Thursday, April 19, 2012

100% Kiwi

Kiwifruit farming in New Zealand

Te Puke, Bay of Plenty
Life is good in the town of 7,000 people that grows a quarter of the world’s kiwifruit.

You've heard of the Big Apple...Welcome to the Big Kiwi. 

Te Puke, New Zealand, a lush, well-precipitated region of rolling green foothills, is located on the northeast coast of the country’s north island. Set between a coastal mountain range and an expansive body of water known as the Bay of Plenty, the region is home to approximately 77 percent of New Zealand’s kiwifruit orchards. Residents call it the “kiwifruit capital of the world.” Such bold statements are rare in a country that is known for the humble, reserved nature of its citizens. But when it comes to kiwis in New Zealand you’re not just talking about fruit. New Zealanders derive much of their identity from the word kiwi: their national bird, their currency, their postage stamps, and even what they call themselves, all use the term proudly.

During my visit to New Zealand, I was fortunate enough to be hosted by a family that owned one of the largest kiwifruit growing operations in the region. I told Pete, the boss of the third-generation family farm, that I was very interested in learning about his business for the purposes of expanding my knowledge of farming practices and gaining a deeper understanding of the worldwide produce industry. I could not have asked for a more generous teacher, storyteller, guide, and host.

From the outset, it was clear that Pete is the kiwi version of many of the farm bosses I have known throughout my life—it sounds funny, but I have more than a few in the family. He never ran out of outrageous stories to tell and there was never a dull moment, or even a quiet one for that matter. He is very passionate about his work, and is undoubtedly an expert in his craft. As he continued to provide thoughtful answers, without hesitation, to my peppering of questions, it became clear that he and his family have a long history as leaders and ambassadors of the industry. He lived and breathed kiwis. Although it didn’t really seem like he ate a whole lot of them.

The nursery, where baby kiwis are hatched.

We spent an entire day driving around from orchard to orchard, getting a tour of the entire operation. At one point we stopped and had a chat with the head of the nursery, where all new plants are incubated and new varieties are tested and experimented. Another time, I met the farm’s head foreman, a friendly man of Indian descent who was more than happy to give me advice on my upcoming trip to India. Pete showed me where he and his buddies used to race cars and motorcycles as teenagers down Road 3—known as the birthplace of kiwifruit farming in the region. Finally, he took me to a small valley at the center of his property where more than a dozen deer had made home next to a pond, a great example of the ecological diversity and fertility of the region.

Farming practices
Road 3 is a quiet, country road that weaves its way through miles of grassy hills, creeks, and valleys, just inland from the small town of Te Puke. On this road is where the first kiwifruit farmers in New Zealand chose to base their operations. As we drove down the road and I observed orchards blending in so naturally with the landscape, it was evident that those original farmers knew what they were doing. 

A kiwifruit orchard looks very similar to a grape vineyard. Each plant is about 10 yards apart, and its vines are strung up vertically, first up a wooden stake with a crossbeam, and then further onto an overhead trellis system. The overhead trellis design provides the vines with more surface area to capture sunlight, and therefore, produce more fruit per plant. Similar to grape vines, kiwifruit vines are pruned regularly, as well as girdled—a technique in which a ring is cut around the stump of the vine in order to manipulate sugar flow throughout the plant. Yield is measured in crates per hectare, and when it is time to harvest, the workers walk through each row hand-picking the fruit and collecting them in a sort of flat plastic crate that is then used to fill wooden, Styrofoam, or cardboard boxes designed for export.

One of the most striking characteristics of many of the kiwifruit orchards in the area was that no sort of irrigation system had been installed. While kiwifruit can be grown in most temperate climates that experience a moderately hotter summer, any commercial farmer will tell you that weather conditions rarely cooperate to create the ideal environment for the production of their crops. No doubt, the farmers in the region take advantage of most modern farming practices—fertilizing, tilling, and growing cover crops—yet, I was impressed by how these farmers had matched a non-indigenous crop with an environment that is nearly perfect for its development. In contrast, the large production farms of the central valley of California require an incredible amount of water to be pumped to them from the Sacramento River Delta, in what could be argued as an inefficient use of the state’s energy and water resources.

Some farmers had installed irrigation systems for purposes of frost prevention, however. By irrigating the soil during extreme drops in temperature, a farmer can raise the soil temperature by a few degrees, a tactic that could be the difference between total crop loss and salvaging a season’s worth of produce. As additional frost protection, some farms have installed gas-powered wind turbines that are placed in the orchards on tall steel beams, similar to what you might see at a wind power plant. By stirring up the air that has settled in the orchard, an inversion effect is created, bringing warmer air from above down into the crops and raising the temperature in the orchard by a few degrees. In California, some citrus farmers have actually been known to hire helicopters to fly around their farm during an extreme cold spell, a practice that provides insight as to how much money is at stake each season for these farmers.

Heard it through the kiwi vine.

Another unique characteristic of kiwifruit orchards in this region is that almost all farms have wind-breaks, either constructed naturally from Cypress-like trees, or artificially with telephone poles and nets. The wind is harmful for a number of reasons, and constructing a wind-break can guard against wind burn on the leaves, cross-pollination, pesticide drift, and other harmful variables.

Organically grown kiwifruit still does not represent a very large portion of the overall market; however, in recent years New Zealand farmers have been moving towards reducing their pesticide use. In 1992, New Zealand farmers found themselves in a lawsuit over a shipment to Italy that was rejected due to excess pesticide residue. Today, a few organic farmers are leading the way to make organically grown kiwifruit more accessible to the masses, and they have begun working with Zespri International, the single seller of New Zealand kiwifruit in the world markets, to market their product in the global marketplace.

Kiwifruit history
The ancestry of the modern day kiwifruit can be traced back to ancient China, where a fruit known as the Chinese Gooseberry grew wild, but was never farmed. Around 1906, a New Zealand schoolteacher visiting China brought back some seeds of the plant and gave them to a local nurseryman to plant. It wasn’t until the 1940s, however, that the plant was grown for commercial use. During World War II, the fruit became very popular with U.S. troops visiting New Zealand. After the war ended and trade routes reopened, an industry was established to export the fruit from New Zealand to the U.S. A New Zealand fruit-packing company named Turners & Growers is credited with first using the term “kiwifruit” in 1959. In the 1960s and 1970s, Frieda Caplan, founder of Los Angeles-based Frieda’s Finest, played a key role in popularizing kiwifruit in the U.S. Today, the fruit is New Zealand’s largest horticultural export, and accounts for over a third of all horticultural exports. Hayward Green and Zespri Gold are essentially the only two kiwifruit varieties marketed. Many less marketable varieties also exist, including a variety of red kiwifruit.

Kiwifruit business facts and figures
Contrary to what you might think, New Zealand isn’t actually the world’s largest producer of kiwifruit. Italy, which produces 410,000 metric tons of kiwifruit per year, representing 35 percent of the world’s total production, is the world’s largest producer, according to statistics released in 2007 from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. New Zealand is not far behind, however, producing 360,000 metric tons of kiwifruit, or 31 percent of the world total. After the top two countries, there is a large drop to Chile, which produces 15 percent of the world’s kiwifruit, followed by France (7%), Greece (3%), Japan (3%), Iran (2%), and United States (2%). 

New Zealand’s production from kiwifruit is estimated at $1.2 billion, annually, accounting for just under 1% of its GDP. Kiwifruit is the country’s largest horticultural export, accounting for over a third of all horticultural exports. The kiwifruit industry employs more than 20,000 people. Although some larger growers exist, small farms dominate the industry. In fact, two-thirds of kiwifruit growers in New Zealand own less than five hectares (appx. 12 acres).

The Te Puke region represents approximately 77 percent of New Zealand’s kiwifruit production. This means that the region produces nearly 25 percent of the world’s kiwifruit, representing around $925 million in value, annually. Interestingly, since the population of the area is only 7,000 people, the per-capita GDP from kiwifruit alone is $132,000. If Te Puke was its own country, it would have the highest per-capita GDP in the world!!!

Many New Zealand growers have purchased significant interests in Italian growing operations, in order to diversify their regional exposure, and to benefit from year-round production. In addition, Zespri International, the organization that owns the trademark for the Golden Kiwi, receives licensing revenue from Italian growers, who pay for the right to grow the fruit. 

PSA
Over the past few years, a new trend in the New Zealand kiwifruit growing industry is making it difficult for farmers to sleep at night. A bacterial plant disease called pseudomonas syringae pv actinidae (“PSA”) has been proliferating across large swathes of crops in the region, and is threatening to permanently destroy the industry if a solution is not found. The disease, which was first discovered in New Zealand in November 2010, attacks the leaves and vines of a kiwifruit plant, inhibiting the growth of fruit. Although the infection is limited to the plant—it has been determined that consumers who eat the fruit of an infected vine bear no health risk—farmers are forced to prune the barren, unproductive vines, greatly reducing crop yields. Further, some farmers say that they have no option but to completely replant some infected orchards.

The approximately 900 farmers in the region have held many meetings on how to best deal with this latest threat to their livelihood. They have hired world-leading crop science laboratories to try and figure out how the disease originated, and to come up with effective treatments for prevention and eradication. The crop scientists, working at labs no further than a few miles down the road from the orchards, have been at it for over a year and a half and have experienced no major breakthroughs.

Some Te Puke farmers suggest that PSA was introduced to the region by imported pollen from Brazil, which is cheaper than domestically produced pollen. Pollen is manually applied to crops in order to promote fruit growth. Still, other farmers suggest that it is a naturally occurring bacteria in the region, that had been lying dormant and undetected for years, and finally found the ideal conditions to proliferate.

The disease is also known to have spread worldwide. Zespri International’s trademark Golden Kiwi, one of the major varieties grown in Italy, is particularly vulnerable to the crop disease. Economic damages to the Italian kiwifruit industry have been estimated at almost $3 milion to date. Zespri has said that more than half its Italian vines have been affected by PSA in recent seasons.

Despite this seemingly devastating threat, however, the industry has a reassuringly successful history of dealing with plant diseases. In the mid-1990s, New Zealand kiwifruit farms were affected by Botrytis cinerea, a fungal disease that caused nearly $32 million in damages. In response, the industry adopted a number of changes to its growing and storage practices, promptly reducing infection levels to a negligible level. New Zealand’s tight control of its international trade is also an advantage in this scenario, since it can react swiftly and efficiently by enacting new standards and penalties on tainted pollen or other farming inputs that farmers import from other countries.

Road 3, where it all began.

Life is good
It was a great experience learning about the kiwifruit farming industry, and it was a privilege to visit such a beautiful part of the world. I must thank the Burt family for hosting my friend Stevo and me for a few days at their house. Their hospitality was incredible, and the time they took to show us their town and orchards was well appreciated. I wish them all the best, and look forward to keeping in touch and returning the favor some day.

I have a lot of respect for the kiwifruit growers in this region. I feel that their farming practices, while not widely organic, are truly based on an inherent respect for their environment. New Zealanders have no choice but to be in awe of the natural beauty that surrounds them, and I think they understand better than most cultures the importance of protecting their environment and respecting the earth.

Despite the recent PSA scare, I think it’s safe to say that most of your kiwifruit will continue to come from New Zealand well into the future. Good thing, we wouldn’t want the people of New Zealand to have to change their name.

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