Sarita Orchards, Cromwell
Duncan and Lindsay Mathers
Duncan Mathers has been manager of Sarita Orchard Ltd, Kawarau Gorge Road in Cromwell for 23 years.
His wife Lindsay manages the office and they are both shareholders in the company.
Duncan grew up in Alexandra, and his uncle and aunt had an orchard in Earnscleugh. He went to Lincoln College and came home and worked with his uncle. He then spent 12 years with Fruitfed in Alexandra before coming to Sarita. Lindsay is from Wairoa in the Hawke’s Bay. She has a background in office management, and after working in the UK came south to visit her sister and stayed.
Focus on cherries and apricots
The orchard now specialises in cherry production with a focus on exporting. This year they removed another block of apricots which will be replanted in cherries. They now have 20 hectares of cherries planted, and two hectares will be planted next spring, leaving two hectares of apricots. The main cherry varieties grown at Sarita are GloHeart, Bing, Lapin, Rainier, Sweet Valentine, Selah, Sweetheart and Staccato. Gloheart is a new early variety which was harvested this year in small volumes. The orchard is currently producing around 100 tonnes of cherries annually, but this will more than double in the next three years. Because of the nature of the climate, the export proportion varies between 40 per cent and 80 per cent. Sarita’s export agents are Delica, Freshco JP Exports, RD8 and Le Fresh. All their domestic sales are with Turners and Growers. The apricot varieties they grow are Sundrop, Moorpark, Clutha Gold and half a hectare of Greengages. They also supply the domestic market. Sarita Orchards has a website from which they operate mail order sales within New Zealand and a
gate sale outlet.
Challenges, staffing and successes
Working with the weather is the main challenge. They have had problems with bacterial blast in young cherry trees which is the major reason for tree death in the orchard. Staff accommodation is also a problem as they require a large number of staff for a short period of time. This coincides with the influx of summer holiday-makers into Central Otago, so the local camping grounds are usually full. The orchard has accommodation on-site which has its own problems, but generally works well. The orchard has seven full-time staff and peaks at about 120 casual staff over the season. Most are backpackers on holiday work visas or students. Sarita has a number of early retirees in mobile homes who come each year and act as supervisors. Last year they managed to recruit the majority of their staff through their website with a top-up from Seasonal Solutions, so they did not use the RSE scheme. Duncan says they have had RSE workers in the pastand this was very successful. Surviving the roller coaster ride of this industry has been one of the main successes of their 23-year venture. They also feel that managing the transition from a mixed orchard to specialising in cherry production was an achievement.
Plant and machinery
The purchase this year of the Red Pearl cherry grader is the single biggest equipment purchase they have made. It has changed the packhouse operation and increased returns, which is the main aim. Cherry sorting is still done manually. The orchard has one automatic box-filler and six semiautomatic box-fillers. The packhouse also contains an elderly, but very efficient grader now only used for apricots. All picking is done on contract, and pickers still use ladders. However, all other tree management is done from four Hydraladders. Sarita’s pruning gear is hydraulic, apart from one recently purchased set of battery-powered pruners.
A worthwhile industry
Duncan and Lindsay would encourage new entrants into the summerfruit growing industry. Before embarking on this they would suggest they ask questions, and in particular understand the market they are growing for. At a wider level, they believe new markets need to be carefully developed along with the promotion of New Zealand as a producer of quality produce. Duncan says that good research is being carried out within the industry through Summerfruit NZ, including work on the bacterial blast in cherry trees, brown rot control, thrips disinfestations and
rootstock development. Sarita was part of the pilot summerfruit residue assurance programme and the Cropsure spray programme which is vital for access to Asian markets. They were also part of the districtwide mating disruption programme for leaf-roller control.
The Sarita Orchard Shop is open seven days a weekand is located at RD2, Ripponvale