La Ronde Apples
An orchard located near New Zealand's largest city has rethought its marketing plan
La Ronde Orchard has had to adapt to stay in business and is now a diversified business which “exports its fruit to Auckland”.
The Neal family has orcharding in its blood. Monte’s grandfather (also Monte) was an orchardist in Marlborough and his father Brian, now 82, has been orcharding for many years, also starting out in Marlborough. Brian moved to Auckland in 1961 and after running the La Ronde milk bar in Mission Bay bought this orchard in 1969. He is still involved in the business, keeping the accounts and wages.
Angelene and Monte have three daughters, twins who are six, and their third daughter is five. Angelene was full time on the orchard but now the children keep her busy.
Auckland used to be a large fruit growing area, but urban sprawl and increasing compliance costs associated with exporting fruit has reduced the industry considerably. In 1992 when Monte was secretary of the Auckland Pipfruit Association there were 85 apple growers in the greater Auckland area.
“I know that because I had the job of licking 85 envelopes.” Now the association has only seven members, and there are probably another half dozen growers as well.
Monte says they had to reinvent themselves in order to stay orcharding, so they have diversified and now sell straight to the public, either through farmers markets or deliveries to people’s workplaces.
They have 16ha in total, with 2.5ha of grapes, 2.5ha of stonefruit, 0.5ha of citrus and the balance in more than 10 different varieties of apples and pears including some old favourites such as Cox’s Orange and Golden Delicious.
La Ronde Orchard grows Chardonnay grapes for Kumeu River, and since they want quality not quantity, that suits the way Monte likes to operate.
They used to supply export fruit to the Apple and Pear Marketing Board but when deregulation occurred, their business had to change. Their juice fruit is now juiced at Te Kauwhata, and packaged into 330ml, one litre and two litre bottles. They mainly produce pure apple juice, but also have apple and orange juice which is sold direct to the public and in a few retail outlets.
They devote two and a half days a week year-round to making up corporate fruit baskets, a part of their business which returns around 30% of their income. “We buy in a lot of seasonal fruit and bananas. Our apples are stored using Smartfresh technology, which we have been using for three years now.”
Monday is their biggest delivery day, and the cane baskets are topped up on Wednesdays.
Every Saturday the orchard has a stall at the Britomart market – La Ronde fruit has been available here for the past eight years. They’ve been supporting the Oratia market for the last five years.
“We’ve found we have to provide quality fruit, and price is secondary to quality. You still have to be realistic about your pricing.”
“Since the recession hit, we have started to take small fruit and sound seconds and put them in crates for sale at the markets, and people love them.”
“We found that our sales have slightly increased in the recession because people buy more fruit and vegetables in a recession. They buy staples and buy more seasonally.”
Through Monte’s contacts La Ronde now supplies more than 15 Z Energy stations around South Auckland with bagged apples. “It’s a great initiative, we offer something different and seasonal in their stores.”
Then on Thursdays and Fridays the La Ronde van heads to town with 2kg and 3kg bagged fruit and juice selling direct to customers.
The business has grown the old-fashioned way, through word of mouth. “I let the product speak for itself,” Monte says.
They have a wide network of customers, some of whom were being supplied by Monte’s parents more than 30 years ago.
The business employs four people full time year round and up to 10 in the peak season.
“Our point of difference is that the people who do the deliveries in town do all the picking, pruning, harvesting and packing of the fruit. There is no pre-packing, so our fruit delivery takes a little bit longer but we have a better rapport with people.”
“I find urban people like to reconnect with their country roots. I find Auckland consumers’ palates have changed, and they are more keen to try different things because of the diversity of the city’s ethnic make-up.”
“If you have good products they will sell; it’s just a matter of getting out there to customers.”
Their fruit is sold residue free, and although they don’t export fruit, they still adhere to the export standards. “We use soft chemicals and our fruit is residue free. We monitor insect levels with traps. The growing methods have changed a bit – in the old days you would put a spray on the orchard and no-one could go into the orchard for two days.”
Brian says they have only survived by exporting their fruit to Auckland. “We have a million people at our back door.”
He says the best decision they ever made was sending Monte to Lincoln College to study horticulture. “It’s bearing fruit now,” he says.