Cherry or­chard goes to the dogs…

The Orchardist - - Profile - Story and photos by Karen Tre­bil­cock

Not that he’s com­plain­ing. The dog bis­cuits have given him, and his dogs, a new lease on life.

They’re made with Mont­morency tart cher­ries grown by John, his wife Mau­reen and their fam­ily on the farm near Oa­maru, a re­sult of the farm­ing in­dus­try down­turn in the 1980s.

The 283ha Spring­bank was first farmed by his grand­fa­ther, but when high in­ter­est rates and the end of Sup­ple­men­tary Min­i­mum Prices (SMPs) hit to­gether when John’s four chil­dren were young, the fam­ily strug­gled.

“It was tough, really tough.We started look­ing at what else we could grow to make money. We sat down with a blank piece of paper.”

After Mau­reen dropped the girls off to dance classes she would go to the li­brary to find out in­for­ma­tion about crops and they started tri­alling them in their gar­den.

St John’s wort, echi­nacea and va­le­rian were all tried, with 20,000 va­le­rian plants bought and planted in a pad­dock.

“They grew really well but then cheap Chi­nese im­ports flooded the mar­ket so that was the end of it.

“But among all these other ideas, tart cher­ries kept pop­ping up.”

They be­came the first, and John be­lieves still the only com­mer­cial Mont­morency tart cherry grow­ers in the coun­try.

“We’re not hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ists, we didn’t know a thing. We’re sheep, beef and crop­ping farm­ers but in life doors do open up for you. Just some­times you have to un­lock them first.”

Help­ing to un­lock the doors was Mur­ray Turner of Kurow and by 2000 they had four Euro­pean va­ri­eties and two North Amer­i­can va­ri­eties of grafted tart cher­ries grow­ing on 12.5ha – the stoni­est and dri­est pad­dock on the farm.

A trip to Tra­verse City in Michi­gan, the largest pro­ducer of tart cher­ries in the United States, fol­lowed and the cou­ple, wait­ing for their own trees to be­gin fruit­ing, be­gan in 2004 im­port­ing the juice con­cen­trate and cap­sules, mar­ket­ing them un­der their own Cher­ryvite la­bel through their web­site as well as sup­ply­ing phar­ma­cies and health food shops.

The home of­fice, which used to look after only the farm­ing busi­ness, soon be­came the cen­tre of Cher­ryvite.

John takes a cap­sule once a day and says it helps him to sleep, but it’s the other health ben­e­fits of tart cher­ries that give them many of their bulk or­ders – to the coun­try’s top sports teams. The cher­ries are high in an­tiox­i­dants and can sup­port joint mo­bil­ity, aid in mus­cle re­cov­ery and help the body pro­tect it­self from free rad­i­cal dam­age. A keen rugby fan, John is happy when a team he knows is tak­ing Cher­ryvite beats a team he un­der­stands is not.

But the cou­ple never con­sid­ered their dogs. When they were fi­nally able to har­vest their first crop of cher­ries in the or­chard, the two farm dogs and their ag­ing cocker spaniel would fol­low them there.

“They would eat the cher­ries that had fallen onto the grass just like they were vacuum clean­ers. We never thought any­thing of it and then the cocker spaniel, who was too old to jump up onto the ute, started act­ing like a young dog again. Their coats had a real shine to them and all three were full of en­ergy.”

A sec­ond sea­son came and the har­vest went to beer brew­eries amongst other cus­tomers and then the cou­ple, again notic­ing the change in their ca­nine com­pan­ions, thought maybe mak­ing a dog bis­cuit just might work. They talked to vets and dog own­ers, tried hun­dreds of recipes but the heavy dough proved a prob­lem. Two of Mau­reen’s Ken­wood cake mix­ers later, what John calls a “grave­yard” of other equip­ment, help from Cal­laghan In­no­va­tion, trips to Lin­coln and Massey Uni­ver­si­ties and fi­nally they were told that there were no ma­chines that would make the bis­cuits in the coun­try. So they de­signed their own, had it built in Oa­maru and Rad­i­cal Dog was born.

“We de­cided it had to be nat­u­ral with no added sup­ple­ments, no by-prod­ucts, no preser­va­tives, made in New Zealand and it had to be high in an­tiox­i­dants.”

Wheat flour, whey pro­tein con­cen­trate, mo­lasses, veg­etable oil, vi­ta­mins, min­er­als and, of course, tart cher­ries and the im­ported tart cherry con­cen­trate make up the bis­cuits. Their prod­ucts are ap­proved by AAFCO (the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Feed Con­trol Of­fi­cials) and test­ing at Massey Uni­ver­sity’s In­sti­tute of Food, Nu­tri­tion and Hu­man Health showed that they have what the New­lands hoped for – high an­tiox­i­dant lev­els.

The bis­cuits are in­tended as a health sup­ple­ment and feed­ing rec­om­men­da­tions are one bis­cuit per four kilo­grams of body weight per day.

With the recipe proven, and the bis­cuits be­ing made in one of the farm’s for­mer im­ple­ment sheds, a graphic de­signer was found who also helped out with the mar­ket­ing. The story of the New­lands’ ag­ing cocker spaniel is now told on the back of ev­ery packet.

Rad­i­cal Dog was launched at the Wanaka A&P (Agri­cul­tural & Pas­toral So­ci­ety) Show last year and South Is­land su­per­mar­kets and pet shops soon be­gan stock­ing it, but after a Coun­try Cal­en­dar episode on tele­vi­sion re­cently, both the bis­cuits and the Cher­ryvite sup­ple­ment have taken off, leav­ing the New­lands stunned.

“That first day after the TV pro­gramme we worked in the of­fice from 7.30 in the morn­ing un­til 9.30 at night try­ing to get or­ders out. The courier van came once and we had to go in with a sta­tion wagon load to town as well.”

The bis­cuits are hand­made, with two women em­ployed to do the work. The frozen cher­ries are kept in a con­tainer on farm and also in Ti­maru.

“We have to freeze the cher­ries as soon as we process them from the or­chard.”

The three gen­er­a­tions of the fam­ily (John and Mau­reen have six grand­chil­dren) are roped in ev­ery sum­mer for the har­vest. Large sheets of weed mat are un­folded un­der each tree and then the tree is shaken me­chan­i­cally, the ripe cher­ries fall­ing on the sheets.

Just as with sweet cher­ries, the fruit is floated to take off leaves, stalks and other de­bris be­fore go­ing through a cherry pit­ter and then into the freezer.

The New­lands looked at mak­ing their own cherry con­cen­trate but the process is com­pli­cated so they’ve stuck with im­port­ing it from the United States.

And now that Rad­i­cal Dog is on its way to suc­cess, John is look­ing to the or­chard to pro­duce the now very much needed tart cher­ries. How­ever, the wet sum­mer has taken its toll, even on the farm’s dri­est pad­dock. The Euro­pean trees es­pe­cially have suf­fered from fun­gal and bac­te­rial infections, al­though the New­lands have a reg­u­lar spray pro­gramme.

“We have a lot of Eastern Euro­peans who are now liv­ing in New Zealand come and hand­pick the fruit off these trees to make jam so we’ve kept them be­cause these peo­ple come back year after year, but really we should have just gone with the North Amer­i­can va­ri­eties.

“The cher­ries are quite dif­fer­ent to sweet cher­ries to eat. Peo­ple who love eat­ing lemons will like them. They’re quite bit­ter if you eat them from the tree.”

The Eastern Euro­pean trees are smaller, so the whole tree can be hand­picked, but the North Amer­i­can trees have grown larger and now are grow­ing too closely to­gether.

“If I could start again and re­plant the whole or­chard I would. It’s the worst ex­am­ple of hus­bandry on the farm.”

He may not call him­self a hor­ti­cul­tur­ist but there is hectare after hectare of fod­der beet and kale grown for win­ter feed un­der mainly pivot ir­ri­ga­tion.

The farm, usu­ally dry dur­ing the sum­mer months, con­cen­trates on fat­ten­ing 2,500 to 3,000 lambs bought from Cen­tral Otago and the Can­ter­bury high coun­try at the start of au­tumn to be sold in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber when de­mand for lamb is high but sup­ply na­tion­wide is short. They also take in win­ter dairy graz­ing and fat­ten their own beef as well. It gives them the sum­mers off, which is ideal for the cherry har­vest.

“The or­chard looks quite beau­ti­ful in the spring. We do frost fight­ing if we have to, but then we pay for it after­wards with blast.”

They don’t thin the crop, and the size of the cher­ries this year was no­tice­ably smaller with each tree car­ry­ing more fruit. Fo­liar feed­ing is done as well as some added an­i­mal ma­nure cour­tesy of their lambs.

“We run the small­est, runty lambs in the or­chard to keep the grass down in win­ter and they do really well there eat­ing the last of the cher­ries. “We did a lot of data log­ging when we started to see tem­per­a­tures and what was hap­pen­ing, but we think we have it right. Tra­verse City where they grow them in the States is on the 45th par­al­lel in the North­ern Hemi­sphere and the farm is close to it in the south.”

Their son Snow looks after the farm­ing op­er­a­tion, but any plans for John and Mau­reen’s re­tire­ment have been taken over by the tart cher­ries.

“It’s good. We’ve met so many lovely peo­ple be­cause of it, and who would have thought I would be sell­ing dog bis­cuits at my age. It’s really great.”

It’s also keep­ing the cou­ple on the farm, some­thing their three daugh­ters and their fam­i­lies love.

“Two of our daugh­ters are in Queen­stown and one is in Oa­maru and they all like com­ing home to the farm. They all have busy lives but they can’t wait to come here.

“And Mau­reen makes a pretty good tart cherry pie for them.”

Rad­i­cal Dog nat­u­ral sup­ple­ment and treat for furry friends.

From left: John New­lands checks the Mont­morency tart cherry trees. One of the New­lands’ dogs seeks out the last cherry in the or­chard.

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