Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Hawke’s Bay apple and grape harvest like no other

Neal Wallace
Growers survey decimated orchards, working out how to save at least some of the fruit.
The Insurance Council of New Zealand says the reinsurance market is the toughest it has been in many years, driven by accelerating climate related losses.
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The Hawke’s Bay apple harvest that began this week is going to be far from normal for growers.

Brydon Nisbet, a local grower and president of the Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers Association, said the degree of orchard damage from Cyclone Gabrielle ranges from total destruction to hardly touched.

His apple-growing business straddles that ambit.

A 2ha orchard at Puketapu beside the Tutaekuri River is unsalvageable, buried under 1m of silt, while an adjacent 5ha block has a mat of between 20cm and 50cm of silt. He believes he can pick about 30% of the crop above the flood line.

A third orchard’s 10ha are sodden but the crop should be able to be picked.

Nisbet said his first goal is to save the trees he can, and diggers are removing silt from around trunks to allow the trees to breathe.

Trees will start to die in three or four weeks if the silt is left.

Nisbet estimates it will cost him between $40,000 and $60,000/ha to remove what he has calculated at 15,000m cu of silt from his 5ha orchard.

This week he bought himself some time by applying SmartFresh to his trees. The chemical delays fruit ripening for a week.

Nesbit said some growers, many small intergenerational businesses, have lost everything and others are mentally wilting under the pressure, with some already seeking assistance.

A Hawke’s Bay apple orchard caught in the path of Cyclone Gabrielle.

Volunteers have stepped up to help and the association has set up a fund to pay for counsellors to help those struggling to deal with the disaster.

The economic impact from the decimated apple industry, Nisbet said, will be felt throughout Hawke’s Bay.

Meanwhile damage to an estimated 10% of vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and a similar area in Gisborne has not stopped the new season grape harvest, also getting underway this week.

Brent Linn, the executive officer of the Hawke’s Bay Wine Growers, estimates about 500ha of grapes in the region were severely compromised by the cyclone.

He said viticulture consultants have been out in vineyards assessing fruit quality and access, and concluded that growers have time to save their vines.

If silt is below the graft union, it is not an immediate concern and fruit can be harvested before silt is removed.

If silt is 20-30cm above the graft, he said, it has to be lowered first to save the vine.

“Grape vines are a robust plant and we are confident minor silt inundation can be mitigated.”

Linn said some vineyards have silt up to post height, which creates a whole new level of problems for harvesting and saving the vines.

Fruit exposed to inundation by water and debris must first be checked for contaminants.

“Like anyone in the primary sector, we’re dealing with what is in front of us,” said Linn.

Growers and volunteers are helping each other, including lending or swapping equipment and arranging access to wineries for those that have been lost. Two growers have not only lost their vineyards but also their homes.

Mark Thompson, chair of Gisborne Wine Growers, said disease is emerging as a problem in some vineyards.

“We’ve got quite a lot of infected vineyards and we are close to harvest.”

Harvesting started 10 days ago, in mid February, and will peak within the next 10 days. Thompson said growers were buoyed by forecasts of two weeks of fine weather.

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