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.
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.