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Trying different things, learning from mistakes, and working with Mother Nature are part of the ethos of this year's national Ballance farm environment award winners.

As winners of the Gordon Stephenson Trophy, Bay of Plenty kiwifruit growers Mark and Catriona White are officially 'national ambassadors for sustainable farming and growing'.

During a round of meetings with agriculture agency representatives and MP Todd Muller in Wellington this month, the Whites dropped into Federated Farmers' HQ to swap war stories on topics as diverse as workforce shortages, genetic engineering and whether farmers/ growers who repeatedly fail to heed sustainability messages should be left behind.

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The Whites are not only at the front of the pack in terms of lightening their environmental footprint – the award judges praised their respect for the Maori principles of kaitiakitanga (guardian, conserver) – they're also certified organic (BioGro) and they're the first orchardists to win the New Zealand crown.

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

A decade ago the couple bought a 13ha grazing block on Catriona's parents' organic dairy farm near Opotiki.

They did most of the orchard development work themselves, pushing through trial and error to the point where last year – despite cyclones and a very wet and windy Autumn - they produced 23,483 trays of Zespri Organic Green kiwifruit and 38,362 trays of Zespri Organic Sungold (G3).

Biosecurity is a hot topic and Federated Farmers staff had plenty of questions for the Whites on how they deal with pests and maintain productivity with their organic approach.

"One of the things we've found is that you need to trust Mother Nature and understand that everything is fighting to live in their own space," Mark says.

"If you put in a spray and knock out this one, generally all that happens is that this other population grows bigger and fills that space. With the biodiversity created in your orchard, you look for balance."

It's a different way of thinking about things, he says.

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"For example, we planted around our orchard certain trees that don't host scale (a tiny insect that sucks plant juices from twigs, fruit and foliage). A conventional grower might plant trees that grow faster, and then spray for the bugs.

"We look for a more holistic answer than just a chemical answer."

A small flock of certified organic sheep chomp on orchard weeds, reducing tractor work and the risk of winter soil compaction. Weka and fantail feast on insects, and bird seed plants are grown so they're less tempted to peck on kiwifruit flower buds.

"Tropical army worm were busy last summer and plenty of people had their sprayers going. We just watched it; there was plenty of food on our orchard floor and they ate that."

The couple say their operation survived Psa just as well as neighbouring orchards that used the full array of non-organic tools.

And there's a pay-off for organic, they say. Zespri is allocating out special licences for an extra 50ha per year of organic SunGold kiwifruit.

Catriona firmly believes the millennial generation is a "game changer" for food producers.

SunGold kiwifruit. Photo / File
SunGold kiwifruit. Photo / File

They're willing to pay a premium for food they see as pesticide-free and safer, "the kind of fresh, organic, natural whole foods their grandparents or great grandparents ate.

"In the next five years, perhaps 80 per cent of millennials will become parents, and they're going to be purchasing those kinds of foods for their kids."

Mark notes that at the other end of the spectrum, baby boomers with lots of disposable income are also waking up to organic.

They agree there's more marketing of organic produce to do here.

"People came to our Field Day on the orchard, looked at our produce and said, 'I thought it would have been shrivelled and misshapen'," Catriona says.

"It's like, holy heck, what stone have you been living under? There are perceptions from the past we need to get over."

The Whites have visited California where they say supermarkets – from high-end to Costco – sold conventional and organic produce.

"They'd put the organic at the front of the store because that brings another type of shopper inside. From their marketing side of the equation that's a real pull."

Mark noted some of the conventional produce was huge in size.

"Hormones - but the backlash over that is building."

There was a lesson for them too about GE. In the States they would hand out slices of kiwifruit for people to taste. The Americans were happy to wolf down the slices of green kiwifruit, but many had never seen the gold variety and some baulked.

"That must be GE, they'd say, I'm not touching it," Mark says.

"It got to a point in California where we had to add big non-GMO stickers to Zespri packaging. You take your lead from your consumer, I think. All Zespri kiwifruit is non-GMO."

For the Whites, sustainability counts for more than just their products. It extends to sustainability of people and communities.

The Psa disease that crippled the kiwifruit industry for years also structurally changed the labour situation. For a lot of horticultural workers, it meant no more working on wet vines or in wet weather.

"Their surety of income was gone," Catriona says.

"That's one thing Mark and I do. We pay our permanent employees 40 hours a week. If a Wednesday is wet, we expect them to try and make it up on the weekend if it suits the employee – life is also about some work/life balance.

"It's not their fault if it's raining. How can you budget, feed the family and pay for expenses if your time off becomes irregular?"

The permanent workers are supplemented by casual labour, often backpackers, who are paid above average rates. The approach engenders loyalty.

"The industry's post-harvest sector is very cost-driven whereas it's actually about the quality," Mark says.

"I think we'll find this new generation coming through won't be so cost-conscious, they'll be more quality-driven."

The Whites found common ground with some Federated Farmers viewpoints, including concerns over whether the technologies and learnings from work being done by our agricultural scientists and researchers is efficiently transferred to grower and farmers.

They shared frustration with the tail of farmers who, despite having all the information put in front of them about the need for protecting waterways and animal/environment stewardship, remain laggards.

"That's where the carrot and stick comes in," Mark believes.

"How long do you protect that bottom end? There comes a time where the industry might have to say 'you're not cut out for this'. That's a non-traditional discussion to have."

As part of their title win, the Whites get to make a sponsored research trip overseas.

In May next year they intend heading to districts around Rome, Florence and Bologna in Italy, including where Zespri has conventional and organic kiwifruit orchards.

Mark reels off the list of pests Italian growers grapple with: "Brown marmorated stink bug, white peach scale, the Asian hornet, spotted wing drosophila, leaf hoppers, PSA, blossom fly, vine decay, Mediterranean fruit fly…"

Some of them aren't in New Zealand.

"If they came here we want to know what to look for, what to do," says Mark.

"We want to know what they're trying to fight, and what's just there but not really impacting them – and why," Catriona adds.

So it will be a continuation of the approach they've taken on their orchard.

"What we've put together in our business and our life, I guess, has been built up from experiences," Mark says.

"We keep learning new ways of tackling our challenges, which is great."