14 Sep 2021

Horticulture making a comeback in Taranaki

5:38 pm on 14 September 2021

Horticulture is making a comeback in Taranaki.

Holly and Jarrod Murdoch's Waitotara kiwifruit conversion.

Holly and Jarrod Murdoch's Waitotara kiwifruit conversion. Photo: Supplied

Avocado and kiwifruit orchards are being planted in numbers not seen since 1988 - when the devastation of Cyclone Bola forced many to convert to dairy.

Dairy farmers Holly and Jarrod Murdoch's leap into kiwifruit came via a knock at the door from a representative from industry giant Apata.

Holly said the Bay of Plenty company's approach piqued her husband's interest in the fruit.

"Our place ticked all the boxes for one being within half an hour of Whanganui, so it's easily accessible to get people for picking. We've got the right soil type and we've actually got the right climate.

"They wanted to buy it and so my husband thought if they want to buy the land to do it there must be something really good in it."

She said developing another income stream was also a motivating factor.

"Absolutely diversification was quite a drawcard for us especially with the way the Government is going with dirty dairying and all that kind of thing.

"We are still going to be milking some cows, but I guess it's good not to have all your eggs in one basket, I guess."

The Murdoch's have retained an interest in the 26-hectare kiwifruit orchard at Waitotara.

And been integral in the conversion of another 40 hectares at Mangamahu and Westmere, employing 20 people in the process.

Maori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is chair of Ngati Ruanui Holdings - the iwi's commercial arm.

It planted a two-hectare blueberry pilot orchard in covered tunnels at the old Patea School which has already had one harvest.

Ngarewa-Packer said the iwi spotted an opportunity.

Manager Darren Ngarewa at Ngati Ruanui's blueberry orchard.

Manager Darren Ngarewa at Ngati Ruanui's blueberry orchard. Photo: Supplied / Debbie Ngarewa-Packer

"Due to climate change the conditions in Taranaki are going to change and in parts be somewhat comparative to growing parts of Tauranga.

"And to a large degree we can manipulate the conditions in the tunnels. The whole way the blueberries are grown is quite futuristic."

The pilot has lead to a $2 million investment up the road in Hāwera.

"We've bought about 35 hectares in Turuturu Road and have now scaled up and have got 5 hectares there for the big orchard and part of it is that we have become part of a collective of other iwi which is known as Miro Berries, so that's how we've been able to scale up."

The operation employs about 35 people at the height of the picking season and five horticuluralists full-time.

New Plymouth contractor Matt Hareb is investing $5 million converting a 30-hectare diary block at Brixton, near Waitara, into an avocado orchard.

"Well in six months' time it will be a bit different we'll have at least 10 hectares of avocados in.

"They'll be 4500 avocados and each will avocado tree will have its own initial shelter, so there'll be something like five pegs per avocado tree so that's 5000 per 1000 avocado trees so there's a fair few to go in."

Hareb already has another 4500 avocado trees ordered for the following year.

He said dairy blocks this small were no longer viable and diversification was the way to go.

"And if I can be a leader in that that would be good. Drive it forward and hopefully a few other people get on the bandwagon.

"There's a lot of new things out there for people to try on their land, but horticulture is definitely a way forward everybody's got to eat, so you know there's money in food."

Hareb hoped to one day open a cafe and brewery on the site.

Matt Hareb is converting a 30 hectare dairy block into an avocado orchard at Brixton near Waitara.

Matt Hareb is converting a 30 hectare dairy block into an avocado orchard at Brixton near Waitara. Photo: Supplied

Venture Taranaki chief executive Justine Gilliland said research had identified more than 200,000 hectares in the region has been identified as suitable for horticulture.

While acknowledging dairy farming would always be the cornerstone of Taranaki agriculture, the development agency was encouraging landowners to look into conversions through its Branching Out initiative.

Gilliland said it was making an impact.

"In terms of avocado, for example, we've got 6000 trees going into the ground this season and 10,000 next season, so that's expanding quite significantly on the avocado presence we already have.

"And we've got a new kiwifruit orchard down in Waitotara and there are other landowners exploring kiwifruit."

Gilliland said growing up in Hāwera horticulture was commonplace.

"There were kiwifruit orchards around, there were berry orchards and then we had Cyclone Bola and then as I understand it some of the owners of those obviously had their crops destroyed through the cyclone and then moved more towards dairy because of the price return."

Taranaki has a long way to go however.

In 2019, just 514 hectares of land was used for horticulture compared to 1160 hectares in 2002.

Over a similar timescale, dairy land use had increased from 145,000 hectares to 207,000 hectares.

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