Few people would have made a greater contribution to the kiwifruit industry than plant breeder Russell Lowe.

Last week Russell celebrated 50 years working for what is now Plant and Food Research - all but three of them at the Te Puke research centre he established in the early 1970s.

It was his work that broke the kiwifruit mould and created the commercially viable gold variety Hort16A and subsequently, the Psa resistant Gold 3 variety.

Hort16A was the first cultivar to provide a real alternative to the green variety.
Russell started working at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) facility in Nelson in 1960, working on apples.

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It was there that he had his first experience of kiwifruit when DSIR staff in Auckland sent plants to the Nelson facility.

''The orchard manager at the time wasn't all that keen on these new fangled crops. He planted the plants in an area that probably wasn't really suitable and said 'there you are, it will never work'. And yet kiwifruit can be grown very successfully in Nelson.

''That was my first contact with kiwifruit and so it was a whole learning curve to come up here [to Te Puke].

''Fortunately we had really good people in the DSIR in Mt Albert, who had a lot of experience already.''

When he arrived in Te Puke in 1972, on the No 1 Rd site there was ''just the orchard house and a pile of posts outside''.

''We started setting up the orchard and putting in the first kiwifruit blocks. In those days it was very much do-it-yourself. We didn't have all these contractors growers have these days to do all the work.''

The research station was set up following local fruit growers pressuring local MP and Minister of Works Percy Allen.

The industry was nothing like it is today and kiwifruit was only one of the crops being looked at.

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''I had two local growers helping me at that stage, Dave Green and John Muir, but it was not just kiwifruit, we had a lot of sub tropicals - avocados, feijoas, tamarillos, Asian pears, persimmons figs and olives and a repository of stone fruit material.''

He says Rogernomics had an impact on which crops were given research funding.

''The government basically said [to growers] if you don't put money in, we won't either and a lot of these crops failed to get any more done.''

He says had other fruit been given more research funding, things might have been different, although kiwifruit did have many advantages.

''The great thing about kiwifruit, as well as suiting the New Zealand conditions was that Hayward had a brilliant storage life so could be shipped quite nicely off shore. It was also something different - the green fleshed fruit and the good health benefits and all the rest of it, whereas a lot of the subtropicals had issues with storage and shipping and a range of other issues.

''And citrus - the whole world was over producing, so growers weren't really making any money out of these crops - they were interesting but not really profitable and once kiwifruit got their marketing sorted out and got to the single desk it, was a real bonus for the industry.''

Some of the initially planted Hayward blocks at the research facility are still there.

''A lot of early work on various aspects of kiwifruit was getting the right males and artificial pollination and insect work.''

He says one major breakthrough was the change to using ''soft chemicals'' that didn't leave any residue.

''In the late 70s that stood the whole industry in good stead and it has ever since. And it's been necessary to keep the offshore markets.''

As the site grew so did its importance to the industry and its relationship with the Chinese.

''I've had quite a bit of contact with China over the years - initially sourcing germplasm to work with for our breeding work and I spent time in China collecting wild materials to bring back for breeding.''

The development of Hort16A has been a highlight of the past 50 years.

''Then right at its peak [of development] Psa arrived and just destroyed it in a very short time. Luckily we'd already been working on other gold kiwifruit and we had Sungold [Gold3] in the bag. We'd started to see problems with Hort16A as far as fruit size and storage.''

Through breeding with material with better size, yield and storage attributes, Gold3 was developed.

''[It] had the taste attributes as well as the storage and yield and fruit size, and it also had the bonus of the Psa tolerance that we weren't aware that we were going to need.''

More recently Russell has also been involved in development of new red varieties.

''Zespri has got a number of red selections under consideration and they've been test marketing some locally.''

Development is a continuous process.

''Every year we are doing crossing and in two to three years you are seeing the fruit on the new material, so every year, especially this time of year, you are out in the field seeing what new material is coming along.''

It's the time delay in seeing the results of crossing that is going to make it difficult for Russell to leave his work.

''I am just taking it a year at a time - it's a really interesting job when you are breeding, but the crosses you did last year won't be fruiting for another two years - so that makes it a bit hard to walk away.''