One of New Zealand's biggest kiwifruit orchards is taking shape at Kerikeri.
For project manager Alan Dobbie, of Craigmore Sustainables, the blank canvas of the 137ha former dairy farm adjacent to Kerikeri Airport is the opportunity of a lifetime.
"There are very few opportunities like this that come around. It's pretty exciting,'' he said.
"When we were being driven around the property by the real estate agent, I had a piece of paper on my knee and I was drawing the parts I thought would be plantable.
"When it was properly mapped, I was pretty pleased to find my rough estimations were pretty accurate.''
Once the work is completed, Craigmore will have invested about $38 million to develop about 70 canopy hectares, making it one of the biggest kiwifruit ventures in New Zealand.
Dobbie said the 28ha first stage of the three-year conversion project was planted last year with G3 gold kiwifruit.
Work is continuing at pace on the second 33ha stage, with piles of large posts stacked and groups of canes ready for planting.
The rolling hills of the property have needed little alteration, apart from one area that has recently been smoothed to make an easier contour.
The rich volcanic soils lend themselves to horticulture and the development of the new orchard has gone smoothly, "apart from a few big rocks, but you'll always get rocks in volcanic soils".
Regenerative farming provides food for thought
Another attraction for the company was ready access to water.
A large pipe traverses the property to supply the Kerikeri Irrigation Scheme.
"I take my hat off to the early developers of this area that got that water scheme established. It's a legacy that the district can be proud of,'' he said.
"As a dairy farm, this property had a full water allocation. That was a huge consideration when we were buying the property.''
With Lake Waingaro nearby, a natural creek also runs through the property, and Dobbie is busy mapping out the riparian areas that are being planted to join up existing pockets of native bush.
"There are kiwi in the bush, so we're hoping the extra planting will make a corridor for them.
"We're also running a pest-trapping programme, with about 90 traps set. We are aiming to be predator-free here.
"We are called Craigmore Sustainables for a reason. We want to be good citizens and do our bit for the environment. That's an important part of what we do."
Craigmore Sustainables is a specialist manager of agricultural investment portfolios in New Zealand.
Established in 2008 by multi-generational farmers Forbes Elworthy and Mark Cox, Craigmore has a highly experienced team managing a substantial portfolio of dairy, grazing, forestry and horticultural properties across more than 15,000ha.
With a family background in Nelson apple orchards, Dobbie's career as an orchard manager has taken him around the country. However, this project will keep him anchored in Northland for some years.
"We are loving it here, although my wife would like a bit more sun at times,'' he said.
With the kiwifruit vines stretching out in the distance, the extent of the project becomes evident. Screeds of white shelter cloth stretches between rows. White shelter cloth is favoured by kiwifruit growers as wind protection but also to reflect the natural light on to the plants, much like a photography umbrella.
"We are farming the light,'' Dobbie said.
The white cloth enhances cane growth with wind protection and helps increase the temperature in the orchard. Dark shade cloth will be used around the perimeter.
Craigmore's aim is to be a long-term producer of high-quality food and forest products, managing the land sustainably, as the best farm and forest managers in New Zealand.
Craigmore chief executive Che Charteris said these investments are part of the company's Permanent Crop business, which is expanding and diversifying horticultural developments into key central and northern regions.
According to Craigmore, more than 75 per cent of investors in the Craigmore Permanent Crop Partnership that owns the Kerikeri orchard are from Europe (mostly Germany, the Netherlands, UK and Finland).
Through its Permanent Crop Partnership, Craigmore is building more than $200 million with of horticultural businesses, with many being orchard conversions from pastoral land.
"One of our core sustainability values is right land, right use," Charteris said. "New Zealand has vast areas of land that are well suited to grazing livestock, but there are also some areas that should be converted to horticulture and forestry.
"We think the Far North has a great future. It has great soils and a great climate and yet it has been under-capitalised for so long. Provided they are done correctly, these developments can have a significant positive benefit for our whānau and wider communities in the north, outside of Kerikeri and Whāngarei
"Craigmore is still on the lookout for more properties for horticulture and forestry. We are also working on a new investment infrastructure to attract more Kiwi investors," he said.