A sweet niche

By Annette Lambly

With only 35 export growers, persimmons remain a small commercial industry that supports global niche markets.

Harvesting has begun on the sub-tropical fruit and is expected to last for the next five weeks.

This year's crop is expected to be down in volume because the fruit set was affected by cold temperatures that lasted well into December.

Growers will also be wary of the recent heavy rain which, apart from marking and staining the skin, can cause calyx separation, which can lead to fruit softening or insects spoiling it.

The fruit has an orange flesh, which consumers say has the refreshing taste of melon combined with the crispness of an apple.

New Zealand exports about 300,000 trays a year for a return of about $7 million.

The main market is Australia, followed by Thailand and then other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan.

The Wells family orchard on Apotu Rd near Kauri is one of two Whangarei export growers.

Persimmons have been the mainstay crop for Terrie and Lindsay Wells since the 1980s.

Their son, Duane, daughter Bronwyn and her husband Lance Walters have since joined the business. Duane manages the business, which includes the NTL Fruitpackers pack-house at Maungatapere that not only packs their persimmons, but also those of two Kerikeri growers and the other Whangarei grower.

NTL also packs avocado all year round, employing four full-time staff as well as up to 26 seasonal packers.

The persimmon orchard requires an additional 12 to 16 harvesters, depending on the season's crop.

Fuyu, which is non-astringent, sweet and seedless, is the main variety grown in New Zealand.

Growing the rare crop is labour intensive because the fruit need to be manually handled at every stage of the process, including thinning and pruning.

Hand-picked into 20kg crates, they are then graded, packed and stored at -0.6C.

The industry is largely regulated by the market; fruit can be stored for up to 12 weeks. Once out of cold store, they have a shelf life of up to 10 days.

The Wells have about 10,000 trees at three levels of maturity on about 18ha, with a further 6ha to be planted this spring. They try to achieve about 28 tonnes of fruit per hectare, with a target of up to 75 per cent for export.

Last year, they exported about 36,000 trays. With this year's lower flower setting, Duane estimates this will drop to about 25,000 trays. It follows a return in 2011-12 where low spring and summer temperatures meant the fruit didn't develop as well.

"Due to good management, this year's fruit is clean and a good size, but the quality is not enough to compensate for the low volume," said Duane.

"The rest of the country has had a normal crop.

"Returns are on a gentle upward cycle, with early indicators the market is strong due to the lack of fruit from South Africa and Australia in our target markets.

"While our traditional markets are stable, achieving new markets in China and the United States will take the pressure off high-value markets and lift returns."

- Hamilton News

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