A Northland man's campaign for tighter controls on horticultural sprays is starting to bear fruit with WorkSafe revealing plans to conduct checks at Kerikeri orchards this month.

John Levers claims that ''cowboy operators'' are ignoring the kiwifruit industry's guidelines about not spraying next to waterways or public roads or on windy days. Many orchards also lacked shelter belts or screens to catch spray drift, as required in the guidelines.

Levers' main concern is with the use of Hi-Cane, a spray used to trigger bud-burst but banned in the European Union in 2010 amid concerns for the health of workers and the wider public.

In 2006 it was re-assessed by New Zealand's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which allowed its continued use subject to rules set by the industry.

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Levers said, however, those rules were not enforced and some — such as not spraying on windy days — were almost impossible to meet.

With only half a dozen rain-free days on average in August growers sprayed when they had a chance, wind or no wind.

On windy days John Levers says spray drift from a neighbouring orchard ends up in the Puketotara Stream, which provides part of Kerikeri's town water supply. Photo / Peter de Graaf
On windy days John Levers says spray drift from a neighbouring orchard ends up in the Puketotara Stream, which provides part of Kerikeri's town water supply. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The former pilot, who now owns a lodge near Kerikeri, said he had dipped into his own pocket in a bid to get Hi-Cane re-assessed again. He expected to hear from the EPA in the coming week whether his application had been successful.

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc (NZKGI) chief executive Nikki Johnson said the organisation took spraying compliance ''very seriously''.

''While the majority of kiwifruit growers follow best practice, there are some isolated situations where growers need to improve,'' she said.

The NZKGI had undertaken a number of initiative, such as appointing a spray advisor and holding grower meetings, to make sure growers understood their obligations and the public knew what to expect.

Precautions required by the industry included special spray nozzles, using drift-reducing materials in the spray and only spraying in low wind conditions.

Growers who didn't comply with the standards could be hit with financial penalties or their fruit could be refused.

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When applicable, complaints made to the NZKGI spray hotline were followed up by the industry and passed on to the Northland Regional Council.

However, only two complaints had been made to the hotline in Northland in the last four years, Johnson said.

The industry was continuing to investigate alternatives to Hi-Cane and had seen some positive results with new products such as Advance Gold.

Levers, whose property borders the Puketotara River and a kiwifruit orchard, started his campaign last August after his dogs became ill and he found several dead ducks and eels.

He believed the cause was Hi-Cane drift from the orchard during high winds.

Levers complained to the regional council which, he said, ordered the grower not to spray the two rows closest to the river.

There was no shelter belt between the orchard and a tributary of the Puketotara Stream, which provided part of Kerikeri's town water supply.

Levers has also written to MPs and government departments and met representatives of NZKGI, Zespri and Seeka.

''I want Hi-Cane gone, I want it banned like it is in most countries in the world,'' he said.

Rules set by the industry when Hi-Cane was last re-assessed include that orchards bordering ''sensitive areas'' such as homes, waterways or public roads should be set back 10m from the boundary, providing there was a shelter belt or screen to catch the drift. If there was no shelter belt or screen the setback was 30m.

Levers said there were some good operators around Kerikeri who observed the rules but others planted right next to public roads.

The problem was that no one policed the rules, he said.

WorkSafe chief inspector Darren Handforth said ''targeted workplace assessments'' focusing on spray contractors and owners who sprayed their own Hi-Cane would be carried out in Northland, the Bay of Plenty, Hawke's Bay and Nelson this month.

The assessments aimed to determine the level of compliance with the required hazardous substance controls for the use of Hi-Cane, as detailed in the EPA's 2006 reassessment.

Any non-compliance could result in enforcement action, Handforth said.