ON THE COVER:
Soni Kuljit underneath a mass of gold kiwifruit,
Harvest crews are travelling between 26 apple blocks and 14 kiwifruit blocks at Birdhurst Orchards in Motueka where this season’s crops of both fruit are looking good, despite a cooler season.
The multi-generational orchard and packing business is owned by the Wilkins family, who teamed up with two other orchard businesses to create the vertically-integrated company, Golden Bay Fruit. Last year the company began handling apples through its state-of-the-art packhouse with the latest Greefa technology that includes robotics to sort, measure and pack the fruit.
Soni Kuljit is the kiwifruit manager for Birdhurst Orchards, overseeing 53ha of G3 gold kiwifruit around Motueka, which was shaping up well in mid-march and on target for harvest to begin in early April.
It means both kiwifruit and apple harvests are in full swing at the same time, with RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) scheme workers making up the bulk of the harvest staff, plus permanent workers and about 10% casual workers. At the peak of the apple harvest, 220 people are picking fruit from 350ha, while kiwifruit has 40 people under the vines.
Richard Clarkson is now pipfruit manager for Birdhurst Orchards, and like many horticulture businesses around the country, he says it’s a challenge attracting quality young staff as permanent workers. that’s a worry when the average age of permanent workers in the industry is in the mid-50s, he says.
He works between apple blocks scattered from Riwaka to the Waimea Plains, and he says that geographical area provides diversification for the business to spread the risk of weather events.
In the apple mix, Birdhurst Orchards has Miranda and Cherish for the Asian market, plus two new Prevar varieties, 003 and 093 that are early and mid-season apples, also aimed at the Asian market.
“The challenge is knowing what the world wants in 10 years’ time, and sometimes it’s finding something that has a point of difference.”
High-value apple varieties are being progressively covered with hail netting including drape netting which he says has its drawbacks, a flat-topped system and now retractable netting which will enable them to remove it during pollination. It has become a form of hail insurance, as insurance premiums don’t get any cheaper, he says.
Being part of a business that markets its own fruit means there is a direct link to the market, and they can respond to feedback quicker.
“It’s really great as an integrated business, having feedback directly from the markets. Golden Bay Fruit has marketing arms in the United Kingdom, China and Singapore and we get instant feedback, which does have an impact on your picking and how good a job they are doing.
“Being part of a business worldwide means you get to see it from the paddock through to the consumer.”
Worldwide, Coronavirus (COVID-19) is having an impact, and Richard says it is still unknown how it will affect their industries.
“Will people still go out and buy fresh fruit and vegetables? I think you will see more people buy online, which will be interesting. And in New Zealand, what impact will it have? Really good hygiene is important and getting that across to our staff.”
The packhouse works through to October, and in mid-march the business had already closed its doors to guests to reduce the risk of the virus affecting its workforce.