Mike Muller – ki­wifruit pi­o­neer and thought­ful in­no­va­tor

Ki­wifruit pi­o­neer Mike Muller was a thought­ful in­no­va­tor whose quiet, con­sid­ered ap­proach to is­sues saw him be­come a leader who in­flu­enced the in­dus­try at all lev­els.

The Orchardist - - Obituary - By Elaine Fisher

Mike, who died in Septem­ber, made pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tions to the in­dus­try’s suc­cess by work­ing along­side grow­ers, post-har­vest op­er­a­tors, the Ze­spri board room, in in­ter­na­tional mar­kets and with banks and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies.

Ze­spri chief ex­ec­u­tive Lain Jager said Mike had net­works around the coun­try and was at the fore­front of many de­vel­op­ments in an in­dus­try ca­reer which spanned 36 years.

Mike’s sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the de­vel­op­ment of the in­dus­try in­cluded the Taste Ja­pan, Taste Ze­spri, In­tro­duc­tion of Hort16A, Im­prov­ing Hayward Pro­duc­tiv­ity and the New Va­ri­ety Pro­gramme says hor­ti­cul­tural con­sul­tant Peter Mul­li­gan.

Mike liked to "nut out a prob­lem" and the vine dis­ease Psa-V pre­sented chal­lenges to find so­lu­tions and Mike plot­ted the best way for­ward based on log­i­cal to find so­lu­tions which ben­e­fited his clients and the in­dus­try, Peter said. Mike’s abil­ity to clar­ify is­sues and mo­ti­vate grow­ers to do ‘what is sen­si­ble’ was high­lighted by Peter Ly­ford of Ly­ford Hor­ti­cul­ture when he nom­i­nated Mike for the in­dus­try’s Hayward Medal.

Rather than chase sil­ver bul­let of so called new tech­nol­ogy, Mike fo­cused on proven ba­sics done well on or­chards in­clud­ing low vigour prun­ing, proven shel­ter sys­tems, spray prac­tices, and frost con­trol.

“But he is also a key player in many in­no­va­tion ar­eas like best prac­tice for Hi­cane spray­ing and Ki­wiGreen prac­tice. There is no one bet­ter at field days to clar­ify the key mes­sages or sep­a­rate the ‘smoke from the mir­rors’ as he would say.

“You could say he is the ‘Master Weaver’ of old proven tech­nol­ogy with new promis­ing things. A role model for all who would ad­vise and help oth­ers.”

Fel­low grower Dave Good­win, also in the Hayward Medal nom­i­na­tion, says; “The essence of Mike Muller lead­er­ship is: sit on a nail box to think is­sues through… will not be rushed un­til he is ready to dis­cuss. Abil­ity to un­ravel com­plex is­sues; again the slow, me­thod­i­cal ap­proach tak­ing one step at a time”.

Michael Muller was born Jan­uary 6, 1945, in Otahuhu, the mid­dle child of seven for Re­car­dus and Phylis Muller. “A strong Catholic farm­ing fam­ily, his up­bring­ing was the prod­uct of the time. Work be­fore and af­ter school, mainly house­hold chores, sport, gar­den­ing, short back and sides on the week­ends. Church on Sun­day and only af­ter the weekly Sun­day roast did they get time for them­selves, nearly al­ways spent com­pet­i­tively run­ning bare­foot for hours,” says Mike’s son, and Bay of Plenty MP, Todd Muller.

Mike left school at 15 and started work­ing as a farm hand and from early on was a nat­u­ral with the land. He was a very shy teenager who forced him­self to learn and ap­ply skills he knew he needed. He en­rolled in Dale Carnegie and won the best speaker com­pe­ti­tion in his lo­cal club. He went out farm­ing with his el­dest brother Peter and dur­ing this time met his soul­mate and fu­ture wife Trish.

In 1974, they made the de­ci­sion to leave dairy farm­ing, and buy a Chi­nese goose­berry or­chard in Te Puna, where the fam­ily has been ever since.

“Mike was at his best in the or­chard, speak­ing to grow­ers and at his most en­thu­si­as­tic in mar­ket lis­ten­ing to mar­keters and their con­sumers.”

Todd says it was a bru­tal ar­rival into an emerg­ing in­dus­try. “Firstly, they were grow­ing the wrong va­ri­ety, Bruno, which tasted good but had no shelf life, so they had to graft the or­chard over to Hayward and worked them­selves to a stand­still clean­ing Te Puna Tav­ern, pump­ing gas, any odd job to stop the bank from fore­clos­ing.”

Dur­ing this time Mike met Roly Earp and his son Brian and a con­nec­tion be­gan which stayed strong to Brian’s un­timely death a few years ago. It was Roly who sug­gested Mike spray his or­chard with his 250L sprayer to as­sist the Muller’s cash­flow, and so be­gan the in­volve­ment with con­tract spray­ing.

Trish and Mike built the con­tract spray­ing or­chard busi­ness to ser­vice more than 100 or­chards, es­tab­lish­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a qual­ity con­trac­tor. They also be­gan pack­ing other peo­ples’ fruit from the mid1970s, go­ing the ex­tra mile for their grow­ers and the wider com­mu­nity.

“They saw the de­mand for cool­stor­age as the Hayward crop ex­panded, and put ev­ery­thing on the line to es­tab­lish Apata Cool­stores Lim­ited with his trusted friends Brian Earp and Peter Mayston. The story and growth of Apata has been a huge part of his life, through both good times and bad times, but I know how proud he was with its emer­gence again as one of the in­dus­try’s best per­form­ers.”

The next change in di­rec­tion in Mike’s pro­fes­sional life was his in­volve­ment with the es­tab­lish­ment, with David Stevens, of the then ground-break­ing Ki­wiGreen model.

“The in­dus­try found in Dad some­one who could con­nect with grow­ers and ex­plain the com­mer­cial mar­ket ra­tio­nale in a way that was in­her­ently log­i­cal and com­mon sense. He could frame the or­chard jour­ney in a way that sounded pow­er­ful, com­pelling and in­volv­ing not just the grower, but of­ten the wider fam­ily.”

“Mike was at his best in the or­chard, speak­ing to grow­ers and at his most en­thu­si­as­tic in mar­ket lis­ten­ing to mar­keters and their con­sumers. He found he could translate the mar­ket op­por­tu­nity in a way that am­pli­fied the value of ev­ery win­ter prune, ev­ery bud thin, ev­ery flower thin and ev­ery sum­mer prune.

“He was the per­fect per­son, part­nered with Bruce Stow­ell and Peter Mul­li­gan, to talk to grow­ers about the po­ten­tial of a new va­ri­ety, Hort16A. He trav­elled the length and breadth of this coun­try count­less times re­flect­ing with grow­ers on the op­por­tu­nity at their doorstep,” says Todd.

Todd says his fa­ther be­lieved the real value in life is not what you do but how you live. “It was how Dad lived his life that has made the most en­dur­ing im­pact on his fam­ily, friends and wider com­mu­nity.

“When the story of this in­dus­try is writ­ten, and those who were there on the ground are asked for their feed­back on who started the switch to gold ki­wifruit, close to the cen­tre will be Dad, floppy white hat, lis­ten­ing, shar­ing his thoughts with the grower fam­i­lies of this in­dus­try, mo­ti­vat­ing them to take the next step.”

Mike Muller’s con­tri­bu­tions to the ki­wifruit in­dus­try span its ev­ery sphere.

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