13 September 2023, NZ: A decision to move back to her hometown and plant avocados four years ago has seen Te Puke’s Libby McKenzie go on a big growth journey, and as CARLY GIBBS discovers, it’s been one of hard work and lessons learned along the way.
When Libby McKenzie moved back to her home district of Pongakawa, near Te Puke, from Christchurch in 2019, she felt happy about her decision to plant avocados over kiwifruit.
Four years on, in what’s becoming an oversaturated market with suffering export returns, she’s unsure whether that was the right call but is persevering optimistically.
Libby and her husband Lachlan “Lachie” planted 669 Hass avocado trees on 3ha of bare land that they bought off Libby’s parents Keith and Caroline Boyle, who live adjacent to the property on their Maniatutu Road dairy farm.
The Boyle’s also own a green kiwifruit orchard that they lease, and three blocks of avocados.
Newbies Libby and Lachie will harvest their second-ever avocado crop this year, which at the time of print, looked to be up on last year but “light”.
“Certainly, our young avocados aren’t looking as good as I would have liked. Last year we did about eight bins, and this year we’ll do about 15,” Libby predicts.
She puts the gradual increase down to poor flowering, thanks to wet, cloudy conditions. And the couple has chosen not to export their crop due to compliance and fee costs, and their low number of trays.
“It just doesn’t make it economic until we can get a few more bins,” Libby says.
When they bought their land, it was covered in lucerne that had been cropped for her parents’ dairy stock.
They toyed with the idea of planting kiwifruit on it, but when comparing set-up costs, they opted for avocados, knowing they still needed to buy a house.
It took a year to get two power poles removed from the site due to a “long and difficult” process with Powerco. And during this time, they’d already planted a shelter belt.
Then they partially recontoured; resowed; marked the block out; and put irrigation and a bore in.
“By the time we planted the trees, it was late in the season – December 2019,” she recalls.
They had also faced further challenges: 80 millimeters of rain fell shortly after the grass was sown, creating ruts, which made for “bumpy mowing” in some parts of the orchard.
And in the autumn of their first year, a storm with heavy winds arrived just after they had covered all 669 trees with frost covers.
“Unfortunately, we had lots of ripped covers, which took a bit to fix, but that’s horticulture and dealing with nature,” she says.
A year later when the trees were too big for frost covers, an autumn frost blitzed yearling trees planted in a small dip, and those died and had to be replanted more than once.
They have since bought a frost fan and staking the new plants “really well” has made a significant difference to their survival.
While the couple packs with Trevelyan’s, Libby manages the orchard herself and says after irrigation and planting, she chose to do regenerative planting, which looked “amazing” but made getting to their trees difficult as the plants and flowers were left to grow tall before they were mulched.
What’s more, some irrigation lines were punctured in places, while sowing the regen seeds (even though she’d hired a specialist with equipment for shallow sowing, because she knew there was a risk).
“That was a learning curve,” Libby says. “We had to go in amongst this massive regenerative crop and find the holes and patch the irrigation lines. Planting a regenerative crop with the grass originally would have been a smart way to go.”
However, planting regen was important, because they’d contoured and wanted to improve the soil as quickly as possible.
They also chose to use vermicast (worm castings), which act as a fertiliser and soil amendments to improve soil health and increase plant immunity, which has made a “huge difference”.
They applied the vermicast around the young plants and then generously heaped mulch around them.
They regularly fertilise their trees but there has been minimal pruning.
Initially, that was because of a lack of time with a young family and other projects, but ironically the trees have benefited: “They’ve just been left to grow and I can just prune and cut out what’s a bit messy later.”
Libby is both practical and glass-half-full in her approach. Moving back to Pongakawa after working in Human Resources (HR) has been a positive experience, she says, despite the challenges.
Husband Lachie, a banker who is originally from Southland, agreed the Bay of Plenty would offer a great lifestyle to raise their children Mac, 7, and Kate 5, as well as being close to Libby’s parents, her brother and his family, grandmother, and an aunt and uncle, all of whom are willing helpers.
“We love the lifestyle. The issue is we don’t have the time to enjoy it,” Libby laughs.
That’s partly because one year after buying their avocado block, they also bought a 4.55ha kiwifruit orchard with a house. The orchard, a seven-minute drive from their avocado block, consists of 1.14ha of mature gold, 1.12ha of gold that was cut over from green in 2022, and 2.29ha of Hayward.
While the kiwifruit orchard is managed by EHC Orchard Management, Libby does some of the maintenance herself, learning from others as she goes: “There’s been a lot of new,” she says.
While ‘green’ to both industries, she already feels that the avocado industry could learn from Zespri, which acts as a single entity exporting products for growers, which helps increase the market.
She also supports Zespri’s quality standards for picking, wherein growers can’t pick unless they meet certain criteria, ensuring every fruit that hits the shelf is “delicious”. This also helps to “cascade” picking within the regions and their different climates.
While the avocado industry also has picking criteria, some of the early fruit can lack flavour, she says.
“It’s always a balance between providing avos for the consumer and getting the season started versus the perfect tasting fruit. I think it’s about getting our marketing right and getting the fruit as delicious as possible.”
In saying that, she’s still happy she and Lachie invested in avocados.
“In the long term, it worked out well for us because then we had the money to buy an already established kiwifruit block, with a house.”
Their kiwifruit vines are producing “above average”, with quality Kiwistart returns on the gold block since purchasing; and they are looking forward to their first crop on the gold cutover block next March.
Lachie works off the orchards, which in this changeable climate, alongside spiking interest rates, has been helpful.
“Without that external income, it’s a whole different ball game,” Libby says.
On the back of extreme weather events and lower-than-usual payouts, she now has a far greater appreciation for horticulture and is realistic about the future within both industries but is keeping positive.
“All these things are cyclical. I think you just need to be there for all the ups and downs and enjoy the opportunities horticulture provides.”
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