Global Agriculture

Persimmons part of growth plan

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13 July 2022, New Zealand: Implementing a strategic planting strategy that offers many points of difference is paying dividends for a Tairawhiti-based whanau trust. KRISTINE WALSH reports.

Thirty-five years after persimmons were first established commercially in Gisborne, there is an award-winning new kid on the block, Wi Pere Trust (WPT), with grand plans to grow the persimmon industry further.

WPT emerged from the desire of its founding father, Wiremu Pere (Te Whanau-a-Kai/Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki), to preserve ancestral lands for future generations and to retain, protect, build and grow them for the benefit of whanau. Today, WPT has more than 500 beneficiaries and net assets valued at over $100 million, including sheep and beef farms, forestry land, 20-hectares of newly planted Rockit™ apples and another 20-ha earmarked for other apple varieties: 20-ha of newly established navel oranges, four hectares of blueberries and more.

WPT horticulture manager, Wayne Hall, oversees all of WPT’s horticultural operations near Waerenga-a-Hika, just out of Gisborne, including 26-ha of conventional and organic Gold kiwifruit and four-hectares of persimmons.

The Trust’s persimmon plantings are a big change from WPT’s early days of growing grapes – which have now all gone. Wayne says it’s all part of a strategic business plan devised a decade ago to focus on high-value export crops coupled with high-earning varieties for the domestic market.

“We were price-takers on low-value crops and that did not bode well for the future,” Wayne says. “We developed this strategy that gives us a point of difference.”

While WPT is a whanau trust, it is also a commercial entity that has obligations to its beneficiaries, he says.

The early maturing M7 oranges have already proved their worth with their late-June harvest ensuring WTP hits the market when NZ navels are in short supply and new-season fruit is eagerly awaited by the domestic market. Kiwifruit have already given four years of high-end returns too.

The new persimmon crop hit full production in 2021, two years ahead of schedule,

To get the work done, the horticulture arm of WPT has ten full-time employees and up to 65 casual workers during peak orchard times. Twenty-seven staff are dedicated to the persimmon harvest alone.

“Our aim is to achieve the economy of scale needed to offer more permanent, full-time employment, especially to locals,” says Wayne. “We see that time getting closer and closer especially as the apples, which are still in their infancy, come on stream.”

Income from the kiwifruit has allowed the Trust to fund licences and infrastructure, while future-proofing its orchards and crops.

“The trust does have a strategy (Wi Pere Kaitiakitanga Whenua Plan) to ensure good environmental guardianship, but the reality is the climate is affecting us all and we wanted to reduce our exposure to that,” says Wayne. “Investing in things like netting and ground cover for the persimmons and tunnel houses for the blueberries, offers at least some protection from both bird damage and bad weather.”

WPT’s approach to orchard care was so successful that the Trust earned itself the “Freshies” award for Best-Performing Persimmon Orchard.

“Our approach has been to treat it [the persimmons] like growing kiwifruit, in that you want to put a lot of effort into achieving as much first-grade fruit as you can,” says Wayne.

Persimmon Industry Council (PIC) manager, Ian Turk, says the fruit was looking great as growers geared up for the 2022 season. Fruit was good in size and in volume with a higher supply from many growers compared to last year.

That was the case at WPT where the team had hoped to build on the back of their 2021 harvest of 10,000 trays per hectare. Orchard manager, Eddie Collins, believes the trust would get close to achieving that top result.

Despite the number of catastrophic rain events that have occurred in Gisborne since late 2021, Wayne was not too worried about the small impact on some of the fruit’s quality.

“We managed to get up to 70 percent export grade at the start of harvest and that’s what we were shooting for, knowing we were going to get a bit more rain towards the end,” he says. “First Fresh and the Persimmon Industry Council have done a great job of marketing, so we’ve got those offshore buyers, but there’s also a growing interest in the domestic market.

“Persimmons used to be a real luxury item but they’re a bit more accessible now, which is good for consumers. First Fresh’s decision not to handle Tag 3 (lower grade) fruit has stabilised things by improving buyer trust and interest in the product.”

With freight issues easing since the start of the pandemic, Ian says most of this year’s commercial crop was bound for the overseas market.

The knowledge, skill and care of Wi Pere Trust orchard manager, Eddie Collins, resulted in WPT earning a “Freshie” award in the persimmon product category

“Around 70 percent of our crop, worth about $10 million, will head to Australia, the United States, China, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong,” Ian says. “We’re also developing markets in Vietnam, which will increase demand for our fruit in the coming years.”

Meanwhile, Wayne is juggling the day-to-day demands of his day job with his position as chair of Citrus New Zealand and his recent appointment to the Persimmon Industry Council executive.

He believes those roles are just another way of getting his boots dirty.

“There is already a lot of strengths in the persimmon industry, and we can only build on that for a stronger future.”

The knowledge, skill and care of Wi Pere Trust orchard manager, Eddie Collins, resulted in WPT earning a “Freshie” award in the persimmon product category

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