New life for pear industry
The truly unique pear variety has been developed out of a cross undertaken at Plant & Food Research 20 years ago between European, Chinese and Japanese pears. The selection has subsequently been commercialised by Prevar Ltd.
Piqa Boo’s unique red skin, shape and delicate crunchy flavour have been an immediate hit with Asian consumers, with sales in the past season reaching an average payout of $116 for an 18-kg equivalent TCE. Fern Ridge Fresh’s supply manager and Piqa Boo Programme chairman Mike van Workum says this price is second only to a record setting container of organic Honeycrisp sent to the US market last season which reached $118 per TCE.
“Piqa Boo was sent to China, Taiwan and Singapore to get as much market spread as possible; 7kg trays sold for between $30 and $55,” he says. So far Piqa Boo is the only one of the initial group of Plant & Food selections that has been commercialised. Early plantings of the variety are now six years old, and one of those growers Malcolm Salmond says it has been a steep learning curve for the early adopters, but he is committed to the potential of the new crop.
Malcolm, on his Mahana orchard, and Bruce Fraser at Riwaka were in the first wave of trial planting of Piqa Boo. Half of Malcolm’s orchard is planted in pears, and in recent years he had been struggling to produce traditional pears of a size and volume per hectare to be economic.
His Taylor’s Gold and Beurre Bosc are now sold solely on the domestic market. Exporters would only take count 100 pears and above which meant economic tonnages per hectare could not be reached. “By selling these pear varieties on the local market, we can harvest down to count 135 which makes a big difference to tonnages.”
He still exports his Doyenne du Comice, and faces the same problem of what to do with his smaller fruit.
Malcolm was attracted to Piqa Boo at a new variety day seven years ago, and was one of the first three or four to trial the
pear. “After the first couple of years we saw the great colour and shape of this new variety.” Visits from Asian customers with Prevar to his orchard quickly demonstrated it would be a hit in these markets.
The transition has not been painless for Malcolm. Grafted onto standard growing systems Piqa Boo is not a huge cropper. He has also developed a block in a double cordon close spaced at 3.5 metres between rows and 1.2 metres between trees. Malcolm feels his double cordon is working well for him, with less intensive tree training required.
His first development of one hectare was on grafted trees, and he now has a similar area planted three years ago on the cordon system. Fireblight has not been an issue for Malcolm, but blast has been more of a problem.
There has been a quiet uptake of the new variety, with volumes expected to reach 50,000 cartons (18kg equivalent) by 2022. Exceptional prices this year were received for 3,200 7kg trays sent to Asia; next year volumes will more than double to 7,000 trays.
Six exporters Yummy, Fern Ridge Fresh, Intergrow, Pickmee, Golden Bay and Freshmax are licensed to export the variety. Mike says Piqa Boo is entirely unique; a modest budget enabled the development of a “brand story” to promote the new taste to prospective Asian customers. The $60,000 project set out to create a strategic global brand for a world-first fruit. Video, point of sale material and photographs to support the story were developed. Sixty thousand trees have been planted around the country, about half in Nelson and half in Hawke’s Bay. Mike predicts this will double in the next five years to 120,000; development hinges around a mixture of grafting over existing varieties like Comice or Taylor’s Gold, and intensive plantings using the FOPS (Plant and Foods Future Orchard Production Systems) concept of growing. The FOPS system is a bi-axial structure, enabling rows to be planted as close as 1.5 metres apart and aims to allow trees to intercept
more than 85% of available light.
Yummy, Sunfruit and Freshmax have planted considerable areas. “The pear category will really start to grow in the next 10 years,” he predicts. Pear planted area has been in decline in recent
years, teetering below 400 hectares.
There is much to learn about Piqa Boo in a commercial environment; harvest management needs fine tuning, as the Brix increases, colour has a tendency to fade. The variety needs picking every three to four days as maturity advances rapidly. Most of the crop planted in Nelson is netted, and foil has been used. Trees have been either grown under ebro or FOPS growing systems. Fruit needs to coolstored before it goes to the customer and if fruit is picked immature, it is not scuff resistant.
Bruce Fraser has been thrilled with the way Piqa Boo has adapted to growing in his grafted orchard at Riwaka. “We were predominantly Comice growers but prices fell from $50
to $30, there was no point carrying on.” He was looking hard for replacements and tried both Papple, and Piqa Boo. Piqa Boo was grafted onto the ebro espalier growing system, replacing the comice and grafted onto BA29 quince rootstocks. Now with 4 hectares of ebro converted to the new variety, the incredibly vigorous growth of Piqa Boo is “tamed” by the ebro growing system.
Constant input from his near neighbours, the Riwaka Plant & Food research station, has helped him make critical decisions as the crop has developed.
Plant & Food science group leader Dr Stuart Tustin says trees growing at the Havelock North research centre are expected to produce 50 tonnes per hectare in their third year based on the canopy and flowering. As confirmed by other growers, Piqa Boo is not suited to a centre-leader system but fits in well with the developing FOPS system.
“We are keen to promote some of the newer growing systems; it will make life easier, with the number of minutes to prune each tree. The FOPs system offers a big canopy and the ability to get the plant under control very quickly,” he says.
Nursery production has so far been concentrated on the industry standard intermediate-growing BA29 rootstock. Stuart is keen for growers to try the more dwarfing Quince C, the rootstock of choice in Europe. Flowering appears earlier on Quince C, and fruit set appears better.
Piqa Boo has strong pear scab resistance, and Plant & Food have selected pollinators from the same breeding programme which also offer scab (or blackspot) resistance and flower at the same time as Piqa Boo.
At the Havelock North research orchard, Piqa Boo flowers profusely; Stuart says 50 per cent of flowering sites were removed leaving them blank to initiate floral buds for next year and manage biennial bearing.
Prevar chief executive Brett Ennis confirms while the new pear has great attributes, it is not fireblight resistant, but it does have moderate tolerance to this devastating disease. Despite this, there has been a good uptake of the new variety in Hawke’s Bay where in the past, fireblight has caused problems for pear growers.
Other exciting pears have been reviewed under the Piqa family brand, and while some are being commercially trialled, none are ready for commercialisation. Future breeding efforts at Plant & Food are concentrating on fireblight resistance. In Hawke’s Bay, Sunfruit regional operations manager Nathan Clark says his organisation has planted four hectares of Piqa Boo, and plans a similar development next year. Trees have been planted on a FOPS model, two metres between rows and three metres between trees. So far the trees are looking good; Plant & Food are two years ahead so Nathan plans to benefit from its learnings. Some modification of machinery has been necessary to fit the two metre rows; mowing and weed spraying has been carried out conventionally but Plant & Food is developing a new linkage sprayer to use in the FOPS system.
Nathan says the strong vertical growth of Piqa Boo lends itself to the FOPS system, as the lack of lateral branching becomes less of a problem. Each plant has 10 vertical growing tips in the new system. Sunfruit is excited about the prospect of challenging traditional growing systems by adopting the FOPS method.
The company also grows traditional varieties of pears for its local market supply through its marketing arm, Pickmee.