Fruit Salad Orchard
On a fertile valley floor, backing onto mangroves, down a long driveway, at the very end of a noexit road, off a side road in the Hokianga, hundreds of fruit trees are laden with produce.
They include 40 varieties of apples, 15 varieties of pears, three types of quinces, 26 types of plums, apricots, peaches, nectarines, prunes, guavas, grapes, passionfruit, lemons, limes, mandarins, oranges, grapefruit, tamarillos, raspberries, feijoas, figs…
The Wooster family at Orira Orchards, John and Marion and their daughters Tammy and Nicole, have one of the few remaining fruit salad commercial orchards in the country. “We don’t grow bananas or mangoes,” John says, “but we grow almost every other fruit and we sell at the weekly Farmers’ Markets at Kerikeri and Paihia. We remodelled the whole orchard specifically for Farmers’ Market sales when they began just over 13 years ago, so we can now offer customers about 18 fruit choices each week all year.”
A GROWING LINEAGE
With the fifth generation now caring for the property, the Woosters have maintained a continuous growing lineage
seeded there in 1902 and still bearing fruit in 2017. The earliest of the trees were planted by John’s grandfather when he and wife’s parents and brothers- in- law (the Harrisons) settled the property in 1902. A quince tree, a grapevine and two fig trees planted then, are still standing.
“My grandfather and his wife’s family leased 1,500 acres here from the New Zealand government in 1902 when they arrived from San Francisco,” John explains. “They were known as the ‘mad Americans’ because they ripped the whole valley up to plant in market gardens while waiting for the fruit trees to establish. They later purchased that whole block from the government and then split it up between the two families. Our family now owns 432 acres (175 hectares) which consists of eight hectares of orchard in the valley floor, 80 hectares in grass in the foothills, and the rest in native bush which the girls have started using as a honey resource.”
“The lineage creates some pressure to continue”, Nicole says, “but both Tammy and I travelled a lot before we each made our own commitment to the place in 2010. We both work full-time off the property to support that decision and we are constantly reassessing what works best here in these changing times. The priorities of the property have obviously evolved over the different eras.”
When John’s ancestors bought the harbour edge property, it was on the main transport route of that era, the bustling Hokianga harbour. “There was water access at all tides at the bottom of the original orchard block”, John says, “and the family used to deliver produce by boat around the Hokianga settlements. The surplus went by steamer to the market in Auckland, so my grandfather was one of the first growers to sign up to supply Turners & Growers. His interest was in vegetables and fruit but when my father took over, he made dairy farming his priority and grew only two fruit crops – Granny Smith apples and Golden Queen peaches.”
When it came time for John to step into the Wooster working lineage, he realised he didn’t like dairying.“I gradually increased the fruit crops and dropped dairying altogether, keeping only beef stock on the foothills. I planted apples, then stonefruit, and later citrus. Marion was from Auckland and when we met and married, she also brought fresh energy and ideas.”
The north is not known for pipfruit and stonefruit, partly because of its lack of winter chill and partly because of its disease inducing humidity, but John says their area of the Hokianga is an exception.“In the early European settlements of Hokianga there were enough suitable growing pockets dotted around the harbour to support a factory canning apricots and peaches. Our valley floor gets serious frosts – up to minus 10 degrees – and it can be baking hot here in the summer. The clay areas of our valley provide good nutrients and water holding capacity all year for our pipfruit and stonefruit so we don’t have to irrigate.”
In the regulated Apple and Pear Board days, John and Marion grew what their market required and they could budget on a known price for their fruit. John applied the then calendar based spray applications to keep the crops healthy and they employed up to six people.
But John and Marion’s whole world came up for review when the Apple and Pear Board deregulated and they lost their
licence to supply. “We had a young family to support and a mortgage so we had to do whatever we could to sell our fruit,” Marion recalls. “I had a gift shop in Kaikohe then so we started to sell our fruit there, we regularly did the Kaitaia market, and we sold on the side of the road.”
Then New Zealand’s first Farmers’ Markets were born. “This was the beginning of a whole new way of thinking and it was a lifeline for us. Local people wanted to buy local produce directly from growers. Kerikeri Sunday Farmers’ Market was one of the early ones and it became an established event quite quickly. Other Farmers’ Markets were popping up around the country and the idea of gate to plate was becoming part of our culture.”
So the Woosters set about replanting their orchard to cater for Farmers’ Markets. “We diversified into every fruit imaginable,” John says, “and now have more random plantings with mixed varieties and fruit types within rows. Gone are our monoculture days when we had to keep our fruit types together to enable spraying. Our orchard is now a lot healthier because the variety of plants maintains a more self-regulating natural balance, therefore much less spraying is required. We still have some distinct orchard areas simply because citrus is better suited to the valley’s free draining shale based soils while the clay suits the pipfruit and stonefruit.”
Although all of the family on the property share in the activities, they each have preferred interests and responsibilities. John focuses on orchard management and keeping the wild pigs, possums, and rabbits under control. Marion loves seeking out interesting plants to fill gaps. “We like to keep introducing our customers to different fruit. Some are old favourites they remember from childhood, like Kid’s Orange apples, and some are new to them, like the sub-tropical guava. The fruit tree suppliers all know me now and let us know if they have a surplus five or 10 trees of something that may suit us.”
Marion also runs the commercial kitchen on the orchard where they process seconds into chutneys, jams, pickles and relishes. “The commercial kitchen was a result of Lyn Barnes, one of the instigators of the Kerikeri Sunday Farmers’ Market, suggesting I add fruit based baking to our product range. I did that for a while but I now just concentrate on the jams, chutneys and pickles.”
Having direct contact with their customers provides the Woosters with valued feedback. “John and I tend to front the market stall because it gives the girls a break from their daily work commute. The market provides quite a social life, plus we’re always watching and listening to what people want. We consider affordability and how to best use everything we grow. Any unusable fruit goes to feed our cattle.”
Tammy has a business degree and worked in that world until she realised it wasn’t for her. She has now retrained in planning and resource management for her day job, but loves the orcharding and is taking some initiative in how the place is managed. She recently chainsawed all the apple trees to head height to enable picking from the ground. “It’s more efficient and safer, and the crops are just as heavy.We no longer employ any staff. I’m interested in growing fruit that supermarkets don’t sell, like Golden Delicious apples and grapefruit. A lot of our generation and younger have no opportunity to connect with the land or seasonal cycles so there’s an interesting education aspect to what we supply to the markets.”
Tammy and Nicole have recently stepped up to the challenge of beekeeping. “We used to lease our bush areas out to commercial beekeepers,” Tammy explains, “but circumstances changed and then beekeeper friends in Awanui offered to teach us to how to keep our own bees. Nicole and I work the bees together but I recently did some extramural beekeeping
training so I’ve now taken responsibility for the hives. This is our third honey season so we have lots to learn but it’s fascinating and gives us another processed product for market. The future of this property is all about adding value to the natural resource we have here.”
Nicole’s day job has been as an Executive Assistant but she is in the process of reviewing her options. Her home interest is leaning towards livestock so she may make that more of a future property priority. “The love of farm livestock skipped a generation with Dad, but I’m keen on raising more beef stock.”
“We are in a remote location with no big population base on our doorstep, therefore we have to keep watch for new options. I’ve recently built up raspberry plants from a single plant that fruits so early in the season that I’ve sold all the fruit by Christmas. We’ve also started selling fresh juice that we squeeze the night before the market and it sells out, so we’re exploring more juicing options. Doing something with our great apple crops is also on our radar. We already have a
coolstore on the property that extends our apple sales throughout the year.”
“Farmers’ Markets have been vital in enabling us to sell our fruit”, John says. “We get retail prices, and the customers get to talk to the grower, find out how their food is grown, and know that it’s local. We hand pick directly into crates or buckets so our fruit isn’t tumbled into bins. In big production seasons like last year, we have to do as many markets as possible simply to move the volume of fruit. This season by contrast, with the warm winter (no frosts), the wet cold spring and strong winds, has been one of our worst. Cycles are just part of farming and things even out over the long term.”
But both John and Marion are well aware that even after five generations, long term is different from permanent. Marion says that when both girls were away travelling they actually put the place on the market for a while. “Our son Logan currently lives in Australia and his interests lie in cabinetry, which is what John’s father originally trained in. As a family, we frequently reassess our options and have to figure out the biggest return for the least work.”
“We’ve come through a lot of changes and have learnt how important it is to be flexible, resourceful, and to think for yourself to survive. Someone may one day decide to remove the fruit trees or move the property on. This is a changing place, but for now it’s working for us – and for the girls.”
“And people are interested in the place – because it works,” John adds. “Country Calendar did a programme here a couple of years ago, and last summer the Moe Show was here with the kids picking apples and Luisa plums. We have our roots in the past, but there’s a renewed hunger for what we grow and the way we grow it, that seems very relevant in the present. None of us knows what that may look like in the future.”
From top: A quince tree planted in 1903 still standing and used now for graftwood for new plants. Quince and fig trees in the old orchard block at Orira Orchards.
The Orira Orchard team – from left Nicole, John, Marion and Tammy Wooster.
Tammy and Nicole checking their beehives.
John and Marion having a business meeting.
Oregon Red Spur apples.
This season’s pears.