Cherries on top
There are fantastic opportunities for the cherry industry according to nurseryman, Andy McGrath.
“Cherry plantings are going crazy and we have really increased production to keep up,” said Andy, 62.
He owns McGrath Nurseries near Hamilton and is intimately aware of, and closely involved with, the propagation of new varieties of fruit trees which are the backbone of the formidable growth in fruit horticulture in this country.
His father was a civil servant installing radar equipment in airfields and at air force bases around the country. Education was important to his parents and despite many shifts he received an excellent schooling and completed a Bachelor of Science at Massey University, before working at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) on plant physiology.
“But I didn't suit the Government environment although it was full of interesting people and projects,” he said.
He went on to work nationally as a horticultural consultant.
“I could see people were struggling to get good fruit trees,” he said. “I had always loved plants and business and I was asked a few times to grow trees and eventually I said to one customer, ‘I'll grow them for you’.”
Over 35 years ago he borrowed heavily and bought the lessee’s portion of a plot of land on Gorton Road near Cambridge and eventually the freehold of 27 hectares of Government land at Karapiro.
“I started growing peach and nectarine trees because there was a huge shortage and then moved into apples,” he said.
“I went on to buy another 47ha in the area and then a further 60ha, selling some in between and leasing a number of properties.
“In 1990 I bought about 30 percent of what was then NZ’s largest cherry and apricot orchard. I looked at the cherry industry and it was using ancient varieties. I felt there was the potential to create a real industry if there was varietal improvement so I set out to do this.”
When McGrath set up as a nurseryman there were 65 other nurseries working around NZ. Today there are four, with McGrath's and one other accounting for well over half the national production.
Intellectual property and its commercial value is critical to the development of new varieties. Selling apples, peaches, nectarines or cherries is one thing but developing new cultivars is now a specialist job in itself.
McGrath-owned companies control varieties such as KORU worldwide and the production of Honeycrisp in NZ along with a number of premium cherry and other stonefruit varieties. Honeycrisp has a unique textural quality and KORU is an attractive offering with excellent
“Honeycrisp is a demanding variety to grow and ship, grows well in a narrow climatic range but it is the single most profitable fruit offering in United States’ grocery stores,” he said.
“Selling apples, peaches, nectarines or cherries is one thing but developing new cultivars is now a specialist job in itself.”
Choosing varieties that are winners is not always easy and even an excellent variety can fail.
“Today there are hundreds of new commercial varieties with more than 40 new apple varieties vying for space in groceries and supermarkets in the US alone, and a raft of new cultivars on the way,” he said. “Creating success takes diligence and investment and only varieties with excellent agronomics and consumer quality stand any chance of success.”
McGrath travels widely and is in an enviable position of being able to witness progress made in key foreign horticultural research centres. He also obtains a first-hand understanding
of the status of different fruit varieties in the market while a good eye for plants help guide his choices.
Dwarfing rootstocks have been a focus for him.
“We’ve got to have top agronomics and a great product and these need to be grown on the most efficient and environmentally friendly rootstocks in order to meet consumer and economic demands.”
He has been the driver behind the introduction of the Geneva rootstocks in NZ and is hoping to similarly revolutionise cherry production with a new series of cherry rootstocks before he retires.
“We grow a huge amount of the cherry trees planted in NZ, well over 90 percent, but this has taken years of commitment and investment,” he said.
“We started importing back in the 1990s – back then plantings were about 40 or 50ha. Today it’s around 900ha but I can readily see a market the production from 2500ha.”
McGrath’s Nurseries produces hundreds of thousands of grafted trees a year, about 90 pallet-loads a week during the extended ‘lifting’ season and next year this is set to increase. The business employs up to 60 staff during its peak winter period. The workforce is multi-national and he relies heavily of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme which allows people from various Pacific nations to work in NZ.
“We have an explosion of horticulture in NZ and the RSE scheme has allowed it to expand,” he said.
He believes growers need to be genuinely and truly committed to this scheme for it to have longevity and meaning to all participants.
“Horticulture has a huge future for those who choose to work in it,” he said.
“As an industry we need to show entrants that it is challenging and interesting career and that there are diverse career pathways to explore.
“For me horticulture has been an amazing way to create a living and to hopefully leave the planet in slightly better shape than when I arrived. I have met wonderful people, both growers and scientists.
“It has been a blast so far and there’s life in me yet. There is plenty to improve and maybe I am just hitting my stride.”
“We have an explosion of horticulture in NZ and the RSE scheme has allowed it to expand.”