Tamarillo industry honours grower
Craig was this year’s recipient of the Laurenson Memorial Award for services to the tamarillo industry, and the sculpture was received on his behalf by committee member Ray Paterson at a committee gathering in Whangarei in November.
“Craig was a huge part of keeping the tamarillo industry going when the Tomato Potato Psyllid – and subsequently Liberibacter – struck in 2009,” Ray said. “He was chairman of the Tamarillo Growers Association at that time and managed to hold the growers together and give us direction in those difficult days. Part of that input was getting a research programme together that was specific to psyllid impact on tamarillos.
“Both Craig and his wife Robyn were incredibly generous with their time and assistance in the industry from 2005 until 2015 when Craig reluctantly stepped down from industry involvement due to health issues. He is a real gentleman with a beautiful presence. He listens attentively and chats quietly – and he is a very worthy recipient of this award.”
Craig and Robyn Watson grow 9,000 red tamarillo plants on their family orchard property at Maungatapere, near Whangarei. “We started growing tamarillos here in 1997,” Craig recalls, “and have had up to 15,000 plants at times – mostly red but we have grown amber in the past too. We also grow 2.1ha of G3 kiwifruit and 2ha of Hass avocados.”
“We first found Tomato Potato Psyllid (TPP) on our tamarillos in 2009 and the first diagnosis of subsequent Liberibacter in tamarillos in New Zealand was made at our place the same year.We lost 80% of our trees and did a total replant of 15,000 trees over two seasons.
“Our tamarillo crop management has changed dramatically as a result of TPP. We do ongoing inter-planting so there are issues involved in having mixed-age trees within one block.We grow on 1,500 to 2,000 seedlings every year for replacements, and we do a lighter pruning to allow for heavier crops in the early cropping years. Management to lengthen the cropping life of the tree is no longer an option as Liberibacter infection is ongoing, so we do an aggressive replacement of blocks after four to five crops.”
Craig withdrew from industry positions and other community groups in 2015 due to health issues but continues to grow and sell tamarillos. “We sell our tamarillos locally via the New Zealand Tamarillo Grower Co-op and Fresh Direct, and export through Fresh Produce Group to the United States. There are limited opportunities for premium fruit, but we supply 100 to 150 trays a week to order between April and August. We also supply processing fruit to Tamco for on-sale and for manufacture into Tamco brand ‘For the Love of Tams’.”
“I’m very happy and grateful to be still growing – with a supportive family and excellent staff.”
“We’re honouring the past while moving in fresh directions,” says Brian Weston, Taranaki tamarillo grower recently elected as chair of the Tamarillo Growers Association. “I stepped in as a stop-gap measure until we can pass the baton on to the next generation of growers. We have reset our focus to being innovative and progressive, member driven and future oriented. While issues with the psyllid have not yet been fully resolved, we’re moving ahead with a different emphasis now. Tamarillos are a great tasting colourful product with proven health benefits, and supply is naturally restricted to certain climatic and soil zones. The industry is small and specialist – and that’s our market advantage.”
“Those growers who have remained in the industry since TPP are starting to show their first profits in seven years and
we now have the Tamarixia wasp psyllid predator on our radar. We’re also funding our own research into the use of silicon as a natural psyllid deterrent, and have become aware of some recent research in Malaysia on additional nutritional and health attributes of tamarillos that we are keen to further investigate.”
Ray Paterson is the association committee member responsible for research. “Several of us are growing tamarillos on the Aupouri peninsula in the far north, and a curiosity of the region is the presence of silica in the soils on some sites and not on others. Tamarillos growing in soil with high silica content seem more naturally resistant to the psyllid. This is prevalent enough to warrant further research and we are putting our own industry funding towards this.”
Ray also points to the possibility of further research on gold and amber tamarillos. “Growers that are troubled with the tamarillo mosaic virus find that the gold doesn't express it, and amber tamarillos have a sweeter taste that suits some consumers. The market perception of tamarillos is that they are red, but innovation in how we market tamarillos could change that perception. We can add gold and/or amber tamarillos to the mix in the same way that the kiwifruit industry added gold to the green kiwifruit perception – but obviously for different reasons.”
Ray recently came across some research from Malaysia on some new health and nutrition benefits of tamarillos. Ray explains that while this research is in its infancy, “the possibilities look exciting and warrant further work, so we are following this up to see if we can be involved and have so far donated a small sample of fruit for further research.”
The biggest challenge that the new Tamarillo Growers Association committee faces is the gap between generations. Eric Wagener, a far north tamarillo grower, says the substantial voluntary input of time and knowledge from the current aging generation of growers is rare in the next generation. “People’s time commitments, expectations and attitudes have changed now and voluntary input in any industry is harder to find. People are becoming more insular and losing sight of the greater vision. The value of the knowledge and experience of what has been built up may not be realised until it is gone – and we can’t wait for that to happen. We have to be proactive and find new entrepreneurial and grower models that work in the current social and work circumstances.
“We are asking ‘How can we do this’ and ‘what will work now’? These questions help keep us solution based and future focussed as we approach the next era of tamarillo growing,” says Brian Weston. “We have enthusiastic, informed and capable growers to supply a high quality product to our markets. We face difficulties with growing, so continually seek to lift our game through better integration with science, through focussing on improving the sustainability of our businesses, and through effective sharing of best practice.”
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One day in the foreseeable future, their beloved trees and vines will be swept aside and the earth beneath recontoured into a platform for designer suburbia.
That day has not yet come, so the couple and their three daughters keep calm and carry on.
This has been Monte’s home for 48 years, since he was six months old. He’s a third generation orchardist. His grandfather, also named as Monte, was a grower at Spring Creek, Marlborough, with a holding of mostly apples and plums – definitely no citrus.
“That was a new thing for my dad when he came up north. He was an electrician by trade, and he moved around a bit, lived in Australia for a few years but settled in Auckland,” Monte recalls.
“He had a milk bar in Mission Bay, running it as a cash turnover business – that’s where he met my mum, an Australian. Once they had me and my brother, they decided to move to Huapai in 1969.”
“Billington is still an extremely popular plum, especially at “At Bluff, Dad did a deal with a fisherman – we ended up the farmers’ markets because it’s an old-fashioned, ‘first with so many oysters it was unbelievable – these guys never cab off the rank’ plum. They’re an easy tree to grow in saw grapefruit. Dad traded boxes of grapefruit for dozens of Auckland,” he says. oysters. He then took a box to the local fish and chip shop
and returned with a feed of battered oysters and chips, and “Then we have the later varieties of George Wilson, now
I think a crayfish along the way in Kaikoura as well. What a called Omega, Black Doris, Red Doris, Louisa, older ones
memory.” such as Honey Glow, Santa Rosa, and Black Amber.”
Last year was the worst harvest in 20 years for his plums BREAKAWAY POLITICS due mainly to hail and a poor set, however this season’s Monte’s father, Brian, is now in a rest home after suffering a crop is looking good. stroke. Nevertheless, in his prime Brian was heavily involved
in fruitgrowing politics – and not at all averse to being a Being located close to winemakers, the orchard grows
maverick. chardonnay grapes. The grapes are in a win-win scenario. For 12 years, Monte has enjoyed a handshake deal with a He helped form an independent fruitgrowers’ association of nearby winery. Auckland and tried to break away from the New Zealand
Apple and Pear Board. “They put bird netting on and I grow the grapes to a week before harvest, right up to the stage of picking. He appeared before a parliamentary select committee
regarding such a plan. He wanted the Auckland growers to The grapes are handpicked by the winery’s staff, which is
combine their resources and to have the Auckland market good for us because normally in March we’re starting to
for pipfruit. In the days of the regulated industry, Brian could pick our largest variety, Royal Gala. It all dovetails in nicely.”
see a vision of what the future held – and it wasn’t going to The orchard employs two permanent people during the be pretty for Auckland pipfruit growers. year, and seasonal workers as required. Henderson is now
“Because he was brought up in Marlborough, my dad could part of Auckland’s sprawl, located only 20 minutes away, and
see that advances in transport were going to affect the has a large population of people who like seasonal work. La markets,” Monte explains. Ronde has also enjoyed a good relationship with workers from the Pacific Island of Tuvalu for 30 years. “In the 1950s my uncle Terrance had one of the largest
orchards in the Hawke’s Bay, and my dad knew all the big GRAPEFRUIT AND GRANNYS orchardists down the line. “When Mum and Dad first bought the orchard it was 20% “He knew that once transport sorted itself out, Hawke’s grapefruit and 60% Granny Smiths. The rest was stonefruit. Bay orchardists would come up to Auckland and flood the Grapefruit was put on a train and sent to Christchurch market with their non-export fruit. It would be easy to send but that fell away when grapefruit became less popular,” a truck and trailer up every night. Dad saw that and tried he recalls. to get control of the Auckland market so only the Auckland It’s hard to imagine now, but it became too expensive to fruitgrowers could supply. transport grapefruit to the customers who really wanted it. “We formed a co-operative of Auckland growers through On a family trip to the South Island back in the day, Louis Dean, because he was the only packhouse left. We grapefruit was better than gold. used to use controlled atmosphere for apples and market
under the name ‘Auckland Fresh’ and that did alright for a “I remember when we were kids our family took a van
couple of years.” around the South Island for the school holidays,” Monte clearly recalls with amusement. INCREASING COSTS “The day before we left the old man stacked in boxes From afar, the lifestyle of a family orchard block looks rural of grapefruit. I said, “are we delivering grapefruit to the and romantic with a real Garden of Eden glow, but as any market?” This fruit stayed in the back of the van. We gave experienced rural owner knows, it’s a business that has to some to relatives in Marlborough and Motueka as we pay its way. visited, but by Bluff we still had five boxes of grapefruit. In Auckland, those running costs are starting to bite hard.