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The secret to growing organic kiwifruit (Our Place article)

our place magazine article

When weka, sheep and fantails are your co-workers, it’s fair to say your ‘office’ is a pretty exciting place to be. For organic kiwifruit growers Mark and Catriona White, this is their reality. Their thriving Opotiki orchard is home to a harmonious ecosystem that ensures we all enjoy chemical-free “hairy fruit”.

The couple’s unique approach to organic practices was recently recognised at the Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards. They took out the coveted Bay of Plenty regional supreme award as well as the Bay of Plenty Regional Council Award, ZESPRI® Kiwifruit Orchard Award and the WaterForce Integrated Management Award.

“We were rapt to win and wave the flag for kiwifruit and organics,” says Catriona, whose competition included dairy, sheep and beef farmers, beekeepers and other fruit growers. “We’d love to see more organic growers in New Zealand. One of the reasons we entered the awards was for the potential opportunity to promote the fact that you can grow organic kiwifruit and make a good profit. It’s not hard to do and the more people that know how to do it, the better.”

Kiwifruit is New Zealand’s highest-earning horticultural crop with most fruit coming out of the Bay of Plenty, with smaller crops in Northland, Auckland, Gisborne and Nelson. Of the 2,600 kiwifruit growers, just over 100 produce certified organic fruit. These organic growers produce four-million trays of kiwifruit every year, compared to 120-million trays of the non-organic varieties. Last year Mark and Catriona’s 5.85ha orchard supplied kiwifruit to New Zealand as well as exported 23,000 trays of Zespri Organic Green kiwifruit and 38,000 trays of Zespri Organic SunGold to Japan, China, Europe, USA and Asia.

This volume is set to skyrocket if international stats are anything to go by. World organic food sales grew by 346% between 2000 and 2014.

“More people are demanding safe, ethically produced food, and they want to know where it comes from,” says Catriona, who’s orchard is certified organic with Bio Grow New Zealand. “We got into growing organic kiwifruit because it’s the right thing to do by the consumer and we enjoy working together in a safe environment producing safe food.”

It was 10 years ago the active “outdoorsy” couple moved to the eastern Bay of Plenty with their two children for a change of lifestyle. Through hard work and a true passion for the land, they transformed part of Catriona’s parent’s organic dairy farm into the successful orchard it is today.

“It’s been a steep learning curve!” she confesses. “While we both grew up on farms, there was a lot to learn. Mark went to what he calls ‘kiwifruit school’ and we gathered a lot of information and advice from my parents. We also reached out to other growers, who are always open about what they do and happy to help.”

It’s all about working with Mother Nature to create harmony on the Coastal Kiwis orchard. The White family employ New Zealand’s best natural fertilisers, including fish- based fertiliser for plant growth, seaweed for plant health, and compost to replace the nutrients in the soil. Above ground, there’s a small flock of organic sheep looking after the weeds around the edges of the orchard reducing tractor work and association soil compaction. Then there’s the feisty weka on rabbit control, fantails who prey on insects, and the bird seed plants grown to encourage birds away from eating kiwifruit flower buds. Plus, so they don’t have to spray fertiliser around the orchard’s wooden posts, they have set up ‘slug hotels’, where welcomed slugs recycle organic material littered on the orchard floor.

“We are always monitoring and watching the plants, bugs and birds. All of our timing has got to be right to keep the balance,” says Catriona. “All the pests, plants, everything wants to live and it’s about setting the equilibrium so nothing dominates. It’s such an interesting environment to work in and we’re always learning and looking for new ways of doing things.”

Catriona says the most challenging aspect of organic growing is ensuring everything they use on the orchard is certified organic, otherwise they could lose their certification. To do this, they regularly check their suppliers’ certifications are up to date because BioGro NZ carries out annual and random audits to make sure international standards are met.

“Every kiwifruit grower faces challenges and organic growers are no different, but it’s so worth it. Not only is organic growing profitable, it’s a guaranteed way of producing chemical-free fruit. You also get to work in a natural environment and care for the land,” she adds. “Converting a conventional kiwifruit orchard to organic takes three years but once you’ve done it, you’ll never look back!”

The concept of Maori philosophy ‘kaitiaki’ – acting as a guardian, protector and conserver – is something the White family is 100% committed to.

“The land will be here long after we’ve gone and it’s our responsibility to improve it where we can,” says Catriona. “Our two teenagers, Letisha and Lochlan, have their own tiny block of the orchard to look after. They’ve learnt what needs to happen at what time of year for kiwifruit to thrive and they enjoy learning - in between school and sports!”

For Mark and Catriona, their awards success has confirmed they’re on the right path, and now they want to share their journey to encourage others to convert to organics. As part of winning the awards, the White family hosted an open day early April where experts and growers came together to share, learn and get inspired by the Coastal Kiwis approach.

“We’d love to see more organic fruit growers in New Zealand and worldwide, which is why we’re committed to spreading the word,” says Catriona. “For us, it’s not just about the fruit, it’s about contributing to a more sustainable and ethical future. As more consumers demand safer food and vote with their wallet, the more businesses and industries will have to respond - and that's exciting.”

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