Alan and delen Thompson showcase their Kerikeri property which won the region’s Ballance Farm Environment Award
Alan and Helen Thompson have come a long way since growing their first 200 cartons of export melons in the 1980s.
The diversity of the Thompsons’ involvement in horticulture in Northland was showcased at the recent Ballance Farm Environment Awards field day in Kerikeri to acknowledge their regional award win. Alan and Helen and their family are now involved with kiwifruit and lemon production, a packhouse and coolstore, an export company, and more recently on their home property, wine and craft beer production, a community concert venue, and a wetland boardwalk to a waterfall on their property.
“Horticulture is a changing industry,” Helen says, “so we’ve adapted to the challenges and changes and have been lucky in responding in ways that have led us to here. Initially we focussed on production and income but with the next generation influencing us now, we’ve broadened out to include environmental and community activities. It makes life even busier but also more interesting.”
The field day visitors heard an overview of the Thompson family’s operations then toured the packhouse and coolstore, visited a block of netted SunGold kiwifruit, looked at the vineyard on the
Thompsons’ home block, and wandered down the boardwalk to the wetland and waterfall area – topped with a barbecue lunch and a wine tasting offer.
Ballance Farm Environment Awards judges consider the overall environment of a property but, in particular, they assess sustainable profitability, environmental awareness, good business practices, and social and community responsibility. As well as being the 2017 Northland Supreme Winners, the Thompsons won the Hill Laboratories Harvest Award (which recognises excellence in productive and resilient pasture and crop growing systems), and the CB Norwood Distributors Ltd Agri-Business Management Award (for managing and operating a successful farm business).
The fact that Alan and Helen Thompson’s business is multifaceted is a big part of their selection as regional award winners.
FROM THE GROUND UP
The Thompsons’ entrepreneurship started with production. Alan and Helen’s original melon and squash growing years led them into growing kiwifruit and lemons because they needed fresh melon growing ground every two to three years.
Alan explains that on a trip to Japan one year, “a customer suggested we look into lemon production for export to Japan because at that time the United States was the only country doing so. We came home, scoured the country for a suitable variety, and with help of our nurseryman, came across the Yen Ben. To establish as many Yen Ben plantings as possible, we organised a public unlisted company, Kerifresh. In 2008, Kerifresh was sold to Turners and Growers and then we started LD Investments, now trading as Kainui Partnership, in partnership with Helen’s brother and sister-in-law. Kainui Partnership now grows 20ha of kiwifruit – 14ha in gold and
Initially we focussed on production and income but with the next generation influencing us now, we’ve broadened out to include environmental and community activities. It makes life even busier but also more interesting.”
the rest in green – spread across five orchards, plus 2ha of Yen Ben lemons.”
“Kainui started with two orchards in 2008. In 2010 when Psa hit Kerikeri we decided to change from 16A to SunGold over a five to six year period. Because Psa hit here later than Bay of Plenty, we had the benefit of building on what growers there had learnt, so we were able to manage our conversion without losing total production. We used a combination of notch grafting and stump grafting in alternate rows which enabled us to keep the 16A canopy until the SunGold stump grafts matured. Our current gold kiwifruit production is the bottom of the changeover cycle with most vines in their first or second production year. We’re averaging 8,000 trays per hectare with SunGold this year and got nearly all of that into Kiwistart. Future long-term production will be more like 15,000 trays per hectare.”
One of the changeover management decisions was to net some of the exposed SunGold blocks. “We’ve gone for hail netting and it has significantly reduced the wind and therefore the Psa risk.This year was the first SunGold crop off this block and we got just 5% reject rate compared with 10–15% reject rate on most blocks in the first crop year. The leaf condition in general is also much better.”
Alan explained that there have been some issues with netting. “Bee pollination is an issue if the ends are netted in too, so we’ve gone just for netting the top. And the netting gives about 12% less ultraviolet light which can sometimes affect dry matter levels, but we still picked most of this crop in the first week of KiwiStart.The netting costs $50,000 a hectare to install but with the value of the crop under it, it doesn’t take long to recoup.”
“We’ve gone for hail netting and it has significantly reduced the wind and therefore the Psa risk.”
Water management was another factor Alan emphasised at the field day. “All our irrigation is from the Kerikeri Irrigation Scheme – one of the most underrated assets this town has. It was instigated in the 1980s because of the severity of water issues here and has resulted in access to some of the cheapest and most reliable irrigation water in the world. We have drippers on each plant and tensio-meters on all our orchards to access water needs and manage plant stress levels.”
Fertiliser application is guided by FruitFed soil testing each year. “We discuss the expected yields then the fertiliser programme is based on that. For Psa prevention, we also apply intensive foliar sprays of both copper and Actigards to stimulate the plants’ protection systems. Kiwifruit don’t like copper so we use seaweed to counter those effects.”
Fruit from their five orchards is packed at Kainui Pack & Cool, a leased post-harvest facility owned and managed by the Thompsons. “This is the base of our orchard management for citrus and kiwifruit packing,” Helen says. “We meet the BRC (British Retail Consortium), GAP (Good Agricultural Practice), MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries) and Zespri compliance standards and we have excellent people in our packhouse, administration and orchard teams. We employ as many locals as possible and have a close working relationship with WINZ (Work & Income New Zealand). We are also a certified RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) scheme employer with a team of 12 from Vanuatu on the orchards spread over two six-month shifts.”
Alan points to industry infrastructure being a major issue in the north in upcoming years, especially in cool storage capacity. “Northland produced over three million trays of kiwifruit last year and should increase to five to six million in the next three to four years. It will be a regional issue. We’re already pushed for space in our leased facilities so it’s something we will be looking at in the near future.”
Kainui Pack & Cool sells domestically through MG Marketing and exports through Te Mata Exports Ltd. All export kiwifruit is sold through Zespri. In 2012 MG Marketing became a 50% shareholder in Te Mata Exports. LD Family Investments Ltd is a shareholder in Te Mata Exports Ltd and Alan is a director of Te Mata Exports Ltd and a director of MG Marketing. “Alan’s strengths are the planning and entrepreneurial side of the business,” Helen says,“while mine lie more with administration, and now the environmental aspect of our Kainui Road home property.”
RETIREMENT THINKING LED TO MORE DIVERSITY
Alan and Helen’s diversification into wine production was intended as a retirement project on their home property, the final site visit of the field day. “We have two hectares of grape canopy, and as well as growing what does well in the north, we are experimenting with growing what we like to drink”, Alan says, “so some varieties do well and some not so well. We have several varieties of white and red and the vineyard is an accredited member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ).”
“We now open the cellar door each summer,” Helen adds. In conjunction with that, our children were keen to host musical events for the local community and the Northland region, and then our son-in-law wanted to add craft beer to the mix. So we got the necessary Resource Consents and started hosting events on a small stage. We were then approached to do a UB40 concert. For this we built a bigger stage and made use of a natural amphitheatre here, and the concert attracted 5,000 people! We followed it up with a concert to celebrate the legendary Bob Marley and that drew over 2,000 people. The big concerts were a huge success and we’ll now add more local community events into the mix.”
Developing the bush, wetland and waterfall area of the home property was also the initiative of Alan and Helen’s offspring and this now offers another dimension for visitors to the vineyard and concerts, as well as for educational groups. “Planting and further enhancing our natural asset here is an ongoing long-term project and I’m now passionate about this part of the property.”
As well as continued rejuvenation of the bush and wetland area, Alan and Helen have kiwifruit and citrus expansion on their future horizon. “We’re interested in the upcoming new green and red Zespri kiwifruit varieties – especially because they seem very floral here in the north, possibly without the need for HiCane. We’ll also be developing more Yen Ben lemon blocks in the next three years”, Alan predicts. At Kainui Road, we’re going through the regulatory process of applying for an on-licence, we’ll be doing more diversification, and the whole family is involved in succession planning for the overall business.”
So much for retirement.
Boardwalk platform in wetland looking back to vineyard. Field day visitors at net covered SunGold kiwifruit block at Kainui. Boardwalk through wetland to the waterfall.
Helen with Shayne O'Shea, Chairman of Northland Ballance Farm Environment Awards in front of wetland and vineyard at Kainui.