Tuesday, December 5, 2023

‘Nail in the coffin’ for one kiwifruit grower

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Gisborne kiwifruit grower waiting to see whether vines, if not fruit, can be saved after Cyclone Gabrielle damage.
Coming days and weeks are a nervous time for Tim Tietjen as he monitors how his vines are recovering from having their root systems submerged.
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Gisborne kiwifruit (huakiwi) grower Tim Tietjen counts himself luckier than some in Cyclone Gabrielle’s wake, but he is also far from comfortable about what the future may hold.

The New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated (NZKGI) rep for Gisborne has 3ha of SunGold fruit, 3.5ha of SunGold organic and 4ha of new Ruby Red vines growing in Matawhero. 

He is nervously monitoring his fruit on a daily basis to see if two days of submerged roots will result in some, or even complete, vine losses over coming days and months. 

He counts himself more fortunate than two other orchards in the district that were completely wiped out by flooding, but said the floods could yet prove make or break for his own operation. Orchards near the Te Arai River were particularly hard hit.

“The water was sitting over the ground for at least a couple of days. We have two rootstocks for our vines, Bruno and Bounty. Bruno does not really tolerate wet feet for more than 24 hours. Bounty seems to tolerate it better, and was developed for orchards in wetter areas.”

 He has more of the Bounty rootstock vines in the wetter areas, and has seen orchards where Bruno stock vines are already falling over from being submerged.

Gabrielle’s arrival was the dismal climax to a season that has been saturated with rainfall going back to last June, with prolonged wet weather and a lack of sunshine hitting Gisborne crops hard even before the cyclone.

“So Gabrielle has been the nail in the coffin for the season,” Tietjen said.

He is nervously monitoring his fruit’s condition every day, knowing one option to save stressed vines is to pull crop off before it matures, voiding a season’s income.

“If we see fruit going soft, we may have to make a move.”

Like most growers, Tietjen carries a mortgage, and interest rates are surging along with operating costs while this year’s crop yield was already looking compromised due to earlier conditions.

The upside is that, should the crop be harvestable, the SunGold fruit are showing exceptional size this year, though they will require sunshine to lift sugar and taste profiles.

He said he had conversations with his bank and accountant as he revised the season’s budget.

“They seem to understand this could just be a short-term issue and we can try to ride it out.”

Overall the Gisborne district has about 700ha of kiwifruit or about 10% of the national total. It has enjoyed strong growth in plantings over the past three years, with about 100ha of new crop coming on stream each year, particularly for SunGold.

Earlier in the week NZKGI chief executive Colin Bond confirmed that 70% losses in Gisborne may not be an unreasonable estimate.

Looking to the future, Tietjen said ironically the only thing constraining further growth in Gisborne, other than flood risk, is a lack of water for irrigation on the plains. 

“They will probably also have to be a lot more selective about where they plant crops. The Gisborne District Council does have a good mapping tool to identify flood areas, but you do need to know where to look.”