Crop Nutrition

Unexpected, rewarding career for Central Otago fruit grower

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23 August 2022, New Zealand: A short-term plan to work on an orchard before embarking on an overseas experience (OE) led to an unexpected career in horticulture for Tim Officer. HELENA O’NEILL speaks to the 28-year-old on how he became an orchardist.

Set against the beautiful backdrop of Earnscleugh in Central Otago is a 200-hectare fruit orchard, Dunstan Hills. A short drive from Alexandra, the orchard produces cherries, apricots, nectarines and peaches.

For Tim Officer, a six-month stint as a seasonal worker before heading off overseas was just the beginning of a fulfilling career in horticulture.

“I started in the coolstore packing boxes, then I did a few months pruning before leaving for my OE,” Tim says. “Then I came back as a cherry harvest supervisor in the field. It all started from there.”

Tim started full-time at Dunstan Hills in December 2016. He was promoted to orchard manager earlier this year.  

“I was always involved with growing the cherries. I was harvest manager for a while and in the background, I was the health and safety officer – I still am.”

Before he joined the industry, Tim studied commerce at the University of Otago, planning to become an accountant.

“I wanted to be an accountant because I thought I was quite good at it in high school. Looking back at it, what I gained was more about life skills than anything else.”

Horticulture as a career option never featured in Tim’s plans.

“It didn’t even cross my mind and I don’t know how it didn’t,” he says. “I had a couple of friends tell me at high school that I should be studying horticulture. I had a massive vegetable garden at home, so I used to play around with that.”

“Everyone thought I was crazy, studying accounting, and they were right.”

“I came to Alexandra for six months to make some money as my siblings had worked for Dunstan Hills before me as seasonal workers, but I’m the one who hasn’t left,” he laughs.

Tim says he has learned a lot at Dunstan Hills, especially because he knew nothing about the industry before starting there.

“When I first started, I was at the ground level and I met a lot of people from around the world,” he says. “The social aspect was really cool. But as I’ve progressed through it’s the technical side that I like and the challenge that every season brings. There’s something really satisfying seeing the whole process through from pruning in the winter to seeing cherries in a box. 

“You can watch the fruit come to the packhouse and you can stand there and be proud of it. The job became a little bit harder but the harder it got, the more satisfying it got.”

Studying for the New Zealand Certificate in Horticulture – Level 4 Fruit Production

at Primary ITO while working helped reinforce his on-the-job knowledge and built confidence.

“It reinforces what you already know and it’s good to have your name on the wall with something that backs up your knowledge. It’s definitely helpful having a qualification backing you.

“There are a lot of opportunities in the industry, especially for young people,” Tim says.

“The amount of fruit that’s being planted, there’s always demand for young, capable people. In Central Otago there’s a lot of cherries being planted.”

Alongside developing important orcharding skills, Tim has developed better people skills and finds public speaking far easier. He also competed in the Central Otago Young Fruitgrower of the Year in 2019 and 2021, placing second and third, respectively. Tim says it’s the opportunities that come from taking part in the competition that makes it all worthwhile.

“You realise you’re not the only person in your mid-twenties doing this job,” he says. “When I came second, I got to go to all the conferences where I met people from different industries. It’s the networking and conferences after the competition which are the really good stuff.”

Dunstan Hills has 40 hectares of cherries in production with another eight immature hectares, 25-ha of apricots, 2.5-ha nectarines, and one hectare of peaches.

Each season provides its own challenges which keeps work varied, Tim says.

“The weather played ball in January, we had a really good February and March for apricots, nectarines and peaches. The weather was a bit dodgy to start with, but it came right. The crop size was solid, probably quite a good size crop for the staff that we had, being down about 50 people.

“The early cherry crop was a little bit rain-affected but as we moved through the summer it got better.”

Orchard life provides enough challenges that Tim hopes to remain in the industry.

“I would like to have my own block of fruit, probably cherries because that’s where my passion is. Cherries are harder to grow, but that’s where the value is. It needs to be done right for the success of the company.”

Also Read: Shorter lead time for Grant of Patent in India will bring Investment in Agriculture Sector: PHD Chamber

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