Kiwifruit growers from Italy, Zespri's major Northern Hemisphere supplier, visited Bay of Plenty orchards this week to share information and techniques.
The 15 growers are from some of the 500 Italian orchards supplying into the Zespri Global Supply programme. Zespri sources fruit from Northern Hemisphere orchards to supply the market for the few months of the year when New Zealand-grown kiwifruit is not available. The programme also draws from orchards in France, Korea and Japan, but Italy is currently the dominant player, supplying almost 90 per cent of the fruit.
Total Zespri Global Supply volumes forecast for 2016 season are nearly 12 million trays of Green and about 5 million trays of Gold. Italian production for 2016 is forecast to be about 10.5 million trays of Green and 4.5 million trays of Gold.
Craig Thompson, Zespri's global supply manager for Europe, who is based in Rome, said the visit had also taken in orchards in Gisborne and Edgecumbe. He was speaking during the group's visit to Baygold orchard in Paengaroa.
"I think seeing is believing," he said. "The interaction of a New Zealand and Italian grower being able to share their orcharding experiences and ask direct questions of each other, is a really good learning process."
The first Italian SunGold was grafted more than five years ago, after Psa hit Hort16A Gold orchards. There are now about 500 Zespri SunGold growers in Italy, with an average orchard size of just more than three hectares.
Italian grower Fabio Ippoliti, from Aprilia, 40 kilometres from Rome, noted the Italian kiwifruit industry was more fragmented and less intensely managed than New Zealand's.
"In Italy we have many smaller growers and it is difficult to manage the industry the way you do in New Zealand," he said. Mr Thompson assisted Mr Ippoliti with translation during his interview.
Mr Ippoliti graduated with a law degree, then took over the family orchard. He has 9.5ha of SunGold and 5ha of Hayward Green in production, making him one of the larger Italian orchardists. He has been growing for Zespri since 2008, originally with Hort 16A, then grafting over to SunGold in 2011.
Mr Ippoliti also observed that the Bay of Plenty growers made much more use of bees, in contrast to Italy, where much pollination was artificial.
"For me, the most important thing I have noticed is the use you make of bees," he said, adding that Italian apiarists tended to be focused on honey production, rather than pollination.
Mr Thompson said the Italian growers had noticed the New Zealand orchards were more businesslike in their approach than was typical in Italy.
"It's probably easier to do business here than in Italy," said Mr Thompson, a point endorsed by Mr Ippoliti.
New Zealand's advantages included the infrastructure that has built up, including orchard management services, harvesting contractors, and seasonal workers. By contrast, Italian orchards tended to operate in a similar way to New Zealand a few years ago, with each having its own tractors, equipment, and permanent staff, he said
Italian Zespri Gold production
-There are around 850ha of Zespri SunGold in production in Italy this year.
-Another 800ha is already in the ground and being established.
Learning twice as fast
Zespri developed its Northern Hemisphere programme to mitigate risk by diversifying supply and creating supply close to markets. The export entity says accessing both hemispheres means it can learn from growing in a six-month growing cycle, and can learn twice as quickly by coordinating research and development and on-orchard trials across two seasons a year.
Italy is the major supplier to the Northern Hemisphere programme, but the programme is expanding in other countries, with new locations being brought into production.
In 2015, Zespri kiwifruit accounted for about 7.7 per cent of total Italian kiwifruit production.
SunGold production in Italy is set to increase strongly, to about 13-15 million trays by 2021.
Most SunGold is grown in the Lazio province near Latina in the central region. The rich, well-drained soil and high sunshine hours create ideal conditions for growing top-quality kiwifruit, says Zespri.
However, Zespri Global Supply Europe manager Craig Thompson said Italian growers typically had not yet reached the yields achieved by New Zealand kiwifruit growers.