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.

The Orchardist - - Profile - By Wendy Lau­ren­son

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.”

DIF­FER­ENT ROLES

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.”

THE FU­TURE

“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.

From left:

This sea­son’s pears.

The B275 petrol trac­tor John bought the first year af­ter he left school, and that Mar­ion learnt to drive on.

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