Crop Nutrition

Subtropical fruit forest set up for success in Nūhaka

29 August 2022, NZ: Former weather forecaster Bernard Miville looked around the country for the perfect location for his subtropical orchard and found that, in Nūhaka, the outlook was very fine indeed. KRISTINE WALSH reports.

In his early years as a weather forecaster, Bernard Miville worked on monitoring sea ice in the freezing waters around his home country, Canada.

These days his ambition is to avoid such climate extremes and that is what led him to buying a patch of land at Nūhaka – between Napier and Gisborne – where he has established his own tropical fruit forest.

“We first started looking around Northland where a lot of subtropical fruits are well established,” says Bernard. He and his wife Sandra Fogliani embarked on that search in 2019.

“But as well as deciding that [Northland] was too far from home, we learned that Nūhaka, of all the locations in New Zealand, is predicted to undergo less drastic change in climate over the next 50 years than other places.”

Bernard and Sandra finally settled on purchasing one hectare of land in Nūhaka at the end of 2020.

“When we first looked at this piece of land, we looked over the fence and saw bananas growing on the neighbour’s property,” he says. “That was when we thought we could really do something here.”

The couple’s home is actually further south in the middle of a stand of native bush in Upper Hutt, Wellington – which, although lovely, does not get enough sun to be a good growing environment. Wellington will remain their base while Bernard works as the manager of operational forecasting at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

In the meantime, for at least one weekend a month, the couple head to Nūhaka to tend the fledgling plants they have established.

Bernard says it was a work event that led to the ambitious idea to develop a subtropical orchard. In 2007, after a nearly three-year secondment in Japan where he worked as a data manager at Hokkaido University, Bernard, Sandra and their two children moved to New Zealand.

Bernard had been working for NIWA for almost a decade when the organisation hosted a presentation for staff around how and when they should start planning for retirement.

“By that time, I had travelled for work to a number of Pacific Islands where, for breakfast, we would be served these tiny, fresh bananas,” Bernard says. “I’d always wondered if I could grow them in New Zealand and the retirement class got me thinking about that a lot more seriously.”

At just 58, Bernard is a way away from retirement so is optimistic his property will be well established by the time he is ready to move there.

As well as the plantings, the couple have also installed irrigation piping accessed from a neighbour’s well (with plans to install their own) and at the start of winter, took delivery of a tiny home to make their weekend visits more comfortable.

Bernard was recently chatting to neighbour Tony Anscombe about the cherimoya – custard apples – that both are growing at their Nūhaka properties. Tony’s has much more established cherimoya.

Bernard’s cherimoya are at fledgling stage while those grown by Tony, who provided the budwood for Bernard, are fruiting so voluminously he’s busy in his test kitchen experimenting with wondrous ways to work with them.

“It’s amazing what grows around here,” says Bernard, looking around the bucolic scene at the tiny settlement near Mahia on the East Coast of the North Island.

Bernard started with a good base. Formerly used for growing potatoes, his patch of land has good topsoil with pumice under that to a depth of approximately 80 centimetres, at which point it hits clay.

“So, because it is not completely free-draining, we mounded rows for planting and have taken a no-till approach so as not to destroy the structure of the soil.”

It doesn’t look like a typical New Zealand orchard. Bernard got to work just a month after taking over the property, setting up a nursery of potted banana plants to winter outside, varieties including goldfinger, dwarf Cavendish, Ducasse, misi luki, Williams, blue java, Fiji, Cavendish and a few unknown varieties too.

Sandra and Bernard planted a cover crop to suppress weed growth, prepared the soil and provided mulch and, opting for a light – rather than dominant – shelter belt, used agroforestry principles in planting bana grass at the front and rear of the property, with tree lucerne at the sides.

By the time they were ready to plant in October 2021, they had sourced good numbers of complementary varieties, interspersing plantings of bananas with support and nutrient plants like comfrey, eucalyptus and red kakabeak, along with the subtropicals such as red pineapple, queen pineapple, white sapote, inga beans, mountain paw paw, tamarillo, cherimoya, macadamia, guevina (Chilean nut) and paraná nut.

And that’s what led to the name of the orchard – “NūKa”, short for “Nūhaka Subtropika.”

“There is a lot of experimentation and we have the luxury of time to test things out,” Bernard says.

“For example, we used a mix of suckers and tissue culture for the bananas to find out what performs best in the Nūhaka region and climate.”

Bernard has reached out to Plant & Food Research Limited – which has already supported Pic’s Peanut Butter in trialling peanut growing in Northland – to discuss growing peanut plants and almond trees at Nūhaka.

“My decision to set up in Nūhaka was driven by the climate and my hope is that it can benefit the climate too,” he says. “Many of the subtropicals we import are not grown ethically and arrive here through a lot of transport movements; so the more we can reduce that, the better.

“What we are dependent on though, is how people shop. Are they willing to select fruit that does not look perfect, or comes at a slightly higher cost if they know it comes from a good place?”

As for that all-important micro-climate, Bernard says that while it does get chilly in Nūhaka, frosts are extremely rare and he expects that to continue.

In terms of the potential for flooding, Wairoa has the option to open sandbanks at the junction of the river mouth and the sea, which, he says, takes the pressure off other waterways.

“Like everywhere else around the country, we did get hit by the tail ends of a couple of tropical cyclones that shredded the banana leaves, but the land drained better than many places and we dealt with the resulting slugs and snails by removing them manually,” Bernard says.

While locals have reported changes in the last five years – from the reduction of frosts to practically zero, to an increase in rain events – he admits to being surprised to learn that very little drastic change was predicted to occur in his lifetime.

“We established ourselves at Nūhaka because it seemed to offer a bit of surety, but things can change, so whether that actually turns out to be true remains to be seen,” he says.

As it stands, he has access to nearby weather stations to help monitor wind and rain and plans to install his own once the property has better quality internet service.

“So, our approach is to look at the science, respond to forecasts and do the best we can to give our plants a great start for the best possibility of success.”

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