Cher­ries on top

The Orchardist - - In Focus - By Ge­off Lewis Pho­tos by Tre­for Ward

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

flavour.

“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.”

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