The largest avocado producer in New Zealand - the 160ha King Avocado orchard about 20km north of Kaitaia - is set to harvest about 220,000 trays of fruit this season, up from 150,000 trays last year.
The orchard now has about 65,000 Hass and 15,000 Reed avocado trees in the ground with room for more. When fully productive, King Avocado will have 90,000 trees producing about 450,000 trays of fruit (10 million avocados) annually.
But King Avocado's reign as the biggest avocado producer in the country is expected to eventually be eclipsed. Harbour Edge Avocados Ltd plans to plant about 100,000 avocado trees on 295ha at Tapora by the Kaipara Harbour west of Wellsford by the end of the 2020-21 financial year.
Businessman and mandarin grower Tony Gibbs is also expected to have 24,000 avocado trees planted on 60ha at Tapora by next spring and former Fresh Food Exports owner John Greensmith is planting a 50ha orchard in the same locality. Murray Furlong is understood to be establishing thousands of avocado trees near Houhora.
These Kaipara and Far North orchards are massive. There are about 5000 planted hectares of avocados in New Zealand and 1600 growers so the average orchard is about 3ha and has fewer than 600 trees. About 96 per cent of commercial growers have fewer than 1000 trees.
Avocados are dwarfed by the wine, kiwifruit and apple industries. They are rapidly developing into a valuable horticultural export, but returns have see-sawed over the past five years. In 2012 avocado exports reached $98 million, fell to $33m in 2013, rebounded to $99m in 2014, reached a peak of $119m in 2015, but the 2.5 million trays exported last year fetched only $83m. However, the Ministry for Primary Industries predicts export returns for 2017 to increase over 80 per cent to a record $149m.
The King Avocado orchard was established by Sky Television co-founder and former test match cricketer Terry Jarvis midway between Waiharara and Houhora on free-draining sandy soils over an aquifer the orchard uses to supplement annual rainfall of 1200-1400mm.
In 2015 the orchard was bought for an undisclosed sum by Vulpes Agricultural Land Investment Company, owned by Stephen Charles Diggle, of Singapore, which trades in New Zealand as Valic NZ Ltd, a subsidiary of Diggle Holdings Ltd, registered in the Cayman Islands. NZ Companies Office records name Valic's directors as Mr Diggle and Alistair Nicholson, of Queenstown.
Mr Nicholson, 63, is executive chairman and oversees Valic operations. He was raised on a farm in the Manawatu and, after studying economics at Massey University, held senior roles with Alcor Investment Management in Singapore, Jardine Fleming NZ and Lehman Brothers in Hong Kong before returning to New Zealand in 2007.
Mr Nicholson and his wife Alison own a 25ha avocado orchard at Maungatapere and have invested in a further two orchards.
He is the NZ Avocado Growers' Association Far North representative and is an Avocado Industry Council director.
Growing in the Far North means King Avocado fruit is among the earliest maturing in the country. This allows picking from July-August in response to market needs and opportunity.
This year the orchard was able to supply early season fruit to Countdown supermarkets around the country from mid-July and, as maturity levels rise across the orchard, to supply fruit to Asian and Australian markets.
King Avocado employs up to 13 fulltime staff, 6-8 people on fixed term six-monthly contracts, and up to 40 casual staff at harvest time. Once fruit is picked, it is trucked daily to the Kerifresh packhouse in Kerikeri - a large modern facility with cool storage available. ¦