Sunfruit Orchards are taking the fruit grown from their trees on their plantings in Ohaupo to customers all over the world. The trees at their base in Ohaupo are just a small part in their overall company, growing apples, pears, peaches and plums. The Waikato-based fruit exporter has 330ha in production around New Zealand, however the bulk of their production is in Hawke’s Bay. Apples are their main crop producing royal gala, braeburn, granny smith and pink lady varieties with the bulk of their produce grown for the export market. Domestically, they are one of Progressive Enterprises main suppliers. PickMee (Sunfruit Orchards) export manager Lesley Whyte says their business works as closely as it can with its customers. PickMee (Sunfruit Orchards) export manager Lesley Whyte says their business works as closely as it can with its customers.
The plum varieties they grow are purple majesty and they also grow scarlet o’hara peaches. The Ohaupo Orchard hosted about a dozen journalists from around the world visiting New Zealand for the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Congress in Hamilton. Sunfruit Orchards’ marketing arm is PickMee Fruit. It is the brand name for their fruit that is taken globally to their customers throughout Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East. Sunfruit Orchard manager Ken Johnson said they do a lot of work in trying to get their tree structures right to optimise production. Sunfruit Orchard manager Ken Johnson said they do a lot of work in trying to get their tree structures right to optimise production. PickMee export manager Lesley Whyte said they operate under a tree to table philosophy. “We focus as closely as we can with the supermarket with direct business when we can and that’s been a focus of ours right from the beginning.” It had been successful, but it was also a challenge when they deal directly with supermarkets. “We believe in getting as close to the market as possible as a grower, marketer [and] shipper of our own product.”
This has resulted in the company developing very good relationships with their customers, particularly in the UK and Europe. They supply the Morrisons supermarket chain in the UK as well as chains in Europe. They are six weeks away from, the market and it took extra managing to ensure their produce arrived at the specified time from April through to October. They supply the domestic market 12 months of the year with the produce stored right through until the new season kicks off. They start selling stone fruit in December and that season goes until March.
“We believe fruit is unique, and processing it destroys its value so the best value we can obtain is getting consumers to buy it fresh off the shelf.” Run by John Altham and his family, he is a second generation fruit grower with the business started by his father. John’s son Tim is also working for the business and represents the third generation. The orchard first begun planting fruit in 1962 and some of the plantings are in their third cycle. The business averages about 80 tonnes to the hectare across all species. The industry is currently trialling the future orchard production system which they are trialling at their Hawke’s Bay orchard. This system aimed to increase productivity by ensuring trees were more efficient in how they converted light energy into fruit and introducing simpler and more efficient orchard management techniques.
Central to the system was planting the trees further apart but developing two main leader branches on each tree that would carry the fruit. It was believed this could increase production from 100-180 tonnes a hectare.
“They believe it will increase productivity by 80 per cent. It will also allowing more light in,” she said. Sunfruit were trialling this system in their pika pear plantings in Hawke’s Bay. The business had also been trying the smitten apple variety. The royal gala-braeburn cross was a incredibly flavoured apple and had been well accepted in their UK and US markets, but the hot, humid Asian climates had caused some post-harvest storage issues in those markets, she said.
It is a quieter time at the moment for the business with the packhouse sorting fruit for the domestic market. The fruit enter the house and are then graded and packed. The lower graded apples are sold for processing to cider makers or for pie fillings while the higher graded fruit is either exported or sold on the domestic market.
“But the best value is still fresh by far,” Whyte said. The orchard uses beehives for pollination. Orchard manager Ken Johnson said how orchards planted trees had changed. In previous years growers would plant trees up to two metres apart and four metre row spacings. That had shortened to trees being planted at one and a half metre apart in three and a half metre row spacings. “When you plant blocks, you don’t have big gaps. There’s no money in gaps and it’s all about dollars per hectare,” he said. Sunfruit had some trees that were planted in 1984 that are still producing fruit. When a block is pulled out, the ground either had to be fumigated or spelled before a new tree was planted. For new trees, the priority was setting them up property when they mature by growing them well and pruning them properly, he said. “We do a lot of work in trying to get our tree structures right,” he said.
The trees are pruned over winter and the main focus over the past month had been spraying the trees to thin fruit grown. If they do not do this, then biennial trees such as braeburn did not produce fruit for the following year, he said.
“We do a chemical flower thinner at the moment and later on when the fruit gets to about 12mm in diameter, we assess it, and if we have far too much fruit we come in with a fruit thinner and once we have done that we hand thin it so we have the right amount of fruit left on the tree.”
Once that process is done the trees are left for harvest. For galas that started at the end of February.
Whyte said there were about 8500ha planted in pipfruit in New Zealand, 900-950 orchards, about 500 growers, 70-80 exporters and 56 pack houses.
Between 18-20 per cent of all orchards are more than 30ha, 20-25 per cent between 15-30ha and 45-50 per cent between 5-15ha and the rest are under 5ha.
The cost of production varied depending on the variety but was usually between $18.50-$23 per tray carton equivalent. (an 18kg box of fruit).
The exchange rate had a huge impact on their business, and the high exchange rates of the past did impact on their returns, she said.
“This year we have seen an upside in the latter part of our season where the New Zealand dollar has weakened. It is starting to strengthen again at the moment but we have gone through a couple of years of some extremely high exchange rates.”
More of New Zealand’s fruit was going into the Asian market instead of the traditional European market. This was partly due to the higher number of varieties going into those market, she said.
“In UK-Europe in the last 10-11 years we have seen a decrease of 38 per cent and Asia probably up 34 per cent and I think we’ll see that trend continuing.”
In the past few years there has been a 6-7 per cent decrease into Europe and exports into the US was down this year due to their huge domestic crop. These markets preferred a medium to acidic flavoured apple such as a cox, whereas Asian consumers preferred sweet apples.
China was a fantastic but difficult market to access because of phytosanitary reasons. The fruit had to be “squeaky clean”, when it entered the country but very lucrative if the product could get in there.
While they do have political access to Australia, the protocols were so tight that it was not economic for them to export to that country.
She was very positive about the industry’s future because of the new varieties of fruit and emerging markets.
“We can offer something quite unique from New Zealand and we spend a lot of time in the industry making sure we can get a safe product to our customers.”