Auck­land’s last or­chardists pre­pare for ex­o­dus

The Orchardist - - In Focus - Story and pho­tos by Denise Landow

Brian and Olive Neal bought the prop­erty to en­able their other son, Stephen, a fu­ture af­ter hav­ing been born with Down syn­drome. If they hadn’t provided their son an op­por­tu­nity to work and live at home, he would have been sent to an in­sti­tu­tion – that’s what hap­pened in the 1970s. They then pur­chased a neigh­bour­ing or­chard three years later and all up, La Ronde Or­chard be­came a 14.6ha op­er­a­tion.

Hua­pai, and other sur­round­ing ar­eas just north of Auck­land’s city, were known for their ‘dig­ger blocks’.The gov­ern­ment had gifted parcels of land to re­turned ser­vice­men af­ter the end of World War II.

Monte ex­plains that in the late 1940s and early 1950s the gov­ern­ment of­fered gen­er­ous loans to get peo­ple started on these 20 acre (8ha) blocks.

“The men who re­ceived these prop­er­ties knew they couldn’t be run as dairy farms be­cause the lots weren’t large enough – that’s when the idea of or­chard­ing came in,” he says.

“There was a large in­flu­ence of Dal­ma­tions, who’d been gum-dig­ging in the area. Hua­pai was all or­chards in the ‘60s – Hau­pai in M-aori ac­tu­ally means ‘good fruit’.

“Ap­ples and stone­fruit were grown. With stone­fruit – you had to grow ones that didn’t need the win­ter chill, so you were lim­ited on va­ri­eties. As a kid I re­mem­ber there were lots of peaches and nec­tarines grown out here and most or­chards had gate sales – it’s al­ways been a pop­u­lar place for Auck­lan­ders on the week­ends.”

Any Auck­land grower will be hon­est – the land’s not great for or­chard­ing. The pre­dom­i­nantly clay soils have pock­ets of sandy loam, but mainly it’s puggy. In win­ter the soil holds wa­ter and in sum­mer it goes rock hard, Monte con­fesses.

He laughs, “we don’t lack wa­ter, but that’s made up for by hu­mid­ity and poor soils.”

Grow­ers need to put ef­fort into soil struc­ture, and in the last few years Monte has used a healthy heap of sea­weed prod­ucts.

The life-long Auck­land grower ex­plains that trees take longer to es­tab­lish here than in other fruit­grow­ing ar­eas but once set­tled, they are strong be­cause tap­roots have to get right down.

“It’s not the ideal fruit­grow­ing area, but I do think it’s one of the best ar­eas in New Zealand for pro­duc­ing Granny Smith ap­ples be­cause of the way the trees sit in the soil. The ap­ples grow more slowly and take longer to ma­ture, but a nicer taste comes through,” he says.

Monte is still sec­re­tary of the Auck­land Pipfruit Grow­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion – and will prob­a­bly be the last per­son to hold the post be­fore the as­so­ci­a­tion for­mally winds up. “About 30 years ago, nearly all the smaller pipfruit as­so­ci­a­tions were run­ning them­selves, so we formed the Auck­land Pipfruit Grow­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion just for pipfruit grow­ers in 1993, with about 90 mem­bers. I be­came sec­re­tary and sent no­tices of meet­ings with posted let­ters.”

Monte re­calls there were about eight grower as­so­ci­a­tions around the wider north Auck­land re­gion, in­clud­ing Hua­pai, Hen­der­son, Kumeu, Ora­tia, Al­bany, and Te Hana in Wells­ford.

Just 15 years later in 2011, the as­so­ci­a­tion’s mem­bers who gath­ered rep­re­sented only six or­chards: Monte, along with his fa­ther Brian Neal, Louis Dean, Gus Nola, Max Win­tle, Filip Babich, and Leo Floyd. The group’s next meet­ing will prob­a­bly be the last. It re­ally is the end of a hor­ti­cul­tural era that has seen or­chardists forced into sub­mis­sion from a har­bour­crimped su­per city pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion and its need for hous­ing.

Even to­wards the end, many as­so­ci­a­tions kept them­selves in place purely for so­cial rea­sons. The Ora­tia Fruit­grow­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion is one of the old­est fruit­grow­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tions in the coun­try and now meets purely for so­cial gath­er­ings, but Hua­pai and Kumeu went into re­cess.

“The Hen­der­son Fruit­grow­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion alone had more than 80 mem­bers at one stage, and that’s where Lin­coln Road in Hen­der­son is now. It’s just a city – that’s slowly mov­ing out here,” says Monte.

The ad­vance has halted a lit­tle – but it will pick up again. Both to the north and south­ward onto some of this coun­try’s most pro­duc­tive agri­cul­tural land in the Pukekohe area.

Wel­come to Auck­land traf­fic, says Monte, as we drive through the city.

Over the last five years he and oth­ers have no­ticed a sig­nif­i­cant rise in traf­fic vol­umes and travel times, even around his Hua­pai home. Auck­land’s in­fras­truc­ture is creak­ing at the seams, he ob­serves.

“Our fam­ily has lived here for 48 years, and I’ve talked to other peo­ple too who have been here just as long, the con­sen­sus is that there is more traf­fic built up in the last five years in north-west Auck­land than in the pre­vi­ous 30 – it’s just ex­ploded. ”

“There’s still a lot of glasshouse and straw­berry pro­duc­tion, but for ap­ples and pears, the in­fras­truc­ture fell through. We stopped ex­port­ing from this area from the late 1990s and early 2000s be­cause of a lack of grow­ers and no one was big enough to in­vest heav­ily in a pack­house.

“We had one grower on the verge of that in Ora­tia, Louis Dean from Golden West Or­chards. We ex­ported through them for a num­ber of years into the 2000s. Then they reached re­tire­ment age, pulled out the or­chard and leased the land. Some other grow­ers and I kept on ex­port­ing through a Hamilton pack­house, but in the end with the lo­gis­tics and trans­port costs, it didn’t work.”

When Monte was a boy, he re­mem­bers each shed ex­port­ing their own ap­ples. La Ronde used to pack 200 car­tons a day. The Neal fam­ily has sup­plied Turn­ers and Grow­ers for 48 years, and that re­la­tion­ship con­tin­ues to­day.

Monte and An­ge­lene are not cry­ing into their ap­ple crates and be­moan­ing the siege of the city that will even­tu­ally force them out.

Both are prac­ti­cal re­al­ists, who have an eye for op­por­tu­nity – or should that be – a knack for hand­craft­ing their own op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“Our ap­ples are juiced in Te Kauwhata, and I’ve es­tab­lished con­nec­tions with a com­pany which runs 15 cafés. They make their own juice in store, and I sup­ply them with fresh fruit,” says Monte.

“We sup­ply su­per­mar­kets, which is good and dif­fi­cult at the same time be­cause they take vol­ume, but you re­ally are in the lap of the gods whether they de­cide to take your fruit from week to week. But I’ve formed a re­la­tion­ship with Farro Fresh, a com­pany that runs five mini gourmet su­per­mar­kets around Auck­land, and they like to tell the grower’s story.”

“They were sur­prised ap­ples were still grown in Auck­land. I sup­ply Farro with ap­ples and juice, and do in-store tast­ings so cus­tomers can meet the grower in per­son.”

When Monte re­turned from univer­sity, he said to his fa­ther, “why don’t we just ex­port ap­ples – ex­port them to Auck­land.”

The idea of grow­ing ex­port grade fruit and sup­ply­ing di­rect to the Auck­land pub­lic was ex­panded, as Brian had al­ready been de­liv­er­ing fruit.

With a van full of fruit, Monte and Brian de­liv­ered di­rect to peo­ple’s homes and work­places three times a week.

Back in the day, it was prob­a­bly bor­der­line il­le­gal, due to the reg­u­la­tions in place from the for­mer New Zealand Ap­ple and Pear Mar­ket­ing Board, but it made for an in­ter­est­ing time, he grins.

When An­ge­lene moved onto the or­chard, she picked up the de­liv­ery role and with her back­ground in couri­ers, took the ser­vice to an­other level.

“We’ve al­ways sold di­rect to the pub­lic. From the early 2000s I did fruit bas­kets for 10 years. I bought in other fruit and went to cor­po­rate busi­nesses in town and sup­plied fruit for their staff twice a week. I got that idea from Europe, and it went okay un­til the large whole­salers got wind of it.

“When I started there were three of us do­ing it, but now there are about 15 com­pa­nies. Even­tu­ally I had to make the choice – whether I gave away or­chard­ing or be­come a whole­saler and set up a fruit de­liv­ery busi­ness. I couldn’t do both, it had to be one or the other. We couldn’t fill the bas­kets with only the ap­ples and plums that we grew. Cus­tomers wanted all sorts of fruit – straw­ber­ries, cherry to­ma­toes, ki­wifruit, man­goes, and so on.”

The grower side of his heart won out, and he sold the busi­ness to Fruit Run­ners. Be­ing out on the or­chard was more ap­peal­ing than sit­ting in city traf­fic for hours each day. To­day, one of the big­gest costs faced by busi­ness own­ers is get­ting their vans around town.

A few spe­cial cus­tomers are the ex­cep­tion: He still de­liv­ers to clients the or­chard’s had for up to 40 years, which in­cludes Green­lane Hos­pi­tal’s child­care cen­tre.

Un­til two years ago Monte had a con­tract to sup­ply ap­ples to ev­ery Z En­ergy sta­tion in Auck­land, how­ever that con­tract was not re­newed. That’s when Monte con­tacted Farro Fresh and asked if they wanted an ap­ple grower.

“The in­dus­try needs to catch up on telling the grow­ers’ sto­ries. I’ve done farm­ers’ mar­kets for 15 years. I en­joy in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple but it takes up your week­ends and I’ve scaled that back, how­ever I still sup­ply fruit to a stall­holder at the mar­ket. That’s the big­gest ex­plo­sion around Auck­land – the mar­kets.”

Monte loves host­ing his café client’s staff for on-or­chard walks. These im­por­tant train­ing and learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences hap­pen maybe five times a year. The walks for sum­mer in­takes of new staff for the busy Christ­mas pe­riod are seen as es­pe­cially im­por­tant. Dur­ing their or­chard walk, Monte takes them through the many fruits the staff will sell to the café’s clien­tele.

“Staff phys­i­cally meet the grower, see where the fruit comes from, and are shown the process of pick­ing. This gives them knowl­edge and con­fi­dence when they’re talk­ing to their own cus­tomers. It’s not just the mid­dle man­age­ment or the bosses who come out, it’s the wait­ers who are deal­ing di­rect with the pub­lic.”

“This is some­thing the in­dus­try needs to pick up on – es­pe­cially around Auck­land. Peo­ple like to hear a story more nowa­days. Many grow­ers are do­ing this, but I’d like to see all su­per­mar­ket check­out op­er­a­tors visit the or­chard – not just the pro­duce man­agers. Hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence is the best for those who ac­tu­ally deal with the pub­lic, and field trips are good for staff morale.”

La Ronde Or­chard’s name­sake was a milk bar in Mis­sion Bay. La ronde means ‘the round’, hence La Ronde Milk Bar loosely means in English, to gather around a place, in this case the lo­cal milk bar.

“It’s an old-fash­ioned or­chard where there’s a bit of ev­ery­thing, with in­come all through the year, in­clud­ing our pro­cessed ap­ple juice. We still have a cou­ple of blocks of grape­fruit, tan­ge­los, lemons and limes. When I was do­ing the farm­ers’ mar­kets so many peo­ple wanted lemons and limes, so I chucked in 20 trees of each.”

Walk­ing through the or­chard to­day, the trees are old and have beau­ti­ful shapes, and still pro­duce a fairly de­cent crop. Monte keeps some old va­ri­eties go­ing that he es­pe­cially en­joys, such as Red Dougherty ap­ples.

Plant­ings in­clude twelve types of plums. His pre-Christ­mas favourites are the yel­low-flesh Wil­son’s Early along with Red Beaut and Billing­ton for over the Christ­mas pe­riod.

“Even though we have a lot of av­enues to sell our crop, at each cor­ner you’re hit with in­creas­ing costs: com­pli­ance, in­creas­ing prop­erty rates, in­sur­ance, the day-to-day costs, wages, and the abil­ity to get around the city to de­liver the fruit, and traf­fic,” he ad­mits.

“The rates bills are unique to our lo­ca­tion be­cause of the change in land use.

“Eco­nom­i­cally it’s been a strug­gle for years be­cause we don’t have a large enough scale of pro­duc­tion to ab­sorb a lot of those costs. When you look around Hawke’s Bay and Nel­son, there’s no real hus­band and wife or­chards left.”

Ide­ally, if there was still a large grower with an ex­port pack­house nearby, Monte may con­sider leas­ing a crop to work at an hourly rate and not have the stress of wear­ing as many hats as he does to sell the pro­duce.

“It’s a shame be­cause there is still a mar­ket for lo­cally grown fresh fruit, but you’ve re­ally got to put in the hours.”

“When I was younger, I’d get home from school and get straight into work. You knew that ev­ery hour you worked your­self, you were mak­ing a dol­lar. Now you sit there and fac­tor in what you pay out, and re­alise the guys pick­ing the fruit are mak­ing more money than I am as a grower. It’s swung that way, it’s all very well hav­ing warm fuzzies about grow­ing nice fruit but it’s got to be eco­nomic as well.

“It’s a great way of life, but you’ve got to make it work. It’s not easy – any grower will tell you that.”

Monte says, “you’ve got to ac­cept that you’re not go­ing to stop ‘progress’. Auck­land can only go up or out. If it goes out, it can’t go east or west, it has to go north or south be­cause there’s a bloody big har­bour on both sides. The big­gest let down of the Auck­land in­dus­try in the late 1990s was ur­ban sprawl.”

“That took out a lot of or­chards lo­cated around the city fringe, and the in­fras­truc­ture fell through. The NZ Ap­ple and Pear Board closed their de­pot in Hen­der­son, so you didn’t have that net­work of grow­ers or vol­ume of sup­ply, it just fell away. So each grower was alone and left to their own de­vices.”

The lat­est nail in the fam­ily or­chardists’ cof­fin is Auck­land City’s new Uni­tary Plan. In this doc­u­ment, pub­lished just over a year ago, large sec­tions of Hua­pai where the Neals live, were re­zoned from ru­ral life­style to fu­ture ur­ban.

“So within 25 years, where we live and our or­chard will be 500–700m² sec­tions – so the writ­ing’s on the wall,” he com­ments with a mat­ter-of-fact tone.

The smell of de­vel­op­ers and money is now in the air.

“Ba­si­cally the day af­ter the Uni­tary Plan came out we started hav­ing peo­ple knock­ing on our door, mainly de­vel­op­ers and land agents. We thought, ‘hang on, let’s do a lit­tle of our own home­work’. Af­ter a while, we de­cided to list with one agent we could trust, and that took away peo­ple turn­ing up any­time of the day, nor­mally on a Sun­day af­ter­noon, promis­ing the world with a nice car and a nice tie.”

Monte says plainly, “at some stage, we’re go­ing to be turned into hous­ing, so we’ll sell it on our own terms. We’ve set our price and we’ll see what comes along.”

The Neals are still keen to be in­volved in fruit­grow­ing, ei­ther by grow­ing, leas­ing, or fur­ther work with cur­rent sup­pli­ers. They may have to go in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion but their fu­ture is still def­i­nitely in hor­ti­cul­ture.

Monte and An­ge­lene Neal, of Hua­pai, with the sign sell­ing their or­chard for ur­ban de­vel­op­ment.

One day these beloved trees will be swept aside and cov­ered by sub­ur­bia.

Leo Floyd, Filip Babich, Max Win­tle, Monte Neal. The Auck­land Pipfruit Grow­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion will prob­a­bly wind up for good at its next meet­ing.

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