Kiwifruit country in crisis

Kiwifruit country in crisis

kiwifruit psa crisisIt’s an anxious time of year for kiwifruit growers as they wait to see if their newly planted vines will be able to withstand the virulent bacterial vine disease Psa-V.

Psa-V kills vines, not kiwifruit itself, and many orchardists have had to cut down hectares of vines in the past two years to prevent the spread of the infection. They’ve replaced less tolerant gold varieties with more hardy varieties. The problem is, Psa-V likes wet, windy weather and the juvenile kiwifruit vines are more susceptible to the disease.

The virus is marching through the North Island and has currently enveloped 52 per cent of its growing area. In areas like the Waikato, where the virus has yet to fully take-over, growers are being urged to embrace the use of protective sprays to counter the Psa-V “tsunami”.

Researchers have estimated the long term cost of the virus to the former billion-dollar export industry to be in the order of $885 million dollars – a figure those in the industry say is conservative.

It’s been two years since Psa-V was first discovered on vines in an orchard in the centre of kiwifruit country, Te Puke. It’s still not known exactly how it got here but it’s now rampant, having spread from the Bay of Plenty which grows 80 percent of the country’s kiwifruit exports, to the Waikato, Coromandel and as far south as Hawke’s Bay.

The naked eye can’t see it, but Psa-V (Pseudomonas syringae pv actinidiae) is airborne, and gets into vines through the leaves or cane, moving quickly through the plant.

It’s little surprise then, that more than half the country’s 2880 kiwifruit orchards have the disease and that the number is growing each week as more vines are tested.

The independent pan-industry organisation Kiwifruit Vine Health (KVH) is leading the response to Psa-V, and its chief executive Barry O’Neil, a biosecurity operational specialist, says it’s likely the disease will spread even further, and the industry must manage it collectively.

That’s where a national management plan comes in and KVH has growers’ support for such a plan, which maps out a way forward for the industry by breaking it into regions measured by the extent of Psa-V. This document is expected to go through Cabinet for Government approval early next year.

“Without a national pest management plan I believe things will get worse much quicker,” says Mr O’Neil.

“In areas like Te Puke where Psa-V, is widespread, we’ve got to assume that all orchards have been exposed and are therefore affected.”

That’s a sentiment matched by Nathan Flowerday, who manages six kiwifruit orchards in Te Puke and also sits on the board of Zespri, the company marketing and exporting New Zealand’s kiwifruit.

“We’re starting to switch to learning to live with Psa-V, rather than how to eradicate it, because we can’t eradicate it,” Mr Flowerday says. This involves using protectant sprays and cutting out infected areas of vines.

Some growers that grew the more susceptible gold kiwifruit variety Hort16A have cut down every vine and started again. That replanting comes at a cost in the order of $60,000 per hectare.

The organisation NZ Kiwifruit Growers represents orchardists, and its chief executive Mike Chapman says it’s even difficult for growers trying to protect their vines with the copper sprays – it all takes time and adds cost.

“Everyone’s devastated. We’re doing the best we can to manage it. There’s a whole range of views from growers. Some think we’re doing okay and others think we’re not doing enough.”

The next link in the chain is the coolstore and packhouse operators, such as Seeka and Satara (both also manage orchards). They’re grappling with lower volumes of fruit and the general uncertainty that brings. Seeka has just said it can’t guarantee staff numbers as its volume of fruit falls, this year, for example, down 21 million trays on last year.

Kiwifruit are harvested from late March to early June, during which time the orders come from Zespri, and the packhouses load the fruit until November.

A smaller coolstore and packhouse operator, Trevelyan’s Pack & Cool in Te Puke, packed 400,000 fewer trays in the 2011 season compared with the previous year. Its owner-manager James Trevelyan says he’s concerned about how the coming season will play out.

“To date we have not laid anyone off due to Psa-V but changes are coming in our department. I’m working with other businesses to see if we can find employment for our staff over summer,” he says.

Other businesses are also suffering in the economic fallout of Psa-V.

The Te Puke based engineering firm Fraser Gear specialises in frost and irrigation systems for kiwifruit orchards – and business was booming until Psa-V hit. Engineer Graham Gear says orders dried up when the disease spread, and he’s now considering how to reposition the business.

“We’ve been going 10 to 12 years not having to advertise. It’s something new to have to find work. We’re willing to take anything on,” Mr Gear says.

While the situation’s desperate for many growers and the coolstore and pack houses, the market demand for kiwifruit and the price they’re fetching is holding up well.

Zespri markets kiwifruit, selling into more than 60 countries. Its general manager of grower and government relations, Simon Limmer, puts it like this: “The market isn’t broken, it’s the factory which is struggling at this stage." Growers selling gold kiwifruit varieties are likely to make a return of about $100,000 per hectare for this season’s fruit, an increase on last season’s $90,000 per hectare. The more common green kiwifruit fetch a return of between $32-33,000 per hectare.

Limmer says the question is ‘what happens next’, and Zespri is working closely with its export customers to keep them onside.

“Long term we need a strategic relationship with those people because we’re expecting a strong recovery in a few years and those relationships will be especially important,” says Mr Limmer.

As for the future for kiwifruit growers, orchardist Nathan Flowerday says it could be golden despite reduced crops.

“The great thing is we’ve still got market demand, and with our supply dropping back we should be able to crank the price up offshore.”

 This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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