Omihi Creek Blackcurrants

September 2011

New Zealand's largest blackcurrant growers contribute to the community

Omihi Creek, at 160ha of irrigated canes, is the largest and most productive blackcurrant orchard in New Zealand, all developed from bare land since 2006.

Mark and Louise Eder have won the Massey University discovery award in the Canterbury Balance Farmer Environment Awards (FEA) 2011. The judges said:

“You have moved to a new area, developed an intensive horticultural property, built a major contracting business, established new products (including an award winning blackcurrant wine) and markets for them, and then arranged substantial input to your local community through ‘Greening Waipara’ and the local school. This is a remarkable achievement in a short time.”

Mark’s grandfather began the family connection with commercial growing in 1949 on a two-hectare block at Woodend. Mark’s father first planted blackcurrants in 1969, one of a wide range of crops that they had under cultivation on a total of 130ha at Woodend when the couple decided to make the move to Waipara in 2006 with their three girls Taylah, Madison and Piper, now aged 13, 10 and 7 respectively.

They had insight into international market potential for blackcurrants from the Woodend crop. The couple had purchased a harvester that could also be used on grapes. Putting the machine to work for the grape harvest up the road in Waipara, gave him the idea for the large-scale blackcurrant development, which is unique in Waipara, now know as a grape-growing district.

After establishing the possibility of more vineyard work in the area – they now have four harvesters and pruning and spraying contracts – Mark and Louise decided to combine this with exclusively growing blackcurrants. They converted the purchased deer farm, establishing Omihi Creek with 80ha of blackcurrants in 2006. That initial planting has now been doubled on 160ha of their land that has a microclimate warmer and less windy and frost-prone than much of the region. According to the FEA citation, planting was carefully planned and innovatively approached. The ground was worked then, using GPS for precision placement, irrigation trickle tape and the blackcurrant cuttings were placed in the ground in one pass.

Omihi Creek is a major supplier to Just the Berries, a Palmerston North-based processing plant founded in the early 2000s by Mark’s father David with partners Lawrence Heath and Dr Eddie Shiojima. All currant supplies to that processing plant are chemical-free. Country Calendar, 2007, ep 8.

Mark has been to Japan several times to meet Four Leaf Japan Co people (in the health supplements business) and has spoke to conferences of 5000 and 25,000 people on the antioxidant levels in balckcurrants.

The fruit is a rich source of healthy nutrients, the essential fatty acids of Omega-3 and Omega-6, vitamins and minerals. Blackcurrants also have double the anthocyanin and polyphenol content and antioxidant activity of blueberries and four times more vitamin C than oranges. Anthocyanins are said to have health benefits against cancer as well as heart and neurological disease, help prevent eye fatigue and improve vision, brain and digestive health. New Zealand’s high ultraviolet light from ample sunshine, clear air and rich soils combines with good varieties to produce more antioxidant activity than berries from other nations. Blackcurrants grown by the Eders have been proven to produce more than double the levels of anthocyanin than in Europe.

According to the NZ Blackcurrant Co-operative, based in Nelson, we have around 40 growers in two regions – Nelson and Canterbury – and that New Zealand is the largest producer of blackcurrants outside of Europe, producing approximately 3% of total world supply. The main product form for export is traditionally concentrated juice, which is used as an ingredient for beverage and jam manufacturers.

New Zealand blackcurrants undergo an intense harvesting period in January, grading and then processing into IQF frozen fruit, juice concentrate and puree. These products are used in ready-to-drink juices, yoghurts, muesli bars, jams, ice creams, breakfast cereals and bakery goods. In NZ over 100 products use blackcurrants as an ingredient.

According to Plant & Food, quoting Statistics figures, there are 50 growers on 1460ha of canes, producing about 6000 to 10,000 tonnes of blackcurrants annually. Therefore Omihi Creek has 11% of the total planted area in NZ and aims to produce 10% or more of the annual crop.

The domestic market is about $4million a year, plus $3 million frozen fruit exports and $15m in fruit preparation and further earnings as jams, jellies and purees.

Omihi’s currants are picked mechanically in January/February, graded in the field on a conveyor belt into half-tonne wooden fruit bins lined with cardboard and plastic and trucked to Enzafoods Nelson for processing, the main outlet being juice for Ribena made by GlaxoSmithKline, followed by the NZ Blackcurrant Co-operative for IQF, puree and juice concentrate.

The soils on Omihi Creek are heavy and fertile over a limestone base, with high nutrient levels and organic matter. They also have an unexpectedly low pH, so lime was used before planting. Mark uses calcium, boron and nitrogen at foliar fertilizers when required. This was the first year of solid fertilizer, with potassic super and calcium ammonium nitrate applied in a mix.

The subclover between the rows provides nitrogen and Mark intends to put compost along the blackcurrant bush line on the blocks which are transitioning to organic.

Ben Ard, Magnus and Ben Rua are the three main varieties grown in NZ and on Omihi Creek., plus some Black Adder and Murchison. The Ben Ard has high anthocyanin levels favoured by Just the Berries while Magnus is the traditional currant which is used in Ribena by GlaxoSmithKline.

The Waipara region is protected by hills from the cold easterly winds from the sea (Pegasus Bay) and has milder spring temperatures, with milder frosts, than the main blackcurrant growing area further south in Canterbury. It also gets some warm nor’westers, but they can cause fruit and cane damage if they are too strong.

Pests and diseases of blackcurrants include gall mites in the buds, which is currently at a low level, the clearwing insect which has a worm that burrows in the canes, aphids and mites and some leaf spot and botrytis. Mark carefully rotates insecticides and only applies when control is necessary. Some blocks can go through fruiting season without being sprayed at all. He doesn’t use any fungicides. Twelve hectares of canes are moving through the Biogro organics certification, with the intention of more areas to follow.

The irrigation with underground trickle tape uses water from four wells and all the irrigation system is computer controlled, receiving weather information and soil moisture readings from five probes which have wireless transmitters.

The industry average yield is 6 tonnes/ha and Mark hopes to average 8t/ha over a 10-year period. In a good year the potential yield might be 10-14t/ha

Omihi Creek Blackcurrant (OCB) produces a sparkling cassis [French for blackcurrant] at The Mud House winery, Waipara. A light alcoholic sparkling wine of 8.9% alcohol – it has a distinctive dark purple colour that leaves a bold impression in the glass and holds the aroma of freshly picked blackcurrants. Its sweetness is balanced with the bold intensity and rich natural acidity of blackcurrants.

OCB cassis achieved gold medal in the 2009 NZ fruit wine awards.

A preliminary study by New Zealand company Plant & Food Research shows that natural chemicals from blackcurrants may help breathing in some types of asthma.

Researchers found a compound from a New Zealand blackcurrant may reduce lung inflammation with a multi-action assault in allergy-induced asthma. The compound was found in laboratory experiments to enhance the natural defence mechanisms in lung tissue by both suppressing inflammation-causing reactions and minimising inflammation.

The findings are published in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research.

Fruit consumption has been shown to reduce symptoms in allergy-induced asthma yet this research is the first to give insights into the mechanism by which this may occur. The researchers identified that the component, epigallocatechin. reduced inflammation in lung issue. Epigallocatechin is a known antioxidant and a major component of proanthocyanidins found in blackcurrants.

Dr Roger Hurst, of Plant & Food Research, has also conducted research which has shown the natural chemicals found in blackcurrants may help balance the stresses exercise can have on the body. An extract from NZ grown blackcurrants taken before and after 30 minutes of intense exercise showed signs of three potential effects:

• Minimizing muscle damage by modulating oxidative stress

• Reducing inflammation and

• Potentially enhancing the body’s natural defenses against disease.

Greening of Waipara  (Update on Rural Delivery series 4)

Since coming to Omihi Creek, the Eders have been involved in the Greening of Waipara project, including plantings of native trees which were done by Four Leaf Japan principals, sponsors of the project, at the gateway in January 2008.

Mark is also a board of trustees member at Waipara Primary School, where a biodiversity trail was established with Four Leaf assistance from January 2010 onwards.