Paulins Stonefruit

May 2010

A company invests in multiple fruit varieties including a new type of peach

Kevin Paulin and his brother Raymond are 3rd generation stone fruit grower from Central Otago in NZ. They run roughly 100 ha of orchard – with apricots, cherries, nectarines and peaches – including some innovative peach and nectarine varieties and a late harvest cherry operation which is based on trying to modify the environment to get a product which gets a premium. Apricots are grown for the export market – all other crops are targeted at the domestic.

Stonefruit has been grown in Central Otago for over 100 years with the Paulin family association going back to Kevin’s grand father who shifted there after the First World War and started orcharding in the early 20’s. Kevin’s father continued the tradition and he and Raymond have many childhood memories of Christmas holidays spent picking in the orchard or scaring birds. “Half our production in those days was grown in large cherry houses made of timber with steel bird netting covering. The birds still managed to get in but as kids we had great fun trapping and shooting as many as possible.”

Kevin and Raymond are still heavily involved in the business and older brother Noel, is also heavily involved in Fruit growing and marketing in Australia.

Low in acidity, much sweeter than yellow peaches and with almond overtones, Flatto peaches have been grown on the Paulin orchard for the last few years. The fruit’s thin red skin has little or no fuzz so it doesn’t have to be peeled.

These peaches originated in China where they have been cultivated since the early days. Old-time Chinese orchardists treated peaches with such reverence that they could be planted only within the royal precincts of the emperor. Their peaches were classified in one of two ways: golden (yellow flesh) or silver (white flesh).

To the tribe of rare silver peaches belongs the mouthwatering peento (originally pan tao), the intensely flavoured and odd-shaped peach we now know as the ‘Flatto’ peach.

Called ‘Saturn’ Peaches in the United States, and ‘Sweetcap’ in France these peaches are very popular. After seeing these peaches growing in France, Kevin Paulin of Alpine Packhouse, bought the rights to grow and market these peaches throughout New Zealand.

While cherries like a hot dry climate with free draining soil, most orchards in Central Otago do need irrigation. In most cases, this is a combination of under-tree mini sprinklers, and overhead sprinklers that are used for frost control and, latterly, also for the delivery of Calcium Chloride to help reduce splitting of the fruit. Most of the irrigating of the tree comes from the under tree sprinklers, especially in the month before harvest, as water on the cherries during this period, will split the fruit.

The Paulin property is irrigated from Clutha river. It is piped with 2 cumecs delivered to Earnscleugh flats for irrigation. Irrigation costs about $50/ha. At the moment only about 1/3 is allocated.

The Paulin’s grow about 25 ha of cherries in three different locations in Central.

They have targeted late maturing varieties with our main 3 varieties being Lapin, Sweetheart and Staccatto. They also grow some skeena and a block of early producing dawson for the pre-xmas local market and a block of cherries grown hydroponically. With the introduction of later maturing varieties such as Staccato we are now producing cherries into the second week of February.

Kevin says they got serious about growing cherries about 15 years ago after a trip to States where they saw, for the first time, commercial plantings of cherries from the Summerland Breeding program. They travelled to Washington State and were amazed and the size and crop load of varieties such as Lapin and Sweetheart cherries. While Lapin’s had been in NZ for a few years previously, Sweetheart had not and with the late harvest dates promised they couldn’t get back to NZ quick enough and get some trees in the ground.

They were also amazed, as most NZ cherry growers are, at the size and mechanical nature of the American cherry industry. Grading plants that could pack the Total New Zealand cherry crop in 1.5 days, trucks lined up to cart the packed cherries away and the realization that cherries were an incredibly popular crop with a huge market potential.

Armed with this newly found knowledge they headed back to NZ and built a cluster cutter and sizer capable of handling our cherry crop. While the ability to size fruit mechanically was successful and enabled us to greatly increase our returns for the larger fruit there were also draw backs.

All cherries are grown on a centre leader system with 5mt row spacing and 3mt between trees. This is reasonably standard practice in Central Otago.

All harvesting is done on a contract basis with pickers expected to pick all the fruit in singles. This does slow picking down but as most of the industry is operating under the same regime pickers get used to it and they get very few doubles etc coming through the packing line. Kevin says the best pickers are still able to pick over 250kg’s per day. They e pick into 5kg’s buckets and the fruit is transported to hydro-coolers within 1 hour of harvest.

“Our philosophy is to get field heat out as soon as possible. So after a shower through chilled water the cherries are shipped to the packhouse to be pre-sized. We size all the cherries through a simple roller sizer operation back into 5kg buckets. They are then placed in chillers to be cooled before grading.”

The Paulin’s packing system allows for staff to be paid a contract rate which definitely helps with staff moral and retention. Good packers can make over $150/day.

Most of the cherries end up in Taiwan with a percentage into Asia and Europe. The fact that they control the product right through the chain is a great advantage. They have been exporting cherries to our clients in Taiwan now for nearly 20 years and the trust and commitment we now have is hard to beat.

Growing trees in bags is not unique and there are quite a few blocks grown using varying techniques and with varying success.

Kevin first saw cherries grown in bags by a cherry grower in NZ, Paul Kinzet in Blenheim about 12 years ago. He was growing Rainier cherries for the Japanese market. To guarantee these cherries for the Xmas market he needed to produce them at least 2 weeks earlier than is normally the case under normal growing conditions. He was growing these trees hydroponically and after bloom was shifting the trees into his large Tomato glass houses so he could speed up the maturity of the crop and also protect the crop from the elements.

The Cherries are in 35litre bags filled with crushed bark And they are Hydroponically feed continuously.

Inputs and outputs measured constantly. At the beginning of the season only 2 litres day is fed and up to 14 litres a day in mid summer. They change the input feed at least 4 times during season

The advantage of having the cherries in bags is that they can move them into their coolstrores to delay bud burst and delay harvest. The cooler is turned on end of August early sept depending on weather and the bags are brought out end of October.

Kevin says that a few seasons ago they commenced harvest in the last week of February and finished 10 days later. While they are able to get a guaranteed high return in the NZ market at that time of the year they have been targeting the European market over the last couple of seasons with Paris being the destination. The returns possible in Europe when you have the only cherries on the market are very good and they have been able to achieve some great returns. They will try to push our whole production back into march this year and with Staccato coming on stream we may be able to produce even later.

The advantages of the system are: The trees grown hydoponically so you can control inputs very closely. Intensive planting to justify cost of bird and rain covering. Good pollination in warmer time of year. Smaller trees allows for easier maintenance and harvest costs. Rain cover system guarantees the crop. No uptake from ground. Able to manipulate harvest dates to best fit market gaps. Packing is done in quiet time so staff and resources are readily available. Able to demand premium for product as no competition.

But there are disadvantages: Hydroponics is very hands on with a lot maintenance. There a costs in moving the bags from the field to cold storage as well as costs of cold storage. Kevin says the quality seems to vary from year to year and there’s still a bit of work to do on picking the right market window.

The Paulins have also looked a manipulating harvest dates by using heat to bring on bloom earlier – this is done by heating the plants inside. The jury is out on this method in Central Otago.