Cherry orchard goes to the dogs…
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.”