Northland's mandarin season is off to a sweet start.
This summer has proved perfect growing conditions for the popular fruit, with lots of sunny days and enough rainfall to boost fruit size.
T&G Fresh Northland regional manager Tom Chamberlain said the whole country has had a good growing season but Northland's satsuma mandarin crop has been ripening up to 12 days earlier than usual, beating other regions to the supermarket shelves.
Chamberlain said brix acid tests, which measures the sugar-acid ratio in fruit, had shown the fruit had been maturing early and picking had started from April 1.
"We could have started even earlier,'' he said.
T&G Fresh is the largest citrus grower in New Zealand and is expecting to harvest between 12 million and 14 million mandarins to be sold in New Zealand retail outlets throughout the season.
T&G Fresh's Northland orchards and third party growers are expected to harvest 2200 tonnes from Northland.
"Sun is extremely important for the satsuma trees, as they need between eight and 10 hours of sunlight a day to thrive. We were lucky to have a great summer and some rain which has resulted in a deliciously juicy and sweet fruit this season.''
Satsuma mandarins, which are an easy-peel and seedless variety, have grown in popularity over the past five years and now make up the largest volume citrus crop.
"Our consumers love the fruit as it is seedless and their loose skin makes them easy to peel. Mandarins are also renowned for their high vitamin C content.''
Chamberlain said the ripening process of mandarins also requires at least an 8 degrees Celsius difference in temperature.
"We had some good temperature differences earlier on but lately there has not been as much of a difference in temperature between day and night which has slowed down the ripening process.
"We've been waiting for the cooler nights and once that temperature difference kicks in, the colour change from green to orange will start to swing again,'' he said.
Mandarins should only be picked when they are fully orange with no patches of green on the peel, he said.
The company's orchards are in Kerikeri and Taipa, growing mandarins, lemons, berries and naval oranges.
The crops are packed by Seeka packhouse in Kerikeri.
In an effort to extend the citrus supply, about half of the trees have been replaced with the Afourer mandarin variety, which matures later.
"We'll have our first commercial crop this year. The grafted trees have had fruit on after about 18 months which is a pretty quick turnaround,'' he said.
This diversification of crops maturing at different times allows the company to smooth its employment requirements to cover most of the year.
The company has blueberries ready in February and March, satsuma mandarins in April and May, lemons from June to the end of October, naval oranges in June and July and now the Afourer mandarins in October and November.
There are 22 permanent staff, with up to 140 seasonal staff needed for the blueberry and mandarin harvests.
Chamberlain said all of the permanent staff are local employees and he would usually employ Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme workers from overseas when extra pickers are needed.
"With Covid-19 travel restrictions there has been more emphasis on employing local workers which has required more training.
"It's been a challenge, and we've been missing the experience of the RSE workers. There are definitely different techniques and skills needed across the different crops, so some are stronger at picking blueberries while others are stronger with citrus picking.
"We have also had to compete for staff with the kiwifruit and apple industries, as we have similar labour challenges. But we are doing our best."
The staff shortage and weather events has meant an estimated loss of up to 14 tonnes of blueberries out of an expected crop of 85 tonnes.
"If the blueberries are not picked efficiently and on time they fall off the bushes and are lost.''
While most of the mandarin crop is sold on the local market, the company does usually export small quantities of medium-sized fruit to Japan and Singapore.
"The fruit is sorted, washed, dried and a coating of wax is applied in the packhouse to preserve them for the three-week ship journey from Auckland.
"Timing is everything. But there have been challenges with delays in sea freight so we are investigating air freight options,'' he said.