Thursday, July 7, 2022

Rockit lifting off into new season

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Despite a tough apple season hit by staff shortages, logistics issues and weather events, Rockit Global is continuing with a concerted growth effort extending through Hawke’s Bay and beyond.

General manager commercial and general counsel Tom Lane says with the opening of the company’s new global headquarters a year ago, growth remains a key focus in coming years. 

And, to ensure Rockit can continue to meet strong global demand, it plans to significantly expand planting over the next few years by working with New Zealand growers.

The company’s home base of Hawke’s Bay has witnessed some significant shifts into Rockit plantings in the past year, including conversion from older orchard plantings. 

Further plantings have taken place in the Gisborne district, with 105ha of Rockit apple trees planted by the end of this season and further plantings likely between Gisborne and Napier in the Wairoa district.

“This growth is largely coming from Iwi looking for high value land use that can generate long-term local employment. We’re also talking to a growing number of sheep and beef farmers in the region that want a diversification option other than pine trees.”

Interest is also coming from the South Island, particularly Canterbury, with parties from as far afield as Tarras also expressing interest in the variety. 

A number of Rockit Global shareholders in the region including Ngāi Tahu  are also supporting Canterbury as a possible future stronghold for Rockit apples in the south.

“Part of our growth strategy is to diversify beyond Hawke’s Bay, in part to provide greater resilience in the event of regional weather events, particularly hail.” 

Lane says climate resilience is playing heavily into growth strategies, with extreme weather events likely to become more of an issue, including hail, flooding and drought in coming years.

Regardless of land location, Lane says the major constraint was always water availability and all areas face some level of limitation.

“Compared to other crops, apples generally have a lower water demand. And, as a high value crop that delivers a strong return for the water used, we have been able to develop good relationships with the communities we grow in.”

The total area planted in the small gala hybrid variety apples in 2021 was approximately 650ha in New Zealand, with a further 440ha grown in United States, Australia and several European countries.

A Hong Kong tram with Rockit Apples branding on the side.
Rockit apples is taking a fast moving consumer goods approach to retailing the high value apples in overseas markets, including Hong Kong.

Of the land in apples here, Rockit Global owns about 140ha with the rest owned by orchardists supplying the apples under licence. This amounts to $100,000 a hectare at present, a similar amount to an Envy apple licence fee.

Ironically, for a country with thousands of hectares of timber, New Zealand is experiencing a shortage of posts which Lane says is starting to impact on conversion and green-field planting plans.

“With the increasing cost of timber and tight supply, we are starting to see orchardists look to imported concrete posts, typically from Italy, and steel structures as a real alternative.

“In some cases, posts ordered last year are unlikely to be seen until later this year, creating a real issue across the industry.”

Lane says Rockit has not been immune from either the labour issues or weather events that plagued apple growers this year, which saw volumes come back from earlier forecasts in line with the industry average of 12% this season.  

While Rockit is working with industry partners to help develop pathways for labour, he says the company is also developing new systems and processes to reduce the labour required to grow apples. 

This includes configuring new orchards using planar 2D systems that make management and harvesting simpler while also increasing quality and yield. 

In the meantime, the company’s packhouse has also been expanded to include six robotic auto packers, up from three in 2021. 

Despite this progress, Rockit expects it will be some time yet before the industry sees fully-robotic pickers working in orchards. 

“There is still a lot we can do before that to streamline the system.”

Despite this market prospects remain strong. 

Lane says the company is looking beyond the traditional commodity sales platform used by other apple growers. 

Instead, Rockit is replicating a fast-moving consumer goods model like the beverages or snacks at the supermarket counter, focusing on delivering consistent, high-quality, branded products to consumers, commanding a healthy premium in the process. 

This also means consumers have high expectations about fruit consistency and quality, no different to typical pre-packaged food items.

A marketing partnership with a major movie studio has Rockit apples attached to an upcoming blockbuster movie, while the company’s two-piece tube is finding success with the Coca-Cola-owned Costa Coffee chain through the Middle East.

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