Tony Gibbs is one of three entrepreneurs who have seen the potential for avocados at Tapora.
Investment in a multi-million dollar avocado industry is cranking up on the Okahukura Peninsula, west of Wellsford.
Three Mahurangi-based orchardists and horticulturalists are behind three separate enterprises, which will together plant more than 350 hectares over the next few years.
The three growers are EZY Peel Mandarin owner and former corporate heavyweight, Tony Gibbs; former Fresh Food Exports owner, John Greensmith; and a joint venture between Southern Paprika owner Hamish Alexander and businessman Glen Inger.
When all three orchards are up and running, they expect to employ more than 100 people in Tapora, which currently has a population of around 200.
Avocados are New Zealand’s third largest fresh fruit export, and Northland, with its cool nights and humid summers, is considered to have an ideal climate for the crop. Avocados have been farmed commercially at Tapora for more than 20 years, but never on the scale now envisaged. One of the attractions of the peninsula is its free-draining soils, which until now have been mainly used for dairying, sheep and beef farming.
Mr Greensmith says market demand is growing at 10 per cent annually, with the supply increasing by just three per cent.
Mr Alexander’s 250-hectare orchard is set to be the largest in New Zealand.
He expects to produce 5000 tonnes of avocados annually from 100,000 trees, with the first harvest set to start in four years time.
The orchard will employ between 20 to 30 people year round with an extra 30 to 40 seasonal workers.
“One of the difficulties will be the isolation, which may mean providing worker accommodation on site,” he says.
He plans to export most of his avocados to Japan, Australia, the US and China, where he already has established markets through Southern Paprika.
The avocados will be marketed under the name Harbour Edge Avocado and will be packed at the Southern Paprika site in Warkworth.
At this stage, the avocados will be sold fresh, but he is looking at other uses when the orchard is established.
The venture has cost more than $50,000 per hectare, excluding the purchase price of the land.
He says Tapora is perhaps the only area in the Auckland region where commercial avocado production is viable.
There are already 14,000 trees planted on Mr Gibbs’ neighbouring orchard, which covers 60 hectares, and he plans to put in another 10,000 trees next spring. He currently employs two fulltime staff but says he will need 70 workers when fully operational.
He has set up a reliable water supply by sinking multiple bores but is concerned about the local infrastructure at Tapora.
“The road in to Tapora is an absolute disgrace,” he says. “In winter it’s filthy, dirty, wet and slimy, and in summer, the dust is horrible. Meeting a milk tanker on the road is a near-death experience. They start off carrying milk but it must be yoghurt by the time they get to the factory after driving over the corrugations on the road!
“Millions of dollars in rates will have been collected from that area, but the infrastructure is appalling and the telephone service barely works.”
Mr Greensmith, who is planting a 50-hectare orchard, agrees. The road will be the main access to the orchard and he would like to see the gravel road upgraded.
Until recently, he was involved in strawberry and blueberry ventures at Point Wells, and is a former chair of Strawberry Growers NZ.
He plans to sell his produce to an established pack house, which will distribute the fruit through existing channels.
Once the orchard is fully operational, he hopes to produce around 550 tonnes of avocados a year.
Mr Greensmith says setting up a reliable water supply has been expensive, with bore costs running to more than $100,000.
His orchard currently employs one permanent worker and two others on contract.
Mr Alexander is concerned about the implications of Auckland Council’s Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan which zones farmland on the lower peninsula under Outstanding Natural Features (ONF).
“The zoning would be very restrictive on all farming across the area, and I’m not sure how widely understood this is by local residents,” he says.
“Horticulture NZ would like the land, which has been farmed for over 50 years, to be protected for future horticultural development.
“While we need to protect our environment, we also need to protect the areas that produce our food.”
There are about 1600 growers in NZ, utilising more than 5000 hectares. Australia is the biggest market, taking 80 per cent of NZ’s export crop. Most of the avocados are the Hass variety, which is grown for its consistent quality.