Citrus venture boosts zest for life
19 October 2022, NZ: When Caroline Marriott decided to take up a physiotherapy job in New Zealand, she and her husband Simon had no idea they would be establishing their own orchard and producing a range of citrus products. HELENA O’NEILL talks to the Marriotts about their slice of Coromandel paradise and their plans for the future.
Simon and Caroline Marriott moved to New Zealand in 1999 after living in Kenya for four years, where they worked on a 24,000-hectare wildlife game reserve. A trained physiotherapist, Caroline was recruited to work at Thames Hospital.
“We had a choice between Thames and Taumarunui, and as we had been living on the Equator, we thought we would go as far north as possible. It was just luck that we ended up here,” Simon says of their 12ha orchard in the Omahu Valley.
“I worked at Thames Hospital for 11 years and then the orchard was calling for more assistance and the children were at the stage of all heading off to university. So I stopped working there and really set the business up making the products. The Coromandel has turned out to be the perfect place for this as we’re at the epicentre of Auckland, Hamilton, and Tauranga which has been great for sales,” Caroline adds.
Simon meanwhile had returned to his military career, sharing his skills and experience with the New Zealand Army.
“I began in the British Army and spent 24 years with five of those years seconded to the Sultan of Oman’s armed forces. When we came here, I joined the Territorial Force [now Army Reserve Forces] and served with them for 15 years in Hamilton.”
Simon retired from the Army Reserves with the rank of major in 2015, but still serves as the president of the Waikato Mounted Rifles Regimental Association.
Establishing an orchard at the same time as planting a shelterbelt was tricky, Simon says.
“Where the orchard is now was just a paddock and we used it for sheep. We live in a valley and are subject to some quite strong winds. Initially there was an awful lot of propping up trees. Once we overcame that then it was fine,” he says.
They began the orchard in 2004 with lemons and limes, planting about 450 of each, adding more limes in 2006. The initial plan was to grow citrus for the commercial market.
“We realised quite early on that as a grower, the dollar value coming back to us was very minimal. I started experimenting with making marmalades and things in 2010. After a lot of trial and error, we eventually got a product that was selling quite well at the Thames Farmers’ Market,” Caroline says. Simon suggested they enter a jar of marmalade in the 2014 World’s Original Marmalade Competition back in England, which they did – and won a silver award.
“That really set the business going. We could then approach shops confidently knowing that we had a product that was winning international awards. The business has grown hugely since then,” Caroline says.
To widen their product lines, they added both Seville and navel oranges and planted grapefruit. “We were experimenting all the time” Simon adds. “We now have an amazing mixture of citrus.”
The couple grow tangelos, citron, grapefruit, mandarins, oranges, lemons, limes, lemonades and Buddha’s hand (fingered citron).
“It really is a mixture of everything: chutneys, cordials, vinaigrettes, mustard and marmalades. We have 23 different products now which we sell at specialist, high-end delicatessen-type stores,” Caroline says.
“Maintaining the highest quality product goes further than just brewing the perfect batch of marmalade. For us, it means undertaking every step of the process ourselves, from tree to jar.
“It’s literally the fruit straight from the trees, just sugar added to make it set. Everything is made in small batches, 2kgs of fruit with 16 jars of marmalade from that. It’s very much labour intensive but keeps that quality up.”
All the recipes have been developed by Caroline after robust taste-testing by Simon and the children.
“Then we would take them down to the Thames Farmers’ Market and the locals were a great tasting panel too.”
When the Covid-19 reached New Zealand, the business became even busier than usual, Caroline says.
“We found that because everyone was working from home, they all had time for breakfast. We found marmalade sales went up during lockdown and our online sales were really, really good. Because we are lucky enough to have a good courier which comes straight to our door, and sales increased over that time for many of our products. We were running around here like mad things.
“Online sales are still very regular, and we still get other shops approaching us wanting to stock our products.”
For ten years, the couple sold their products at the Thames Farmers’ Market, but last year opted to stop running their stall in favour of having their weekends back again.
“Following the national lockdown, I realised what a whole weekend was,” Caroline explains.
When The Orchardist first talked to the Marriotts in August, the couple were reflecting on the future of their business.
“We’ve reached our capacity, because it is just the two of us running the business. There is heaps of room for expansion because we don’t do any social media promotion at all as we’re a little bit frightened about taking on more than we can cope with. We’ve had requests to sell our products overseas, and we’ve had supermarkets asking for our products. We just can’t do that.”
In mid-September, Simon and Caroline made the difficult decision to put their orchard and business up for sale.
“It’s a very emotional decision. We know every corner of this property and every tree. It’s also where we brought up our four children. Hopefully we can find some young, keen person to carry on the business.”
While the couple is stepping away from their 22-year labour of love, they are firm in their plan to remain in New Zealand.
“We are definitely staying in New Zealand. It’s home for all our family.”
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