Going organic – the logical ticket to top OGRs
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”