Kiwifruit growers: Hanging on the vine

By Geoff Cumming

Growers Mat and Kris Johnson: 'plenty of tears have been shed'. Photo / Alan Gibson
Growers Mat and Kris Johnson: 'plenty of tears have been shed'. Photo / Alan Gibson

Thanks to Psa - the 'invisible killer' stalking our kiwifruit orchards - many growers are facing an uncertain future. Geoff Cumming looks at the impact of the disease on those who have poured their hearts, souls and savings into the industry

You don't work your arse off your whole life to have this happen. You look after your vines as if they are your babies. To see them dying and there's nothing you can do about it is absolutely heartbreaking. The hardest part is not knowing whether your vines are going to survive from one day to the next."

Like hundreds of other Bay of Plenty kiwifruit growers, Mat and Kris Johnston are living in fear as an invisible killer stalks shelter-belt country. There is no end in sight. Their recurring nightmare began 18 months ago when the bacterial disease Psa-V slipped through the country's biosecurity cordon and descended on the orchards around Te Puke, a landscape of wall-to-wall shelter belts.

The gold kiwifruit variety Hort 16A which was the industry's future has proved genetically incapable of withstanding the bacteria.

Some green vines also suffered last spring but the industry believes the green variety can withstand the disease.

Many gold orchards failed last year, more in the past growing season. Now gold growers are being asked to cut out remaining vines and graft on a new variety which will take three years to produce a full crop.

It's a huge punt - it costs $60,000 a hectare to convert to the new G3 gold variety and many growers doubt it will prove sufficiently tolerant to Psa-V.

About 320 gold growers in Te Puke have little option but to take the risk. They cannot sell their orchards because there are no buyers: they are caught between a rock and a hard place. "We had some mates who put their place up for auction and didn't even get a bid," Kris Johnston says.

"Psa came along just to piss me off," says her husband.

The couple who have three teenage sons, one at university, worked as contractors for nearly 30 years before buying a 5ha orchard in the hills above Te Puke. They borrowed heavily, bought a new tractor and sprayer, and set about converting the property to gold - just before Psa turned up. Their first half-hectare gold orchard went from producing 6500 trays worth about $50,000 to just two trays this year while production in their 4.5ha of green vines was down 50 per cent in the just-finished harvest.

They've still got their contracting work which includes pruning, spraying and orchard management and a pollen business. But work has dried up on orchards with vines cut out, covering about 500ha. Over winter another 1100ha will go. Income from their pollen business is down by 70 per cent. Hundreds of other contractors and orchard suppliers are in the same boat.

Things will be worse next year, Mat Johnston says, with no Hort16A gold expected to be produced in the Te Puke area, easily the biggest producer. But the couple count themselves fortunate as they still have their green orchard and contracting business.

"There's a lot of people worse off than us," he says. "We're pretty lucky to have [other] strings to our bow. But you don't think of that lying awake at 2 or 3 in the morning.

"There've been plenty of tears shed. When we thought we were going to lose all our green as well, we were desperate."

Since Psa was first detected in October 2010, kiwifruit growers have ridden a roller-coaster of hope and despair. The airborne bacteria was at first thought confined to gold vines and manageable with sprays and good management. It wasn't. Then, in last year's spring storms as the nation watched the wreckage of the Rena wash up on the Bay of Plenty shoreline, Psa multiplied exponentially and was blown about the region. It even affected green vines which, though less lucrative, still comprise 73 per cent of the area planted in kiwifruit nationwide.

"Everything we threw at it made no difference,", says Zespri scientist Dave Tanner, whose title is general manager, Psa innovation. The bacteria gets into the plant's vascular system via leaves or through wounds caused by pruning or by the vine rubbing against wires. Once in it blocks water flow and the vine rots and dies, a process called dieback. In severe cases, pure white inoculum oozes from the trunk and leaders. It thrives in wet weather and can lie dormant in grass. In high winds, it is widely dispersed.

The industry has had its peaks and troughs in the past - the lows including over-supply, too many exporters and fungal diseases. But nothing like Psa. Gold production was down a third this year to 20 million trays and is expected to be halved next year.

"Psa is a beast," says Kevin Whitaker, a former dairy farmer who turned to horticulture to end a lifetime of getting up at 4am. "I've been on the land all my life and I've never seen anything that takes hold like this does. It can double itself in 20 minutes, so the scientists tell us."

He and his wife raised three daughters but at 58 his dream of winding down is over. His green kiwifruit crop dropped by half this year, after Psa destroyed about a third of his male plants. He'll have to buy pollen in next season.

Green vines have long been marginal for many growers and the coming spring could be critical, he says.

"I don't think many green growers understand they could get whacked this spring.

"It's pretty bloody scary sitting here with a lifetime's work at risk. I hate to think of having to go and do something different."

It hasn't helped, he says, that gold growers who got through 2011 tried for one more harvest of the high-value crop this year - offering a willing host on which the bacteria could thrive.

"Good on them for trying - but it probably has hurt the rest of us. But how do you tell somebody to cut healthy vines out?"

Behind the green curtain, farmers who are typically reluctant to discuss their problems or seek help are experiencing a drawn-out rural neurosis.

Watching vines die, or cutting them out and burning or burying them, is hard enough. But fear of when the invisible disease may strike and uncertainty about the future have cumulative psychological impacts.

Industry leaders frankly admit to concerns about suicide among growers. Websites and advisory material tell where to find help. Churches remind better-off orchardists to keep an eye on struggling neighbours - to "stick your head through the hedge and say come on over for a barbie."

Seventy-five per cent of gold orchards in Te Puke have debts of more than $100,000 a hectare, according to a Lincoln University study on the impacts of Psa. Property values have plunged to the extent that growers' group Kiwifruit Growers Inc (KGI) estimates 120 of the area's 320 gold growers won't meet bank criteria to borrow more to convert to G3.

KGI has been pushing the Ministry of Primary Industries to declare Psa an "on-farm adverse event", which would give the worst-affected access to financial and other government aid. But it was dismayed to learn last September that the policy does not cover biosecurity incursions.

Primary Industries Minister David Carter says he will discuss amending the policy with Cabinet "in the near future". But that will come too late for growers who had to apply last month for G3 licences.

KGI also wants the Export Credit Office's power to underwrite bank loans for exporters to be extended to kiwifruit growers, but this requires a change to the Treasury agency's mandate, says KGI chief executive Mike Chapman.

Even big players like Pukehina beach resident John Cook have had some orchards affected. He carries a picture on his cellphone of vines being burned. "That's our livelihood going up in smoke."

Cook feels most for gold growers who live on their orchards "staring at the disease all the time. Every morning they get out of bed, look out the window and wonder whether more vines have fallen overnight."

Cook believes many growers beyond Te Puke have yet to realise that Psa is here to stay and what it will mean.

KIWIFRUIT IS the backbone of the Bay of Plenty economy, contributing 20 per cent of GDP and employing 18,000 people directly and indirectly. When the disease hit Te Puke, it had an immediate impact on growers' discretionary spending and spread rapidly to contractors, suppliers, manufacturers, packhouses, seasonal workers and retailers.

Businesses in "the kiwifruit capital of the world" were already buffeted by recession. BayQuip Agricultural had just introduced a new self-propelled sprayer when Psa arrived, says managing director John Woolford. Five of six orders for the $170,000 machines were immediately cancelled. The same happened with a specialised orchard tractor.

Across the road, irrigation firm Think Water would normally be gearing up for winter work installing frost protection and irrigation systems in time for spring budding. But co-owner Judy Cooper expects another winter like last, when work was down by "quite a few hundred thousand".

Te Puke economic and political leaders are putting on a brave face, talking up the attributes of a town which has had a run of bad press.

"Te Puke is not going to die as a town," says community board chairwoman Karyl Gunn, who recently shifted her giftware business into bigger premises on the main drag. "People here are resilient."

Mark Boyle of economic agency Te Puke Edge says the town has more strings to its bow than kiwifruit.

"When it first came out there were negative attitudes - things got sensationalised. But it's now clear to everyone there is a recovery pathway."

But, asks grower Rob Thode: "What use is a recovery pathway if growers haven't got any money?"

Everyone agrees things will get worse (especially next year with little or no gold production) before they get better. "We've got two really tough years to get through," says KGI's Mike Chapman. "Next winter is just going to be shocking."

The age of many orchard owners - the average is 58 - is a concern, with many having to put retirement plans on hold to start again. They may have to work five years longer than intended to recover.

Contractor-grower Colin Limmer's 2.5ha gold orchard was wiped out last spring. He managed to get 308 trays to harvest - 1 per cent of last year's crop. He'd invested heavily in improving the run-down orchard be bought in 2004. Final payments from the 2011 harvest have come and gone and he is faced with rebuilding his orchard from scratch. "If you didn't harvest a crop in 2012 you've got no income from your orchard going forward."

At 64, he has uprooted all his stumps and plans to reconfigure with new root stock before grafting on next year. He hopes by then there will be more knowledge about the ability of new varieties to withstand the disease. "So many people are virtually at retirement age and having to start their lives over again."

Limmer took on far fewer staff than normal for the summer harvest and is down to around 40 over winter, with the area of gold he looks after down from 44 ha to just 3 ha.

Marty Robinson, a relatively young face among growers, lost his 4.5 ha gold crop at Paengaroa last year. Then the contracting business he co-owned laid off most of its staff - him included. "I could see this was going to happen to the rest of the industry and there would be a huge amount of people looking for work."

He now finds work for kiwifruit sector workers with Ministry of Social Development funding. "We're trying to keep skilled people in the Bay because their skills will be needed for the recovery. I've got quite a few contractors ringing me up saying they haven't got enough work to support their 50 workers."

The industry normally recruits 8000 to 9000 seasonal workers for the harvest and packing season, many from the Pacific Islands and other migrants. This year word went out not to come as the industry put locals first. But with harvest gone and less pruning and spraying this winter with vines ripped out, many are again out of work.

Industry leaders talk of growers going through a cycle of grief. Some now accept the disease is here to stay and they must learn to live with it, as other fruit growers manage pests. But some cannot get past anger. Rob Thode's 5ha gold orchard was one of the early victims in late-2010. All his male plants died but he still nursed a reduced crop to harvest before cutting out his vines. This year his green harvest fell from 65,000 trays to 40,000. "I lost half my income then another third of my income because people didn't do anything - I'm ropeable."

Thode organised a public meeting in February which drew 140 growers who called for an independent inquiry into the incursion and New Zealand's biosecurity. When a single Queensland fruit fly turned up in Mt Roskill last month, growers' stress levels spiked again.

"We are just about the most vulnerable country in the world to biosecurity failures. I think Biosecurity NZ is basically rubbish."

The threat of Psa to kiwifruit was well known before a major outbreak in Italy in 2007-08 which devastated orchards. But instead of quarantining or stopping imports of plant material and pollen, MAF [now the Ministry of Primary Industries] did not put proper protections in place, Thode says.

Once it arrived, the response was too slow. "They should have cut out every [infected] orchard at the start because it's like foot and mouth - you either hit it really hard or it just multiplies. To my way of thinking they were negligent. Because MAF never acted the disease has been allowed to run rampant."

Establishing how the disease got here might give growers a case for compensation but it rankles Thode that the investigation is being conducted by the ministry - the same agency responsible for biosecurity.

But industry leaders say it's more important to focus on the "recovery pathway" and to learn to grow kiwifruit in an environment with Psa.

"I'm not sure that looking backwards and trying to find out where the incursion came in is going to be very helpful," says Zespri's Dave Tanner. "Some people are still keen to find a scapegoat ... that doesn't get us any further."

Might knowing not help to avert another biosecurity disaster?

"There's 100 possibilities - it's an airborne bacteria which you can't see. It could have just walked in here on Joe Bloggs' shoes."

Mat and Kris Johnston spent the past week removing the canopy and canes from their gold orchard. Some growers will have to dig out their rootstock as well (some rootstock varieties are less tolerant than others) - and will be out of production for 3-5 years. But most will graft G3 on to existing rootstock.

As heart-wrenching as cutting out their livelihood was, the prospect of new growth in spring gives something to focus on, Mat Johnston says. "Half of it is we feel we have to do something because everything around us is so negative. In Te Puke, everyone was just so depressed [when Psa took hold]. It was not a very nice place to be."

- NZ Herald

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