Friday, December 1, 2023

Finding solid ground after a challenging season

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Late winter found Tairāwhiti orchardist Warwick Paulson working through the most challenging citrus season he’s seen after a lifetime in the business.
The drier weather of recent weeks is repaying the trust of Tairāwhiti orchardist Warwick Paulson after a very tough winter.
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It was a tale of two cities at Warwick Paulson’s cyclone-hit orchard, just 12km from the centre of Gisborne. Apart from repeated washes of surface water, all looked relatively normal on the 20ha farm established by his grandparents 80 years ago.

Over the stopbank by the Waipaoa River, though, the 50 part-leased hectares he uses mainly for stock still showed signs of the metres of water that had rushed through during Cyclone Gabrielle. Troughs that weren’t blasted over remained full of silt, and any fences not smashed wore garlands of muddy debris.

“At the moment that land is pretty much a write-off,” Paulson said. “It’s so wet we just can’t get in to do any repair work.

“So we’ve definitely lost a year’s income plus any reinstatement costs, but we hope that by spring it will be dry enough to get down there and get stuck in.”

Until then he had plenty to keep him busy on the parts of the property that house one home for his family and another for his parents; his orchard; and the packhouse that has been in full swing handling the season’s citrus crops.

At his home orchard – Terrace End Farms – Paulson grows a mixed bag of lemonades, Satsuma and Encore mandarins, limes, Meyer lemons, and Navel and Valencia oranges, with more mandarins and oranges at a recently-purchased 5ha holding a few kilometres down the road.

He also works with up to 40 other growers – from hobby farmers to commercial operators – packing and marketing their fruit under the trading name JRP Citrus. But after two cyclones, relentless wet weather and three States of Emergency this year alone, it’s been hard going for most, if not all, of them.

“I’ve always considered myself lucky to have this great, dry orchard but not this year. I’ve never seen it like this. You look down the rows and from one end to the other is just water and as soon as it gets the chance to drain away, along comes the rain.”

Paulson was optimistic the region’s hardy citrus plantings would survive and that next season will be better, but for now he and his partner growers are just doing the best with what they have. But it’s been tricky, he said.

“Our last major weather events [in June and July] came in the middle of the Satsuma and lemon harvests, and right on the cusp for Navels, so we’ve had to work hard to keep clear rot and brown rot out of the packhouse.

“That has meant more losses and more money spent on things like selective picking, but it’s important we only pack clean fruit to keep up consumer confidence.”

Challenges presented by Valentine’s Day’s Cyclone Gabrielle certainly haven’t helped, Paulson said.

“Some of our growers are on town supply so they couldn’t get their protectant sprays on,” he said. “And even for those who could, the rain would just wash them off before they had time to do their work, so we’ve seen stressed trees just aborting their loads.

“It’s not just been one big event. It’s been a series of events that have taken their toll on the season and it’s my gut feeling that it will continue with other products throughout the year.”

Despite those challenges, Paulson was optimistic most trees would survive and the issues would drop away as growers went into what is already looking like drier weather.

“The way I look at it is that we’re in damage control. Right now things aren’t looking great, so it’s about thinking outside the square and finding the solution for that moment in time.”

To help growers succeed, taxpayer money needs to be applied wisely over a timeframe far longer than current government budget setting processes allow, said Nadine Tunley, chief executive of Horticulture New Zealand, which advocates for and represents the interests of New Zealand’s 4,200+ commercial fruit and vegetable growers. Plus, public/private funding arrangements need to be encouraged, and managed better than they have been in the past.

“Today’s challenges are the most numerous and complex we’ve faced in horticulture,” she said, “which is why the sector is so anxious. Particularly some growers – like those affected by Cyclone Gabrielle in Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti – need to know the best way to go, right now.”

A version of this article, with words and photos by Gisborne-based writer Kristine Walsh, first appeared in the August 2023 issue of The Orchardist, published by Horticulture New Zealand.

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