Waimea Nurseries, the largest producer of fruit trees in the country, is expanding its repertoire into disease resistant apples, citrus and into fruit trees for the home garden market as a way to broaden and diversify its business.
Mike Simpson is carrying on a family tradition begun by his grandfather Ron who had a nursery in Golden Bay.
Mike’s father started this nursery in 1971, when it started out producing apples and peaches. Now it is one of the largest nurseries in the country, with almost 70 full time staff.
Waimea Nurseries is the largest fruit tree nursery in NZ, with half its business growing pip-fruit, kiwifruit and citrus, and half focused on growing fruit trees for the garden industry.
The commercial side of growing fruit trees is very volatile, Mike says.
The 1980’s saw a pip-fruit planting boom, and in the 1990’s this continued, to a peak of 14,000ha in production in 2000. But in the last 10 years this has dropped to only 9000ha.
At the same time, the productivity of apple growers has increased as high density plantings were adopted and production/ha has increased quite significantly.
This made growing fruit trees a challenging business, and as a result now almost all the trees Waimea Nurseries produces are grown to order.
As well as paying deposits, growers have to make progress payments through the one to two years of growing the young trees in the nursery.
The market now is changed too: it’s a mixture of controlled fruit varieties and varieties with broader market acceptance and volume sales.
Alongside the club varieties there’s a move back to varieties like Red Delicious, Fuji and Royal Gala. “It’s quite a sea change,” he says.
From the nursery side of the business, with controlled varieties there are only a few people who you can sell to, he says.
For example Enza controls Jazz and Envy apples, so Waimea Nurseries can only sell back to them.
Mike says there’s not a lot of planting going on; it is at much reduced levels. The biggest single pip-fruit cultivar being planted is Pacific Queen, which now makes up 40% of their pip-fruit tree production.
He says indications going forward are for continuing low plantings, which he doesn’t think are at very healthy levels for the industry.
But growers can’t just keep investing in the hope they will make some money, he says.
On the kiwifruit front, there is a resurgence of planting on the back of Zespri Gold, and new varieties, including early gold and early green and other variations.
“We grow seedlings for sale locally and to the North Island. Being in Nelson is a bit of a disadvantage for selling to the Bay of Plenty, and that’s why we’ve started a branch of our business in Hawke’s Bay.”
Disease-resistance is a big issue for the industry, particularly blackspot resistance. We have a partnership with grower Richard Hoddy who has 20ha of blackspot resistant apples. There are three varieties: Ariane, Divine and Adore.
The Ariane apple combines the heritage variety hardiness with modern quality and storage characteristics.
Its skin is mostly red, with a heritage-like russet and lenticels, and it is crisp and sweet with a hint of tartness. It’s good for eating and cooking, and this is the first year it will be available.
Divine has natural disease resistance along with excellent eating qualities. It has a full red skin and prominent white lenticels.
And Adore is also disease resistant, producing medium sized, very tasty, sweet crisp and juicy apples.
As part of our work in apple breeding we evaluate varieties at a pre-commercial level. Each year we import a dozen varieties of pip and stonefruit, and evaluate them here, testing them for maturity which includes starch testing, and storage testing.
We have about 30 apple varieties for sale and 15-20 stonefruit, he says.
Since we began in 1971 we’ve always had a portion of our business focused on growing for garden centres. In the last 10 years we have built it up to give us diversity and particularly in the last five years there has been good year on year growth.
We grow blueberries, citrus and stonefruit, and ornamentals, and supply around 250 distributors throughout the country, Mike says.
The global trend – and the trend in NZ – is edible gardens and edible landscapes, and that suits us. We also grow these plants in the field, as well as in containers.
Another major part of our business is variety management, and we have Steve Potbury managing this for us in Hawke’s Bay. He is in charge of procuring new varieties and commercializing them within NZ, which involves licensing and propagation.
Waimea Variety Management has trial orchards in Nelson, Hawke’s Bay and Central Otago. When plants are imported, before they are tested in these trial orchards, they are quarantined in Nelson.
Mike explains they are the only member in NZ of the International New Varieties Network. This gives them access to rootstocks and varieties bred in France, the US and the UK. This network is an alliance of leading pipfruit nurseries.
He says ownership of new varieties is a difficult issue. He has to source new varieties from overseas to add to his catalogue, and is frustrated that breeding programmes funded by the public in NZ are not able to be accessed.