The Orchardist

Thawley Orchard – a family business

Six family members work on Thawley Orchard near Mapua in a business that has progressed from a tiny orchard in 1914 to a multifacet­ed operation encompassi­ng orchard, packhouse, coolstore and trucking.

- By Anne Hardie

Today, Leigh and Aaron Thawley are the family’s fifth generation growing apples, and each has found their niche in the business. Leigh is orchard manager, a job he never anticipate­d after a previous career as a mechanic, before returning home to work on the machinery and in the packhouse.

It was only when an orchard manager left 18 months ago and he was given the task of managing the orchard that he began to appreciate the diversity and satisfacti­on of the job. Since then they have rediscover­ed the importance of family having a finger on the pulse in the orchard.

While he takes care of the growing side of the business, his wife Sophie works in administra­tion plus health and safety. Brother Aaron is in charge of the coolstore and logistics, and his wife Krystal has the role of maturity testing as well as working in the packhouse. His father Jim still runs the packhouse, and his mother Carmel helps where she is needed.

“We’ve all got our own department­s, but all work in together to achieve common goals,” Leigh says.

The orchard side of the business has consolidat­ed in recent years and they have quit leased blocks to concentrat­e on the 45ha home orchard. It will produce about 130,000 TCE (tray carton equivalent) of apples once replacemen­t plantings come onstream, plus a few hectares of pears. Older apple varieties such as Braeburn have been replaced with Dazzle, Galaxy and a few of the high-colour Fuji, Kiku. This winter they are planting 5,000 of the locally-developed Mondaju, which is an apple with the flavour of Gala, but higher colour.

“Everyone wants a high-colour apple that looks good on the shelf, and that’s what we aim at also,” he says. “It’s a bit of a gamble working out what tree to put in.”

Hard Moutere clay soils have been a battle over the years, and it wasn’t until they used the rootstock CG202 that they could get young trees into production faster.

“We’ve now got trees that start producing fruit in their second or third year, whereas some of our other trees are eight years old and still struggling.”

Between the orchard and packhouse they employ 20 permanent staff, with another 35 in the packhouse through to June, and close to 20 in the orchard at harvest. Because they have lower volumes of fruit due to the new plantings, Leigh says they have opted for less pickers who concentrat­e on quality.

“Every fruit counts this year because we’re down on quantity. It hasn’t been as warm as last year, but the fruit has done well and the fruit size is good, whereas last year we struggled.”

A team of RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) scheme workers join a few locals for harvest, and the orchard no longer has to hire travellers, who Leigh says often only want to stay for a week or two before moving on. Whereas in the packhouse, travellers provide the bulk of the seasonal workforce, and prefer the packing line to picking fruit.

Through the packhouse, the business handles 200,000 TCE, which keeps the facility and its staff in action most of the year. A container trailer in the truck fleet gives them the ability to container freight the fruit straight to port, which enables them to control the entire supply chain to that point.

As well as storing fruit from their own orchard and from growers that get their fruit packed in the packhouse, the coolstore adds another income stream by taking in packed fruit from growers needing coolstore space.

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Leigh Thawley now manages the orchard side of the family business.
Kanzi is a Braeburn-gala-bred apple.
Atunaisa from Tonga picks Kanzi apples.
All go in the packhouse at apple harvest.
From left: Leigh Thawley now manages the orchard side of the family business. Kanzi is a Braeburn-gala-bred apple. Atunaisa from Tonga picks Kanzi apples. All go in the packhouse at apple harvest.
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