As someone involved with the pip fruit industry for decades, I believe the industry has steadily evolved for the better.
The whole world is talking about sustainability. At times, I feel the producer is given a hard time by well-meaning individuals who have scant appreciation of the industry and the progress it has made over the last fifty years, especially in the area of chemical usage.
I grew up on a West Auckland orchard, The Delta, which was part of the original Pomaria estate. The land was originally purchased and planted by my great-grandfather from 1892 onwards.
The earliest memories I have of my parents orchard was of them telling us kids that we were never to turn on a tap in the orchard and drink from it as we would be poisoned and die! This for a young child of about 5 years certainly made an impression that I never forgot.
We were fascinated by these taps that were spread throughout the orchard, which Dad used to hook up long hoses to, and then drag them from tree to tree spraying them with a long-handled hand gun. The whole system was powered by a an electric pump in the shed which pumped the spray through the lines at about 700kpi pressure through the 2.5cm pipes. Breakages at joints were not uncommon with spay forming little geysers within the orchard. The spray shed was an old tin lean-to with an earth floor and a door that was impossible to shut.
Poison was the operative word. Arsenate of lead the main insecticide, Bordeaux mix applied liberally and regularly until the trees were blue, DDT, DDD, Lindane and the Organophosphates were to follow. A tough arsenal, in the main applied with little personal understanding of their effects on or protection of the applicator.
The ‘60s saw a change from the grower beating enough bugs and diseases to get enough fruit to sell. As a result of an increasing national crop, the overseas marketplace became the focus for the bulk of the crop … growers were venturing on a journey of meeting the market.
One person in my mind achieved more in assisting the change from a local industry to an internationally competitive export sector. He was the late Dr Don McKenzie, who was a researcher plant breeder at the DSIR site, Goddard’s Lane in Havelock North.
Dr Don saw the need for new varieties and building international relationships. But possibly most important of all, he redesigned the traditional old multi-leader tree into an efficient single-leader tree. This revolutionized the way in which apples were produced, resulting in the production of greater volumes of high quality fruit per hectare than had ever been achieved before.
Dr Don had a vision, he loved the industry, and he was a real friend of Hawke’s Bay, turning down promotion to remain in the area close to the growers. Dr Don’s old lab now stands forlornly on an empty piece of land where the DSIR orchard used to be. If ever there was a chance to do something to remember one of the industry’s innovators and characters, his lab should be rescued and turned into a small working museum. Many people in the local and, I am sure, international community would work to make this happen, if given the opportunity.
Exporting to America
The American market from the late ‘60’s onward became a destination of serious importance as they paid high money for large-sized fruit. About then, the NZ crop was almost 50% Granny Smith and 50% Red Delicious, and the Americans loved our Granny Smith.
There was a catch – quarantine. We had Leafroller; they did not, and understandably they did not want it.
The NZ MAF successfully negotiated with USDA and set in place a pre-clearance quarantine system, which replaced the old inspection-on-arrival system, where failed fruit was fumigated with methyl bromide, seriously compromising shelf life. The system involved the MAF inspecting and rating orchards as USA-suitable, followed by at-harvest inspecting, and segregating blocks of packed cartons that visiting USDA inspectors selectively inspected on a predetermined basis.
The whole program would only continue if the inspectors failed less than 18% of blocks during a season. This put huge responsibility on everyone to perform. Some years we came perilously close to failure, and it was particularly bad in the late eighties, early nineties.
The industry had always used a relatively high volume of pesticide and fungicide. But what was sprung on the industry, so they would not lose the lucrative US market, growers had to sign a declaration that they would apply organophosphates to the US crop every 14 days.
In the eyes of many growers and researchers, this was a backward step, as at this time a number of progressive growers were questioning the industry’s reliance on an ever-increasing volume of pesticides. Some were converting to the organic production of apples and pears.
No more scorched earth
This single-minded action – spraying to meet the US requirement – was, in my opinion, the catalyst for change to cleaner production and safe fruit. Until this time the majority of growers used high-volume spraying methods. Spray was applied to run-off, in the belief that drenching the tree gave better coverage, resulting in less pest and disease presence at harvest.
This may have been the case, but there were worrying trends starting to appear. Predators could not cope with the chemical onslaught and disappeared, leaving the pests such as Leafrollers, Mealybugs and Leaf hoppers to develop resistance and flourish, creating serious market access issues with our importing countries.
Dr Jim Walker, entomologist at Hort Research, clearly saw that for the NZ apple industry to survive and prosper in the markets of the world there needed to be a better way. From the mid-90s, Jim and his team started talking to growers about transforming the whole basis of pest and disease management from one of calendar-date spraying with broad spectrum organophosphate insecticides, to one of monitoring all pest and diseases within the orchard and only spraying when predetermined pest levels were reached. And more selective, “softer” (i.e., more targeted in impact) chemicals were used that allowed beneficial insects to survive and play their part in pest management.
Finally, 1996 saw the roll out of the Integrated Fruit Production System (IFP). Jim and his team began the task of converting the whole industry from one of basically “scorched earth” to working with nature. Some growers immediately took it onboard; others took a lot of convincing. Jim’s team stuck to their guns … today every grower is IFP-registered, applying chemicals when and if required with high-tech low and ultra-low volume sprayers.
In addition, no grower can submit fruit for packing unless thy have an approved – checked and audited – spray diary. Without this, the fruit will not be packed. This is in stark contrast of twenty years ago, when spray diaries were filled out with varying degrees of accuracy, as it did not really matter.
The transformation has been amazing, putting the New Zealand at the forefront of worldwide pip fruit production. We have seen insecticidal loading in orchards reduce by 80% between 1995-2008. According to Jim Walker, in 1995 organophosphates were applied at a rate of 11.6kg per hectare. In 2008 that had reduced to 2.6kg per hectare, made up of the softer, more benign chemicals that allow the natural enemies of pests to contribute to effective biological control.
Three years ago, a major European buyer, who annually purchases one million cartons of NZ apples, informed us in November that he would only buy apples that had detectable residues 40% lower than the allowable OECD level.
This created real panic among his suppliers, as all samples, pre-packing, had to be air freighted to Germany for testing and possible clearance, because he did not want containers of apples arriving in Europe only to be found, after testing, to have unacceptable residue levels.
When the results came back, not one grower had failed to meet the new residue level. In fact, more than 80% of apples tested had a nil detectable residue level, something to be very proud of.
This same buyer told me this year that he has absolutely no worries with NZ apples … our competitors are the worry.
There is no turning back. We have to become better and more skilled at producing bug-free and, as close as possible, nil residue fruit as we can.
There are risks. Dare I say it, we are seeing the first signs of “quarantines” emerging as trade barriers. The Australians are masters at this, with Fireblight being the obvious example. The world markets are clogged with apples, and farmers reacting against imported products affecting their incomes. With the world economic system under real pressure, quarantines could become the tool used to bar unwanted imports. This year we have faced quarantine issues in Taiwan, China etc.
The answer will lie with:
• Scientists coming up with better systems of pest management – e.g. the use of insect sex pheromones in mating disruption programs.
• Chemical companies developing benign specifically-targeted pesticides.
• Breeding of varieties that are resistant to pest and disease attacks and are selected by the consumer, not for their disease resistance, but their eating quality.
• Formation of production links between growers in NZ and growers in other countries – this will help lessen the risk of producer protest.
While we must address these growing and marketing issues, I believe the orcharding industry is one that Hawke’s Bay should take great pride in. The advances made in past years have tremendously lessened the chemical footprint of the industry, lessening harm to both producers and consumers. More can be done. And I have no doubt that it will be.