Golden Bay Fruit

When Richard Clarkson decided that he’d had enough of the stress of working for the NZ Police in Wellington, he and his wife decided to move to Nelson for a more relaxed lifestyle.

“I grew up in South Auckland, but I love the region and my wife’s family has lived here since 1850. Their house was built in 1869.”

He “started at the bottom” at Wai-West Horticulture in the Waimea Plains, driving tractors and thinning apple trees, before eventually working his way up to general manager. He then became orchard manager at Golden Bay Fruit, which was established over 20 years ago when a collective of local orchardists came together under one vertically integrated company.

“The horticulture sector is full of opportunities for those who are open-minded,” he says.

And there are plenty of open minds in the region that are creating a whole range of new opportunities in the fruit sector, whether it’s new high-value varieties, new technologies to improve the growing, picking and packing processes, or more sustainable practices to reduce environmental harm.

While its growers grow a wide variety of well-known apple varieties and export to 25 countries, Golden Bay Fruit has developed three new varieties to which it has the international rights (Cherish, Miranda and the PiqaBoo pear).

“It’s about being able to control how it’s grown and have more control over the price. But it has to be about a better return back to growers. They need to be happy to grow it and supply it.”

The company’s most obvious use of technology can be seen in its state-of-the-art apple sorting and packing factory in Motueka. It was opened in 2019 and it is fully automated and computerised and while Clarkson says the added efficiency has meant it doesn’t require as many staff, he says it has also allowed them to move them to its other, older apple and kiwifruit facilities.

While platform picking has opened up opportunities for a wider variety of people to pick fruit, labour remains one of the biggest issues for the sector. That issue has been exacerbated by Covid-19 border restrictions, which have reduced the number of seasonal workers available, so Clarkson sees the need for more robotic harvesting.

With kiwifruit, which Golden Bay Fruit also grows, the vines are all uniform so the same robotic picking technology can work across the country. But picking apples and pears from a large variety of trees is a harder problem to solve.

“What I’m excited about are the drones, because they’ll pick apples off all types of trees; big, small, young and old.”

These drones have been developed in Israel and he would like to see New Zealand take a leaf out of Israel’s book and invest more into R&D. He says there is some good stuff happening in terms of genetics with Plant and Food and the Cathrown Institute, but he believes Nelson Tasman could build an innovation hub for the country’s primary and food production sector.

“Whether it’s technology or genetics or sustainability, all kinds of businesses could come and say ‘we’ve got this problem’. A whole lot of ideas would come back and then maybe we manufacture a solution here in New Zealand. I’d rather us come up with those solutions and patent them as it’s better for our country. It goes right back to the 50s and 60s. We’ve taken raw product, sold it all over the world and had to buy a lot of it back as value-add. That needs to change.”

In the fruit world, growing those raw products is more scientific than it has ever been, however. Buyers, who often set the price for the end product, are very exacting, so it’s important to get the right colour, the right size, and the right flavour and sweetness profile so the fruit will appeal to consumers.

“That’s about hanging the right number of fruit on the tree and spreading the fruit so it gets the light and then the colour. All those things make a big difference.”

New Zealand is globally renowned for its fruit and it has been ranked number one in the world for apple production many times over. Our impressive total production per hectare numbers also drive down our carbon footprint. But Clarkson says it would be nice to add value by promoting the unique characteristics of apples from a specific region, as is often seen with certain wine regions or cheese regions.

“We would need to do a lot of science on that and do it over a number of years to make sure it’s not a one off,” he says.

Another way to add value is to turn those commodities into something more valuable and he says there are some very clever food producers extracting more money out of the region’s produce through innovative processes and savvy marketing.

“We are starting to look at higher-value products like fruit leathers, fruit chips, or powders. It comes down to how we best sell it, our marketing, our packaging, and what it takes to compete.”

It’s also working with the apiarists who assist with the pollination of their fruit trees to support a business that would sell their honey.

As well as making more out of what they produce, Clarkson says it’s always looking to use less to produce it.

When it comes to chemicals, it follows the NZ Apples and Pears guidelines. To maintain access into the European market it has to meet certain strict standards around spraying. And while each market has different access issues, all 750 hectares of its apple orchards need to be at that same high level (it has 100 hectares of kiwifruit).

“We could use sprays that are cheaper and keep more pests at bay, but it’s better for the environment not to … It’s about saying ‘this is all we need to grow our crop. Anything extra is just putting money down the toilet’.”

While it currently sells all its apples, whether for export, for juice or for stock feed, he says it is looking at taking some of the waste products from juicing, drying it out and then using it as a biofuel for the factory.

This focus on reducing waste and finding value has also flowed into the consumer space. When a one in one hundred year hail storm hit the region on Boxing Day last year, it affected almost 100% of the fruit growing region, he says. There was still plenty of viable fruit on the trees, just not at top grade export level, so, in a classic case of making the best of a bad situation, Golden Bay Fruit developed a new brand called ‘Stormy Fruit, kissed by nature.’

“No-one has ever seen a storm that has created that much damage,” he says. “But now we’ve got a brand that’s long-lasting and Stormy Fruit is being sold here and in international markets and brings in much more for the growers than if their crop was sold as juice. It won’t give the growers a profit but it keeps them going because the price of juice doesn't even pay the wages for picking. Buyers are becoming more discerning about waste. They don’t want to see wasted fruit.”

Clarkson says having access to a range of experienced people from the industry who can help solve problems or work together on projects is very helpful.

He says it also works closely with the iwi-owned Wakatū Incorporation, which is looking at putting its Annies Juice plant out the back of the Golden Bay Fruit packhouse.

It also leases some of Wakatū’s land and backs the 500 year regional intergenerational strategy it is leading.

He believes one of the biggest issues in the region and across the country is maintaining viable soils.

“Urban sprawl is encroaching on fertile land that should be reserved for growing food. Yes, New Zealand is a net producer of food, but at some point we won’t be able to produce enough for our own population if we lose those soil components. There are a whole lot of lovely hill blocks where you can’t put anything else that would be good for houses.”

Clarkson’s grandfather was a sheep and beef farmer and he always thought long-term. He knew that the land was the thing that would provide a living for him and for future generations, so it needed to be treated well.

“As farmers, you’re not really an owner of the land. Previous generations might not have used the phrase kaitiaki, but I think they’ve always seen themselves as caretakers of the land. That’s what we need to be.”