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10 October 2019

Apples for Culverden

Ngāi Tahu Farming is working through a detailed planning process with the aim of establishing their first horticultural development in the Balmoral/Culverden district of North Canterbury. 

Their Culverden operation comprises just over 9,000 ha in pines and beef production, and the plans for a pipfruit orchard has now reached the point of ordering tree stocks for planting in 2021. Business  Development Manager Ben Giesen explains: “The initial concept came about because Ngāi Tahu has a significant bit of land in the Balmoral Forest in North Canterbury. For a number of years, we’ve been looking at what to do with that land, with a lot of it coming out of pine trees. What are the alternative land use options? We considered horticulture as one of those options and enlisted Plant and Food Research to help us understand the possible crop options and provide recommendations.”

Three years ago, Ngāi Tahu established a 2.5 ha trial orchard, having first completed the extensive work needed to bring former pine forest blocks into a state suitable for orcharding.

“We sourced some trees for the trial, mainly stonefruit, olives and nut trees,” says Ben. “The first year they did reasonably well. At the same time, we created the infrastructure such as water and wind protection needed to give the trees the best opportunity.Our view was to run this trial block in a  commercially-focussed way.”  The Ngāi Tahu team, which now included Orchard Manager John Blackadder, sought support and advice from Fruitfed Supplies and AgFirst consultants to expand their orcharding knowledge. “It’s outside our capabilities at this point, so we wanted to understand spray and fertiliser programmes, consider different irrigation and trellis systems, and then rate what we think will work.”

In year two, different tree varieties were planted and that’s when the focus turned to apples.“We planted a range of apple varieties, Envy, Jazz, Galaxy, Lady in Red and some berries. Last year, we monitored growth rates to get hard data about how these trees perform here. Growth rates varied from 600-800 mm with the majority between 700-800 mm. We got a good understanding that these trees are in the right conditions and performing well. So about four months ago we asked, can we turn this into a commercial viability? 

“Our Fruitfed Supplies Representative Rob Wards was one to say you need to secure plants for 2021 and 2022 because of the demand. It’s quite hard work, but we managed to secure about 40,000 trees for 2021 which will plant around 15 ha.” The decision on varieties to be grafted onto the M9 dwarf rootstock is still to be made following further data from the trial block this season. The assessment of inversion layer during frost events and the installation of an Orchard-Rite wind machine were the final pieces of the puzzle to counter the site’s biggest risks: wind and frosts.

Rob Wards explains: "We provided pest and disease prevention programmes plus the chemistry for the various trial crops, fertiliser and fertigation programmes and herbicide recommendations. Fruitfed Supplies has also supplied the wood and steel trellising structure, irrigation systems, a Cropliner sprayer and an Orchard-Rite wind machine for frost protection, plus varied equipment for harvest, etc."  

Ben says the size of the commercial orchard is also still being decided. “Apples are the prime focus at this point, but we’re not ruling out other options like stonefruit. We’ve talked with the likes of Turners & Growers and Heartland Group about pathways to market. It’s important to have a good fit for a business like ours when we don’t have the knowledge and infrastructure. There’s a lot of good knowledge out there with people like Fruitfed Supplies who help you grow these trees productively.” 

Ben adds: “It’s an exciting step for Ngāi Tahu Farming which includes dairy, beef and forestry assets. This ticks a lot of boxes in terms of a good alternative use of the land and income stream for
our business."

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