Go­ing or­ganic – the log­i­cal ticket to top OGRs

The Orchardist - - Organics - By Denise Landow

Vast prof­its in ki­wifruit pro­duc­tion are go­ing beg­ging mainly due to fear of change from con­ven­tional grow­ers.

The world’s con­sumers are cry­ing out for or­gan­i­cally grown ki­wifruit, and the sec­tor must grow, says Jon Mer­rick, Or­ganic Cat­e­gory Man­ager for BOP-based Apata Group.

Jon works with Apata’s or­ganic grow­ers – be they es­tab­lished or those in tran­si­tion from con­ven­tional to the fully cer­ti­fied or­ganic sta­tus.

Apata leads the na­tional or­ganic ki­wifruit sec­tor by vol­ume. Of last sea­son’s to­tal 3,993,613 trays pro­duc­tion, the or­ganic pack was 1.2 mil­lion trays of green and 170,000 trays of gold. Ap­prox­i­mately 50 Apata or­chards have a Bio-Gro cer­ti­fied or­ganic sta­tus. Apata cur­rently only has two or­chards in their three-year tran­si­tion to full or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Jon is also go­ing through a pro­fes­sional tran­si­tion of his own – be­ing in his first year as a board mem­ber of Bio-Gro New Zealand. In this role he for­mally rep­re­sents the Cer­ti­fied Or­ganic Ki­wifruit Grow­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, COKA.

Ze­spri is our coun­try’s largest or­ganic ex­porter, so it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the in­dus­try is seated at the Bio-Gro board table.

“We need more or­ganic grow­ers be­cause we need to re­in­force: the big­ger we are, the bet­ter we’re go­ing to be. We’re so small we’re not even a ‘niche’ at the mo­ment – we have to grow and ex­pand,” he says.

WIN­NING BUSI­NESS MODEL

The or­ganic busi­ness model is fan­tas­tic for ki­wifruit grow­ers – good op­er­a­tions can earn big money, he says.

“Apata’s or­ganic grow­ers get the com­pany’s top or­chard gate re­turns, beat­ing their con­ven­tional coun­ter­parts. Or­ganic pro­duc­tion’s yields are frac­tion­ally lower but the prices achieved are sub­stan­tially bet­ter,” he says.

Jon is a prac­ti­cal guy – he un­der­stands most peo­ple re­spond to the bot­tom line, and his choice to cham­pion the or­ganic field of prac­tice is based on com­mon sense.

“I like logic, and or­gan­ics is very log­i­cal,” he ex­plains.

“For some rea­son, peo­ple think it’s too hard and have this pic­ture of or­ganic grow­ers as san­dal-wear­ing, tofu-eat­ing tree hug­gers.”

Achiev­ing pre­mi­ums for or­ganic re­turns is of crit­i­cal im­por­tance in the fight for con­verts, he ad­mits.

“If you put an or­ganic and a con­ven­tional ki­wifruit side by side, the or­ganic ver­sion is go­ing to sell faster. There’s al­ways go­ing to be a mar­ket for or­ganic ki­wifruit but we need to keep get­ting healthy pre­mi­ums over con­ven­tion­ally grown fruit.”

It’s im­por­tant that OGRs keep grow­ing for the or­ganic sec­tor and or­ganic grow­ers’ re­turns con­tinue to im­prove and out­pace their con­ven­tional coun­ter­parts.

“We can ei­ther set­tle for what we got this year or be­come more vo­cal about what we want,” he says.

“When you start get­ting more than two dol­lars more a tray, then nat­u­rally the cat­e­gory is go­ing to grow be­cause more peo­ple will see it’s a vi­able fi­nan­cial propo­si­tion.”

NOT ALL ‘GREE­NIES’

Jon be­lieves there are three main types of or­ganic ki­wifruit grower.

One group are true ‘gree­nies’ who are gen­uinely con­cerned about the planet and sus­tain­abil­ity is­sues. This group’s main driver is what they can per­son­ally do to live within na­ture’s rules and con­trib­ute mean­ing­fully to Earth’s sus­tain­abil­ity.

He sees an­other group as fo­cused purely on the fi­nan­cial gains that or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of­fers.

These busi­ness-ori­ented types know there’s good money to be made from or­gan­ics, and Jon says there’s ab­so­lutely noth­ing wrong with their think­ing.

An­other group in­volves those who are or­ganic ‘by de­fault’. Ba­si­cally, they don’t do any­thing on their or­chards so their land and vines ends up be­ing chem­i­cal free. These or­chards don’t achieve the pro­duc­tion vol­umes of other well-man­aged ones, but as Jon says, who are we to judge?

For sure, he’d like these land­hold­ers to re­alise they’d make more money with pro­fes­sional man­age­ment.

“At the end of the day it’s their land, and if that’s what they want to do, then it’s up to them.”

LOS­ING GROUND

Con­sumers are de­mand­ing bet­ter in­for­ma­tion about their food, and or­gan­i­cally grown pro­duc­ers world­wide can’t meet the ev­er­in­creas­ing de­mand.

“The world ap­petite is so enor­mous – we can’t even pro­duce a frac­tion what the world wants,” he ex­plains.

“Ze­spri’s grow­ing hugely at the mo­ment but the or­ganic cat­e­gory is not. We (or­gan­ics) are los­ing ground. “The risks are there. We’re cur­rently three per cent of Ze­spri’s pro­file but as Ze­spri grows big­ger and big­ger, or­gan­ics be­come two per cent, then one per cent – we’ll lose our voice as time goes on. That’s why the or­ganic cat­e­gory must grow.”

Younger gen­er­a­tions com­ing through to­day un­der­stand sus­tain­abil­ity con­cepts much bet­ter, and or­gan­ics is not the laugh­able con­cept it was even 20 years ago.

Many of or­ganic grow­ers are now in their 60s and get­ting to re­tire­ment age. For some, there’s no real suc­ces­sion plan. The style and op­er­a­tion of or­ganic or­chards are teth­ered to the per­son­al­ity of the own­ers, but as own­ers age and face re­tire­ment and farms are of­ten sold. In the Western Bay of Plenty, many smaller or­ganic or­chards have be­ing sold in re­cent times be­cause of ur­ban sprawl.

Some new own­ers take over with­out re­ally see­ing the big pic­ture, and re­vert to their fa­mil­iar con­ven­tional ways be­cause they mis­tak­enly think that keep­ing an or­ganic or­chard go­ing will be dif­fi­cult.

Jon, the lover of logic, says or­gan­ics is not dif­fi­cult.

“Once you have an or­gan­ics regime in place it’s easy and straight­for­ward keep it that way.

“It takes about the same amount of work as a con­ven­tional or­chard, and the re­turns are so much bet­ter. Re­ally, why wouldn’t you?” he asks.

Apart from the great fi­nan­cial re­turns, it’s sim­ply good for the planet which pro­vides the hu­man race with ev­ery­thing, he ex­plains.

Many thought PSA was go­ing to be the death of or­gan­ics, and sev­eral or­ganic or­chards did in­deed strug­gle with the dis­ease, says Jon.

Or­ganic or­chards need to be man­aged well to be healthy, same as their con­ven­tional cousins.

A good healthy plan­ta­tion with­stands PSA much eas­ier. Plants have to be stressed in the first place – that where dis­eases get their footholds.

“We’ve come a long way. PSA knocked things back be­cause grow­ers thought ‘ham­mer it with chem­i­cals’. Or­ganic grow­ers re­alise that good healthy plants will nat­u­rally re­sist dis­ease.”

Go­ing or­ganic means hav­ing a good man­age­ment plan in place, and not just leav­ing na­ture to it, he says.

MAR­KETS WILL PAY

“Most peo­ple re­sist change and pre­fer to stay where they are, and get what they’re get­ting. But if they can see the huge benefits, odds are, they will prob­a­bly change.

“Ze­spri can prove the or­ganic fruit gets $2 plus per tray, so con­ven­tional grow­ers can see we’re not leach­ing off them.

“You will lose pro­duc­tion in green but bet­ter prices will make up for that. Or­gan­ics last pay­ment was $6.75 for green per tray – well above con­ven­tional re­turns.”

START SMALL

Con­vert­ing an or­chard doesn’t have to in­volve the en­tire prop­erty at the start. Or­chards can tran­si­tion in seg­ments, he says.

“Start off with one hectare, and then you can make a de­ci­sion from here,” he says.

There’s very lit­tle ex­tra pa­per­work. The Bio-Gro cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is eas­ier be­cause of the GAP reg­u­la­tions now in place. Much paper work is dou­bled up which means or­ganic grow­ers al­ready have their pa­per­work ready for GAP com­pli­ance.

Most of the Bio-Gro or­chard in­for­ma­tion and data en­try is now on­line. Or­chard plans are eas­ier these days, and vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing is at the push a but­ton.

Bio-Gro has an on­line site where grow­ers can check any prod­ucts ap­pli­ca­bil­ity. This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant in en­sur­ing if prod­ucts are also Ze­spri ap­proved. With ki­wifruit, some coun­tries will not ac­cept some sprays that Bio-Gro al­lows. Jon also ac­knowl­edges that ev­ery or­chard is unique, so what works for one or­chard may not work for an­other.

“It’s up to in­di­vid­ual grow­ers who know their or­chard. They may look the sim­i­lar, but own­ers do dif­fer­ent things. You may try an idea which an­other per­son is hav­ing suc­cess with, but it may not work on your land.

Apata Or­gan­ics has ac­cess to a tech­ni­cal team which pro­vides ad­vice.

The big­ger pic­ture is about sus­tain­abil­ity and most peo­ple get this con­cept, he says.

“Things don’t have to be to­tally or­ganic to be sus­tain­able ei­ther. The key word is sus­tain­abil­ity – this word seems to be a lot less scary than the word or­ganic.”

Grow­ers who in­vest in more sus­tain­able prac­tices must be ac­knowl­edged and re­warded, he says.

FEAR AND STIG­MAS

The 1960s hip­pie stereo­type is of­ten the most dif­fi­cult stigma to over­come.

Iden­ti­fy­ing cham­pi­ons who are do­ing it well, along with prov­ing that the or­ganic way is a sound busi­ness propo­si­tion, are two ways of gain­ing fence-sit­ters’ con­fi­dence and even­tual opt in.

Jon shakes his head – “it’s so sim­ple. G3 or­ganic grow­ers are get­ting the same pro­duc­tion as con­ven­tional grow­ers, yet they’re get­ting an ex­tra $2 per tray. It’s money for jam, they’re not do­ing any­thing ex­tra.”

Non-or­ganic grow­ers might ar­gue that go­ing or­ganic means they sub­mit to the el­e­ments – stripped bare of their ar­se­nal of syn­thetic weapons.

“Fear is what they’re deal­ing with – it’s the thought of feeling help­less against or­chard pests, and think­ing that by go­ing or­ganic, they can’t ad­e­quately deal with in­fes­ta­tions.

“There’s much that con­ven­tional grow­ers just don’t want to ac­knowl­edge yet – and fear of the un­known is too blame,” says Jon. “For ex­am­ple, in con­ver­sa­tions about pro­duc­tion, an or­ganic grower will start off talk­ing about what’s grow­ing in the soil, the com­post, whereas, a con­ven­tional grower will con­verse about the canopy.”

Jon says the world’s con­sumers are get­ting ed­u­cated about what or­gan­ics ac­tu­ally is.

He ex­plains that Ja­panese con­sumers his­tor­i­cally bought or­ganic fruit be­cause it kept bet­ter than con­ven­tion­ally grown pro­duce. Now Ja­panese are buying or­gan­ics for the bet­ter taste and added health benefits.

REAL STRENGTH

Or­ganic grow­ers need to be nur­tured and he sees real strength in the COKA meet­ings.

“We come from dif­fer­ent ar­eas but we all have the one united voice for or­gan­ics. We don’t bring our per­sonal agen­das and try to top­ple each other. We work for the bet­ter­ment of or­gan­ics - the greater good.

“That’s the na­ture of the peo­ple you’re work­ing with as well.

It’s a nice sec­tor of the com­mu­nity.”

Jon has a healthy re­spect for na­ture and ad­mires the way the land can look af­ter and heal it­self.

A har­bour re­gen­er­a­tion project at Raglan is a great ex­am­ple. Or­gan­is­ers pre­dicted the har­bour would take 10 years for the har­bour to right it­self fol­low­ing restora­tion work. Jon says what blew them away was that af­ter only four years, the ri­par­ian plant­ing around the streams was hav­ing a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect – demon­strat­ing how fast en­vi­ron­ments can heal them­selves if given the proper care.

NO NEED TO EX­PLAIN

Jon’s vi­sion for the fu­ture in­volves not hav­ing to ex­plain what ‘or­gan­ics’ is.

“In five to ten years time it would be nice to think we won’t have to ex­plain what or­ganic is.

Or­chard man­agers will in­cor­po­rate more or­ganic prac­tices than they ac­tu­ally re­alise, he feels.

New va­ri­eties are be­ing de­vel­oped all the time and these will change prac­tices. For ex­am­ple, more floral va­ri­eties will hope­fully elim­i­nate the need for the harsher chem­i­cals.

“We don’t ex­pect ev­ery­one to be or­ganic, but it would be nice if or­ganic prac­tices were taken on, which in a lot of ways they al­ready have – use of com­post be­ing one ex­am­ple.”

Cur­rently, the big push for the or­ganic sec­tor na­tion­ally is to have one set of stan­dards, which Jon says, will make life bet­ter for grow­ers, mar­keters, re­tail­ers, ex­porters and con­sumers.

“Fear is what they’re deal­ing with – it’s the thought of feeling help­less against or­chard pests, and think­ing that by go­ing or­ganic, they can’t ad­e­quately deal with in­fes­ta­tions.”

Go­ing or­ganic – the log­i­cal ticket to top OGRs – Jon Mer­rick, or­ganic cat­e­gory man­ager, Apata Group.

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