Sunny days ahead for purple-skinned industry
Rebekah Vlaanderen could be the new poster-girl for getting more young people into horticulture.
She’s living the good life on her new piece of Bay of Plenty paradise – even though she’s a new mum, totally new to growing and has a background in corporate IT.
Rebekah has also just been elected vice president of the NZ Passionfruit Growers’ Association.
In February this year, Rebekah and partner, helicopter pilot Graeme Hopcroft, purchased one of the country’s largest commercial passionfruit orchards in Oropi, on the outskirts of Tauranga city.
The 34-year-old freely admits that before she walked onto her recently purchased orchard, she’d never eaten a fresh passionfruit – but it was top priority on her first day of becoming a grower.
“Before I took over, I never tried them, although I grew it in my backyard in Auckland,” she grins. To add another twist, Rebekah was born in country New South Wales (Narrandera) but raised in Sydney. So why has this former city girl fallen in love with the commercial horticultural industry?
“It’s been a dream of mine to own an orchard or work on the land for a while now,” she says.
“It started about seven years ago when I first drove through Katikati and saw the orchards there. I thought, ‘I want to do this one day’. Not that I know anything about horticulture - it just seemed like something I’d like to do.”
How they came to become orchard owners was the old story of ‘who you know’.
“My partner’s aunt and uncle, Sue and Gary Oppert, own a passionfruit orchard in Katikati, which they’d only recently purchased. We went to visit and I fell in love with it. Gary knew the previous owners of this place were thinking of selling. Basically, we found out before it went on the market and got a private sale through. It was a bit of a push for us, because it was right on the edge of our budget.”
“When we first looked at this place, we also researched kiwifruit and avocado orchards in the area because they seemed to be the main choice around here, and we wanted something to compare with. But at the end of the day this orchard seemed the most profitable option.”
Rebekah and Graeme met in a Portuguese camping ground while on their OEs many years ago.
Learning how to be an orchardist is Rebekah’s full-time role, while Graeme’s flying work requires him to be away much of the time.
The property’s former owners, Godfrey and June Dooney, have built a new house nearby and are very much a part of helping Rebekah to learn the skills and systems to enable her to make a go of it.
Knowing that Godfrey would be there and vitally, willing to mentor and teach Rebekah everything she needed to know about good growing practices, was a critical factor in their decision making.
Says Rebekah, “We would not have purchased if we didn’t know we’d have that hands-on support. “Godfrey established the orchard eight years ago, and he’s considered to be a successful and experienced grower – I’m very lucky to have him around,” she says seriously.
The farm is nine ha, and is mostly sloping hillside with the Waimapu Stream on the lower boundary. The passionfruit orchard is 5000m² on the flattest part.
Currently there are 490 plants in 36 rows under frost cover; however, Rebekah wants to intensify plantings to 700 plants under the same structure. Instead of vines at 3m intervals, she wants to try 2m spacing.
“This orchard has high yields and is one of the bigger producers,” she says.
GOING FOR IT
“Having Godfrey around to help us is a big part of our decision to go for it – knowing that opportunity like this is rare.
“I’ve heard stories about some people who bought passionfruit orchards, and ended up with the previous owners just saying, ‘bye, bye’ and running. Those new owners ran into issues and
problems they didn’t expect to encounter. Whereas here, the person who built the place and is still passionate about it, is involved and wants to see us succeed.
“Having my wise neighbour here has made all the difference. It means I can carry on his hard work.”
The seasoned orchardist is teaching Rebekah everything he knows – and respectfully, she is following his guidance and advice at least until the first season is over. She is gaining vital confidence and experience now. Later on, she’ll review practices and decisions and make up her own mind as time goes on.
There are other aspects she’s had to up-school herself on, such as working out staff pay with IRD, compliances and regimes such as The Food Act, NZ GAP, GrowSafe and approved handler training for agrichemicals.
Godfrey feels lucky that Rebekah has taken over the orchard – he admires her oodles of enthusiasm and dedication.
She knows, at first, he was unsure when she took over by herself with a baby, but now Godfrey’s seen what this former city woman has been able to keep up with.
“It’s not really a one-person job - it’s been pretty full on,” she understates with a light laugh.
A LONG HARVEST
Passionfruit, compared to some crops, has an incredibly long harvest season.
From early February right through to September, Rebekah can expect to be out every day picking up ripe fruit. Passionfruit orchards in other locations started later and finished earlier, but the Oropi orchard seems to go for a longer time.
The real flush of fruit is twelve weeks from February through to April. Interestingly, passionfruit falls to the earth when ripe, so picking literally involves picking up off the ground.
“We go up and down the rows everyday – it sounds so easy - but there’s a lot of fruit there,” she explains.
“Once it gets into the pack house it gets washed, graded, packed and off to the markets every day. During the busy weeks I had three full-time staff, plus family helping with the harvest and also the care of my daughter.”
“It’s slowed down since May, and I’ve been doing it by myself since then. Once it gets a bit colder, from June onwards, the fruit stops falling off. It’s ripe but it hangs on the vine, that’s when you have to go and find it and snip it off, which is more time consuming.”
With only about 50 commercial passionfruit growers throughout the country, the industry runs a little differently compared to others.
As a passionfruit grower, Rebekah is not locked into a contract with any one marketer.
“With passionfruit you can sell to whoever you want. There are several exporters and local marketers to choose from.
“They set their prices each week and I can phone to figure out who has the best prices, and sell to them.
“This is good because it keeps them on their toes, but I’ve made a decision this year to go on Godfrey’s recommendation of who to sell through and how to do just about everything on this orchard because he’s been successful and has the experience.
“Once I’ve been in the game a little bit longer, I can start making those decisions for myself, but don’t know enough now to make them confidently this season.”
New Zealand passionfruit doesn’t go to many countries – chiefly to the USA, with a little going to Australia. About 65 per cent of Rebekah’s crop will be exported this year. Prices have varied during the long season, ranging from $28 to $40 per tray. At the high point last year, growers achieved $50 per tray.
Such spikes depend upon on the seasons in America’s growing regions of California and Florida.
The passionfruit plant (Passiflora edulis) is a native of Brazil. South America produces 900,000 tonnes of passionfruit. New Zealand passionfruit growers collectively produce about 200 tonnes per year, and Rebekah’s orchard has grown 11.5 tonnes this year so far – the orchard’s highest yield ever.
Not bad for a first year but Rebekah acknowledges that the Dooney’s hard work made it so. She says buying a well-loved orchard was fortunate for her.
“A lot of people might give up when they realise its nearly time to sell, and let things go,” she says.
Most passionfruit orchards are in Katikati, Opotiki, Kawerau, Northland, with a few in Taranaki, Gisborne, and in the South Island’s Nelson, and Karamea.
PRESSURE TO PERFORM
Such an intensive first year, along with bringing up an infant, has challenged her in many ways.
“When I first turned up, I felt there was so much pressure. We have a massive mortgage and you’ve got no idea what you’re doing with this fruit – there’s so much pressure to get it right, and to not stuff up.
“My mind is constantly thinking – ‘got to do this, got to do that’ There’s never a time when everything’s done. One day I might learn to relax a little bit but I love it here. I like being busy and having things to do – you feel like you’ve achieved something at the end of the day,” she reflects.
Some of her bigger personal challenges are the art of focusing on one thing.
“Because there are so many jobs to do and I’m here on my own, I kind of jump between things instead of focusing on one thing, getting that done and moving onto the next.
“I do little bits of everything. That’s quite difficult because you don’t have that satisfaction of having something finished, and it’s on your mind – there are so many competing things, finding the priorities and get jobs done.”
Another challenge is the financial aspect – letting go of the security of having a steady and known amount of annual income.
“Having worked in a job where my pay every week for a year is known, you know what you can spend and what’s coming. Whereas with this, there’s an idea of earnings for a season but there are so many factors outside your control – prices, the weather, how much fruit is on the market from other growers, disease – or I could put the wrong spray on and just lose my entire crop. There’s no certainty.”
However, trading a soul destroying 9 to 5 work week for a life in the country and being her own boss is a dream she thought would never come true.
“I love it. It’s hard but if life gets too easy, I get bored. I like to be working and learning something new every day. I’d never driven a tractor before I came here. The other day I was on the tractor using the forks to pick up vine clippings, and driving around I noticed the sun setting, and thought ‘wow’.
“You don’t really expect you’re going to have something like this that’s yours. It’s moments like that you think - this is really cool.”
Rebekah is certainly a person who likes to do things to the highest standards, and her care and attention to detail are in tune with Godfrey’s established methods of operation.
“They say the first year is the hardest because you’re learning everything as you’re doing it. Next year I’ll be more prepared for what’s coming, and know what I need to do when, instead of playing catch up all the time,” she says. Godfrey’s advice is that passionfruit vines are good for about eight years. He acknowledges that some orchards have plants that are a lot older, and can keep producing for a long time.
His eight-year replacement rule comes from his observation that the vines’ most prolific fruiting volumes are during the first five years.
When Rebekah has her full 700 plants in the ground, only 600 will be producing at any one time.
Old plants will be dug out and replaced in October and November. New plants will not be allowed to fruit for their first season. Vines will fruit in the first year, but the flowers are all cut off. Year one is usually about concentrating growth to make the vines strong.
As well as replanting, Rebekah fills any gaps left by dead plants. There is constant tidying up, pruning, keeping vigorous growth under control, keeping vines up from the ground so fruit doesn’t hang down and suffer blemishes and other problems.
Then there’s spraying for weeds, the vines to prevent disease, and keeping up with the fertiliser programme. Luckily passionfruit growers don’t have to worry too much about pollination because honey bees and bumble bees seem to do their work; however, a local bee keeper leaves hives on property all year round.
Rebekah must be a quick and avid learner because she’s rolling off orcharding terms so easily, that anyone would assume she’s been working the land for years.
“I’m going through a replanting schedule now and every year replacing five rows out of the 36, so at the moment I’m busy pulling out the eight year old plants, ready for planting new ones in October and November.”
A common pest is thrip which cause marks on the skin, but her biggest battle so far has been brown spot.
“I spray copper to prevent that, but if it does appear you have to keep on top of it by cutting it out. I have to be careful not to cause wounds to the plant just before rain, and obviously we’ve had a lot of rain this year.”
Grease spot, which causes black marks, showed itself towards end of the season, making fruit unsellable. The young Oropi farmer knows she’s still learning, and appreciates there are lots of other diseases and pests passionfruit can get that she may have to deal with.
Part of the attraction for a first time grower who wants to be hands-on is the potential to earn a good income off quite a small piece of land.
“Other people might be happy to own a place and let other people do all the work, but in terms of passionfruit, it’s got such potential as well,” she believes.
Passionfruit maybe horticulture’s best kept secret at the moment, but even for this newbie, it’s clear that more growers are needed to push the association along and grow the industry towards new markets.
“I feel overseas markets are as yet untapped. What we can do with the pulp and seeds to make oils and other products haven’t been fully explored.”
To date, a few studies on the quality of the New Zealand passionfruit pulp have been completed.
“Apparently it’s far superior to the pulp of fruit from other countries, and there’s huge potential there but we just don’t have the quantity of fruit being produced here yet.”
JUST DO IT
Rebekah’s recommendation to others who are considering taking on a horticultural enterprise is simple – if you want to do it - do it!
“It’s such a satisfying job and if you like being outside, or working in the garden and growing things – it’s great. It also depends on the crop that you choose, but I like the fact that passionfruit is practical. It’s not an orchard that someone else gets to look after for me.”
She adores the open spaces, feeling the wind on her face, hearing the rustle of nearby stream and having the beauty of the rolling hills all around. Currently the couple are living in a cabin, and renting out the property’s residence for extra income.
Later on, they hope to build their dream house, with a magical view towards the stream and hills.
Rebekah admits that Graeme loves the place but it took a while to convince him that she could do it before they decided to buy.
“His reservations had a lot to do with me having a new baby and being by myself, but once we got over that discussion, it was fine. He’s impressed and excited with what I’m doing here.
SUNNY DAYS AHEAD
The future is bright indeed for the New Zealand passionfruit industry, she says.
Already her toddler daughter, Torah, picks passionfruit and puts them in buckets – it’s a visual example of why the change of lifestyle has so many rewards.
“This is such satisfying work. I wasn’t pleased with my IT job. I’d work on projects and then management would make a decision, and can them, or directions would change with the stroke of a pen.
“I was making good money but you need to be happy in your job because that’s what you spend most of your time doing. I felt like I was doing all this work for no reason. But growing food for people to eat is satisfying. You’re outside, and not stuck in an office – there’s no office politics here,” she smiles.
Anyone can see Rebekah is a doting mother, but she’s also keen to be challenged and needed work that would be stimulating and use her many talents.
“I couldn’t see myself staying home but I didn’t want to be away from my daughter. This set up is just perfect because she can be with me, even when I’m working.”
Rebekah parked her baby in a pram at the end of the row, and worked while Torah slept. As an active toddler now, Torah has two days in day care and Mum just has to make it work – such as women have done for thousands of years.
Rebekah is living proof that inexperienced people who have the passion, energy and determination, can get into horticulture and make it a success right from the start. Such enthusiasts need the support of experienced growers and technical specialists along the way – not to mention that critical practical back up of family and friends.
“I love being outside. I don’t take enough time out to enjoy it but that will come,” she says knowingly.
Clockwise from top left: All ready for export – all the hard work is worth it. The orchard in Oropi’s picture perfect setting. Handing over knowledge to the next generations of growers. The current packaging design on export trays.
From left: Godfrey’s self-designed platform makes vine work easier. Walking to work – such a sunny day is perfect for pruning.
From left: Amidst the cuttings during pruning time. Growing passionfruit is an ideal working arrangement for this devoted mum.