When Hawkes Bay orchardist Lesley Wilson began growing apples close to 30 years ago, "paperwork" meant keeping a cashbook and a box of receipts.

Now, she says she could fill a room with compliance folders -- and that's part of the reason why the industry has performed so strongly in recent years.

These days, scrupulous attention to detail means New Zealand apples can find their way into the most difficult of countries and onto the shelves of the most discerning supermarkets.

"It is a lot harder to grow apples now, but we have put the effort in," says Wilson, who with her husband Desmond has a 25ha orchard near Taradale, in Hawkes Bay.

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Wilson says all those folders mean the industry now has the ability to jump through various compliance and quarantine requirements to find lucrative markets for its apples.

"The industry is working better and we are highly respected worldwide for our quality of fruit, food safety, biosecurity and we have that ability to jump through some big hoops," she says.

The industry's success is borne out in the export figures. In the 2015 season, apple exports reached a record $630 million; this year Pipfruit NZ expects exports to reach 19.5 million cartons, with returns exceeding $700 million. If it's achieved, that export tally will be more than double the $341 million worth of apple exports in 2012.

The industry is aiming for $1 billion in export earnings by 2022, but Pipfruit NZ chief executive Alan Pollard says it is well on track to hit the target before then.

According to ANZ Research, in a survey of 33 countries, the annual World Apple Review ranks New Zealand's pipfruit industry as the first in the world for international competitiveness, based on factors such as production efficiency and infrastructure.

Success and apple growing haven't always gone hand in hand.

The industry is working better and we are highly respected worldwide for our quality of fruit, food safety, biosecurity and we have that ability to jump through some big hoops.

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Wilson refers to what she calls the "white knuckle years", when a case of 100 or so Braeburn apples would sell for only $8 -- less than half the $20 cost of production.

The sector has come a long way since it deregulated and moved away from the single desk selling model in 2001. Until then, apple exporting had been a monopoly controlled by the Apple and Pear Marketing Board, then ENZA. Today, there are about 90 exporters.

Poor returns persisted through to 2012, but the past three seasons have delivered more sustainable earnings.

These days, says Wilson, the industry is more robust. If something untoward happens, like a hailstorm, a market can be found for the damaged fruit. Now, growers are getting paid for every apple on the tree, which hasn't always been the case. "The industry now is just going from strength to strength, so it's a good time."

"Now we have weathered the tough years and it was quite a white-knuckle ride there for a while."

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

Post-deregulation, the industry has had to sort itself out. In the words of Pipfruit NZ business development manager Gary Jones, "we add value by getting to markets where there is huge scarcity.

"It is a blue ocean strategy. No others are in those spaces because our competitors can't meet the quarantine standards of some of those markets," Jones says. Today, demand for New Zealand apples is outstripping supply "at a rate of knots".

A lot has happened since deregulation.

There has been consolidation from 1500 growers to 300 or 400 today.

There is also far more corporate involvement, involving the likes of Mr Apple -- part of NZX-listed Scales Corporation -- and the German-owned T&G -- formerly Turners & Growers. Mr Apple says it markets a quarter of the country's apple crop.

The advent of proprietary varieties, such as Jazz and Envy, has played a big role in securing valuable export dollars.

And independent growers -- typically family owned -- have formed partnerships and invested in packhouses to become more vertically integrated.

The interesting thing for the sector is the commentary around deregulation was that it would implode.

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Wilson says that under the old regime, growers did not have access to the markets they needed. "Now we are getting paid for every apple that is on the tree. We did not have that before."

Much of that, she says, comes down to better quality, better growing systems, better science, better irrigation management, better orchard pruning and thinning. The big push around the world for food safety, and sector's ability to meet much tougher standards, has also played a big part.

Pipfruit NZ's Jones says that despite the post-deregulation doomsayers, the sector has gone from strength to strength -- though not without some pain.

"The interesting thing for the sector is the commentary around deregulation was that it would implode," he says.

"Whilst it has restructured, it is in a position now to reap the benefits of evolving markets and the shift of focus from Europe to Asia.

Demand started to flatten during the Global Financial Crisis and at the time the exchange rate was unhelpfully high. Now, the currency has fallen significantly, creating some good fundamentals for the industry.

The area planted in apples is forecast to reach 11,000ha by 2020, from 9625ha this year. By that stage, the sector expects to be exporting about 425,000 tonnes of apples, out of a gross crop of 640,000 tonnes, compared with 335,000 tonnes (from 565,000 tonnes) last year. New plantings are increasing the area of orchards by 3 or 4 per cent a year. Pipfruit NZ expects next year's crop to be "massive" and its biggest ever, Jones says. "There is a lot of investment in orchards and in post-harvest infrastructure going on," he says.

The hard yards that sector participants have put in since deregulation and a period of back-to-back profitability for growers and other industry participants are now providing impetus for new plantings and expansion in the growing area.

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But the key limiting factor is the availability of land. The areas best suited to apple orchards are mostly in Nelson and Hawkes Bay, and there is only so much land with the right soils and climate. Nevertheless, says Jones, "we are much stronger [than our competitors] in the market, based on our product mix and quality."

Jones says that where the sector has managed to add value has been through its ability to get into difficult markets.

"The added value has been in the local industry's ability to meet the qualitative standards in Asia, which are particularly difficult, whereas our competitors -- South Africa, the United States and Chile -- are struggling to get into those markets," he says.

China, despite its current economic slowdown, is seen as having huge potential, particularly for the Pacific Queen variety, which is enjoying insatiable demand.

ANZ rural economist Con Williams says the sector is currently experiencing a "purple patch", with a run of three profitable harvests.

"The hard yards that sector participants have put in since deregulation and a period of back-to-back profitability for growers and other industry participants are now providing impetus for new plantings and expansion in the growing area," he says.

Current sector earnings are expected to reach about $700 million and Williams says the sector is well on track to achieve its goal of being a $1 billion export earner by 2020.

Growth industry

• Deregulated, single desk selling structure dismantled in 2001.
• Suffered poor earnings from 2004 to 2012.
• Best-practice orchard management is driving better returns.
• Sharp fall in NZ dollar -- from more than 88USc in 2014 to about 67USc today -- is boosting earnings.
• 2016 export forecast: $700 million.
• Export target: $1 billion by 2022.

Growers race to get the crop in

A late start to this year's season means apple growers will face a race against time to have their fruit picked, raising concerns about whether enough workers will be available to do the job.

The harvest normally starts in mid-February, but thanks to the weather, it will be late this month before picking gets under way.

With the late start to the season, the harvest window has shortened, putting more pressure on labour resources and raising concerns about whether the thousands of workers brought from overseas under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme will be enough to cope.

Wilson Loyalty (left) and Graham Nawia, from Vanuatu, at work in Hawkes Bay. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today
Wilson Loyalty (left) and Graham Nawia, from Vanuatu, at work in Hawkes Bay. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today

"When you are talking about 560,000 tonnes of fruit, it's a massive wall of fruit," says Gary Jones, business development manager at Pipfruit NZ. "It's going to be very intense," he says.

"Because it is such a huge crop, a lot of pressure comes on."

Pipfruit NZ works closely with Work and Income New Zealand to ensure the workers are prepared.

In Hawkes Bay, the sector takes in 3500 RSE workers, about 1500 in Nelson and 1000 in Central Otago.

"There are some concerns from some of those who don't have access to big pools of RSE workers whether they will have enough workers to pick the crop," says Jones.

A good picker, he says, can earn up to $250 a day and more than $1000 for a six-day week picking apples.

Pipfruit NZ is making approaches to the Government to relax work permit rules for those on visitor visas, so they can gain employment in the orchards.

That would involve the Government declaring a "seasonal labour shortage" to help fill the gaps.

Export stars

NZ Queen: Grown mostly in Hawkes Bay. NZ Queen apples are crisp and juicy, with a sweet taste and white flesh. This large, red apple sells extremely well in China and is probably New Zealand's highest paying apple. In the same league as NZ Rose.
Envy: A Braeburn crossed with a Royal Gala. Produced in Nelson and Hawkes Bay. Another, large sweet apple. Sells well in Asia.
Jazz: Another Royal Gala-Braeburn cross. Grown in Hawkes Bay, Otago and Marlborough. Initially a big seller in Europe but now moving into Asian markets and other parts of the world.