Pipfruit season off to promising start

BOUNTIFUL: Cas Round picks comice pears at Hoddy’s Orchard, where she had worked for more than 10 years. A trained graphic designer, she switched to orchard work because she likes the lifestyle.
BOUNTIFUL: Cas Round picks comice pears at Hoddy’s Orchard, where she had worked for more than 10 years. A trained graphic designer, she switched to orchard work because she likes the lifestyle.

Pipfruit grower Andrew Kininmonth describes himself as a realistic optimist - always hoping for the best but acutely aware that the weather and the markets can make or break.

And as the annual harvest gets under way at Hoddy's Orchard on the Waimea Plains, where he is general manager, he is cautiously confident that this season is shaping up to be a good one and certainly better than some of the horror shows of recent years.

Not only has the weather been kinder for growing fruit, but market prospects look brighter, with supply shortages likely to keep prices high for most varieties.

"Touch wood, the crop is looking great - it is clean, the volumes are good, and markets in essence are clearing, which gives us every chance to have a good year. But there is a long way to go to October when we know how the season has ended up."

It hasn't been all plain sailing though - it rarely is - with the spring throwing up plenty of challenges.

"We went from having lots of rain early on to having near-drought conditions and minor water rationing in November and December."

Fortunately, a couple of perfectly timed downpours over the past two months had kept it from getting too dry, and unlike others Hoddy's was not badly hit by hail strikes, Mr Kininmonth said.

More hand thinning had been required than normal after chemical thinning did not prove as effective as usual.

This had pushed up costs but would hopefully mean higher yields of top quality fruit, he said.

Picking of cox's orange apples and comice pears started late last week, with the main royal gala crop about a week away and later varieties not finishing until early May.

"The initial indicators are the fruit quality is going to be great and hopefully storeability as well."

Dry matter and brix levels were high, and the best they had ever been for pears, and fruit colour was coming along nicely, helped by warm days and cool nights, he said.

Fruit size was also more normal.

Hoddy's expected to pack about 140,000 cartons of their own class one fruit this season, up about 5 per cent on last year largely on the back of younger blocks reaching fuller production.

Forty pickers had already started, which would rise slightly as harvest peaked, while another 80 would be employed in the packhouse which had also begun work, Mr Kininmonth said.

"We go from having a nice quiet 12 permanent staff to having about 150 running around."

Hoddy's was fortunate that about half of these were people who had previously worked for the company, he said. It helped that it was close to where most of the workforce lived, was a flat orchard and had a good reputation for looking after staff.

It also benefited from a rural exchange programme which supplied workers with a horticultural background from Europe and the USA.

As a result, it did not rely on backpackers and other transients or Pacific Island workers employed through the Registered Seasonal Employers scheme, he said.

Pay rates for pickers ranged from $25 to $40 a bin, depending on the variety and how hard it was.

"Some of our best pickers would be making $250-$300 a day but they are professional pickers. They can do a bin an hour and are awesome to watch and they train to be fit to pick apples.

"On the flip side, there could be someone in that crew on the same bin rate making $100-$120 a day."

His biggest concern was where the next generation of top pickers was going to come from.

Motueka Fruitgrowers Association chairman Simon Easton said there were plenty of workers around at present.

"The problem isn't getting them at the start, it's getting them at the end."

Mr Easton said while prospects looked better, he had learned not to get excited until the money was in the bank.

"We are worse off than last year in all the currencies we trade in.

"Yes, we will be helped by a scarcity of supply globally in most varieties, but we are going to have to sell for pretty good money to counteract the exchange rate. "

Mr Kininmonth said the only way growers could offset the high kiwi, which had cost between $2 and $6 a carton in recent years, was to raise yield and packout rates.