Sunny days ahead for pur­ple-skinned in­dus­try

Re­bekah Vlaan­deren could be the new poster-girl for get­ting more young peo­ple into hor­ti­cul­ture.

The Orchardist - - Passion Fruit - By Denise Landow

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.

HANDS-ON HAN­DOVER

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.”

POSH PRICES

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.”

HIGH STAN­DARDS

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.

UN­TAPPED PO­TEN­TIAL

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.

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