. The orchard in­cludes 20% pipfruit, about 30% cher­ries, 40% apri­cot va­ri­eties and the re­main­der is other sum­mer­fruits – nec­tarines and green­gages. A ma­jor hitch this year was the clash of cher­ries and apri­cots around New Year.

“The cher­ries were late, the apri­cots on time and all of a sud­den we needed 64 staff mem­bers, some to up-skill. We em­ploy New Zealan­ders first and this in­cludes some ex­pe­ri­enced lo­cal peo­ple, other New Zealan­ders and back­pack­ers with visas. It was also a year when sis­ters, nieces, neph­ews and friends all chipped in to help.”

At the peak of the har­vest about 150 work­ers were em­ployed in the orchard and pack­ing house.

There were is­sues with un­wanted rain this year.

“We were about one-third of the way into the sea­son when this district had some heavy rain. We were about an­other third of the way on from that when we were hit by the “rain event” like the rest of Otago.”

Ex­port prices held up “and it would have been good to have more fruit” but the do­mes­tic mar­ket could be con­sid­ered “flat” and dis­ap­point­ing.

He is ex­cited about the new va­ri­eties of apri­cots which are go­ing into the ground.

“They are full of flavour, good in colour and firm to eat.”

Asked about the gold-min­ing com­pany ven­ture which could thread through his land Gary says:“The gold was in the ground in my grand­fa­ther’s day and I’m not look­ing for a pot of gold. It’s wait and see for that gold in the ground. My gold has been here with Te­viot Orchard.”

“A good pair of shoes to­day would be more than $100, but that’s not what we get for our fruit now, is it?”

The new Te­viot Orchard sign is a nod to the past us­ing this photo of an early era on the prop­erty.

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