Frustrated with the limited range of apples and pears on the market 25 years ago, Dieter Proebst went searching for a wider selection that he could grow organically. Anne Hardie visits his orchard where his collection now encompasses more than 200 apple and about 80 pear varieties.
The apple and pear trees in Dieter Proebst's orchard are a tough assortment of varieties with unfamiliar names such as hetlina and buttira di roma. Many are long, almost-forgotten varieties that have been resurrected from home gardens and orchards, and all have to survive without conventional sprays to keep disease at bay.
Treedimensions Orchard is tucked away in a valley on the west bank of the Motueka River, bordered by bush and pine-covered hills that lead into Kahurangi National Park. Wild deer and pigs forage close by at times, hence the boundary deer fence to keep them out of the orchard.
Within its borders, Proebst runs an organic operation, from the compost he mixes and sprays he uses, to the fruit leather and juice he produces, to his home, built from untreated timber. It's not just an organic business; it's a way of life.
So in line with his organic approach to life, the 200 or so apple and 80 pear varieties that he grows here have to be disease-resistant to do well.
Bavarian-born Proebst moved to the valley 25 years ago and began turning a chunk of the 14ha bare block into an organic orchard and tree nursery. The nursery has since closed but the orchard has blossomed with some 700 varieties of fruit being produced each year including about 100 of the varieties of apples that are then sold to customers throughout the country.
The apple collection grew out of his frustration with the small number of varieties available 25 years ago, prompting him to advertise in newspapers around the country for graft wood from heirloom varieties that were often found in home gardens.
Over time he gathered up to 220 varieties of apples, out of which he found 45 "winners" that suit his site. Initially there was little interest in organically grown fruit trees because back then people were more likely to ask: "Why grow organic apple trees?" As attitudes changed toward organically grown food, so did interest in varieties of trees that could be grown organically.
Among them is a favourite named cornish aromatic, an old English variety from the early 1800s that a friend rediscovered in Karamea. It's a late variety that is harvested in late April and is "totally problem-free and full of flavour", which sums up how Proebst rates his apples. Many a forgotten old apple tree in somebody's back garden has proven a winner.
"The more they're forgotten the better because they've stood the test of time," explains Proebst.
Another favourite is a clean-cropping variety from the former Czechoslovakia called hetlina, which is "ancient by modern standards". It's a dark red apple with a somewhat tart taste, yet still described as a dessert apple and according to research, has some of the healthiest attributes of all apples.
Among the assortment of pears that join the orchard mix are names unfamiliar to most consumers, such as duchesse d'angouleme, pierre corneille and buttira di roma that has a "melting, cloying flavour". "It's lovely stuff."
His orchard is by commercial standards tiny, at a mere 3000 trees, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in diversity and hardiness. From the very beginning, his main criteria when selecting varieties has been disease resistance to fit in with his organic regime. After that, he says it's a toss up between taste and growing qualities, as both are equally important for marketing a successful crop.
While the orchard may be relatively small, it's the basis of a "full-on" operation run by Proebst, one part-time staff member and the occasional volunteer helper. Selling fresh, first-grade apples around the country is just one aspect of his business. Customers can check out his website to see what varieties are being harvested and when, and order accordingly. Whether they live in Kaitaia or Bluff they can keep their fruit bowls full of a diverse mix of organic apples throughout the season.
"So people waiting for their favourite apple sauce variety know exactly what week it will come up."
Growing organically without chemicals to smooth out the problems of the season means there is a proportion of fruit that cosmetically can't compete on the shop shelves, though. That prompted Proebst to turn those apples into fruit leather and juice.
"It's taking the perishability out of it and adding value," he explains.
The fruit leather isn't confined just to the apple crop though. He now produces 30 different fruit flavours, using apple as a base, that are sold to retailers around the country. The juice is made in a tiny quantity with just a few thousand bottles for the season, but he's proud of the results and it's quickly snapped up.
Between the fruit leather and juice, there's no waste from the fruit crop and it's a policy he uses around the property. Fresh greenery cut from the orchard, including a diverse mix of legumes and numerous annuals forms the basis for his compost, which is recycled back on to the orchard and the massive vegetable garden, which looks big enough to feed a small army.
Proebst runs a few cattle in the rougher country beyond the orchard's perimeter and from autumn to spring he holds them in the cowshed every night to collect manure for the compost, using a deep litter system with wood shavings. Ingredients are added to the mix such as chicken manure, seaweed and minerals, as long as it's uncontaminated and-or organic.
"I'm one of those left-over hippies," he concludes. "I've always been very inquisitive and I'm always asking questions, even if they are uncomfortable questions. I take my reading glasses to the supermarket and it doesn't take exorbitant intelligence to take responsibility for what goes into your own body.
"There is an increasing number of people taking their health and what they are eating into their own hands. There's a raised consciousness about what they are eating."
Growing apples organically in Tasman Bay has its own hurdles though, as he's discovered over the years.
"The big curse in Tasman Bay is blackspot challenging apple growers because of our springtime humidity. That's why a lot of people find it difficult to grow apples organically here. But they probably grow the wrong varieties. Anyone seriously interested can find out where to get the right varieties and they're still adding promising new varieties.
"One we planted this year is called juliet and is only being released to organic growers, so I'm trialling it. The French have bred it for disease resistance."
For five months of the year it's a busy operation in the orchard, picking the vast selection of fruit, packaging it for customers and producing fruit leather or juice.
If that doesn't sound enough, he also runs a farm-stay in the form of two self-contained cottages on the property and a consultancy business that offers advice on organics and land use.
"I find it all fascinating," he enthuses. "I'm not doing a single job for that long so I don't get bored."
Working with the soil is his real passion though; reaping from it crops that he has nurtured organically.
"Can you imagine what you absorb from working in the garden, from having your hands in the soil? You're really in touch with it and you have the benefit of saying it's yours and you know what goes into it."