The season's first shipment of Zespri kiwifruit will leave the Port of Tauranga tomorrow, as the kiwifruit harvest begins around New Zealand.

The Klipper Stream was being loaded today and will leave for China tomorrow.

Mount Maunganui-based kiwifruit marketing company Zespri was expecting this year's New Zealand-grown crop to exceed last year's by about 20 million trays or 70,000 tonnes.

The company has predicted sales will exceed $2 billion for the current season, with official sales figures due to be announced in May.

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That number was expected to double to $4.5b by 2025, bringing 14,000 new kiwifruit jobs to the Bay of Plenty alone, according to Zespri.

Ministry of Primary Industry figures released last week showed the country's horticulture sector had grown 4.2 per cent to reach an export value of $5b.

In the next four years, the sector was expected to grow by at least $1.3b, with kiwifruit leading the way as the highest-valued export, followed by apples, according to Horticulture New Zealand.

The Klipper Stream container ship begins loading the first kiwifruit shipment of the season leaving Port of Tauranga. Photo/Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services
The Klipper Stream container ship begins loading the first kiwifruit shipment of the season leaving Port of Tauranga. Photo/Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services

Zespri reported that in 2017 around 123 million trays of New Zealand fruit – more than 430,000 tonnes – were sold and 102 million of those trays came out of Bay of Plenty soil.

An additional 14 million trays of fruit were grown overseas, supplying fruit outside of the New Zealand growing season to meet year-round global demand.

Zespri chief executive Dan Mathieson said the company's two biggest markets, Japan and China, were forecast to grow strongly.

Zespri was also looking for solid growth across the rest of Asia as well as Europe and North America, where supply did not meet demand last year.

"Demand for safe, healthy fruit continues to grow exponentially in China, in terms of both volume and value. However, our Japanese market is going great guns as well – we've seen a 30 per cent sales growth there over the past four years.

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson and chairman Doug Brown. Photo/supplied
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson and chairman Doug Brown. Photo/supplied

"So our two major markets are pretty much neck and neck and repeat purchasing is very strong from our consumers."

Zespri shipping manager Mike Knowles was monitoring the loading of the refrigerated ship, which began about 7am and was due to finish about midnight.

"Then it's going to sail directly to Shanghai to launch the open season sales in China, those crucial early sales."

The company would charter about 50 ships over the course of what was expected to be a record season, he said.

Zespri has opened the tender for an additional 750ha of SunGold licence this year and, subject to demand, each year out to 2020.

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chairman Doug Brown said orchards from the top of the North Island to the top of the South Island had been cleared to be harvested.

He wished all growers a happy and safe harvest, saying the industry had an "exciting future ahead of it" with sales expected to double by 2025.

New Zealand kiwifruit by the numbers

- 80 - percentage of New Zealand Kiwifruit grown in the Bay of Plenty
- 18,000 - people employed in the kiwifruit industry in New Zealand
- 2500 - kiwifruit growers
- 13,500 - hectares of kiwifruit orchards
- 60 - countries Zespri kiwifruit is sold in
- $1.8 billion - annual indirect impact to Bay of Plenty from kiwifruit industry