Conference 2018

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With a stormy Hawkes Bay coastline as a backdrop, the Napier Conference Centre provided a stunning setting for the industry’s 24th AGM and conference.

Winter’s arrival in Hawkes Bay and the Summerfruit NZ conference coincided on the last week of May this year. Southern-based attendees looking forward to some winter respite would have been disappointed with temperatures only just reaching double figures, especially as the week before it had hit 20 degrees. Looking on the bright side, local growers were pretty pleased to finally get some good winter chilling weather for their trees.

Day 1

While it was a chilly morning outside on Day 1, the atmosphere inside the Centre was warm and friendly as conference goers gathered to register and collect their conference satchels and goodies from conference organisers, Karen and Rachel, at the registration desk.

Fresh from his re-election as chairman, Tim Jones opened Pick • Pack • Ship • Eat conference and quickly focused on the launch of Sensational Summerfruit: A bold plan for growth. Tim explained that the publication gave an overview of the programme for the proposed Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) that aims to achieve the growth required to be a $465 million industry by 2035. He also explained how the PGP proposal was aligned to this year’s conference programme, with presentations designed to reflect the major initiatives within the plan.

Platinum sponsor MG Marketing’s Roger Georgieff welcomed attendees and urged them to open their minds to change in order to improve as an industry. He spoke about how the programme’s diverse presentations provided insights on new thinking as well as opportunities to learn and grow in challenging times where it was not an option to simply stand still.

Keynote speaker David Hughes took to the stage to deliver a presentation that was a real highlight of the conference to many. The retired professor of food marketing achieved the tricky feat of enlightening and entertaining as he spoke on the latest global food industry developments.

It was entirely appropriate that a speaker on what was happening beyond New Zealand was followed by a speaker who was physically beyond New Zealand. Michigan State University’s Greg Lang delivered his talk direct from the States where he has been researching alternatives to the ubiquitous cherry rootstock Colt. His work has established key cherry rootstock traits that found in terms of precocity, an early return on investment usually pays for the higher tree cost.

Well known economist Cameron Bagrie provided a broad-based educational discussion on the local and global economy which made disturbing listening, but he didn’t leave us without hope.

Tomatoes NZ and Napier Port chairman Alasdair MacLeod has spent most of the last 40 years looking at New Zealand’s primary sector businesses. Speaking on the importance of size, Alasdair mentioned key themes across multiple primary sectors included a lack of clarity about who the competition really is – particularly for businesses who export and an unwillingness to collaborate. He said that key success factors for sector strategies included being market led, targeting high value products to discerning buyers, sector owned and commercially driven. He also warned that primary sectors shouldn’t take their social licence to operate for granted, which linked nicely to the next speaker’s presentation.

Forward HQ’s Louise Beard spoke on building sustainable value and keeping it. Following the lunch break, Massey University’s Andrew East reinforced the major conference theme of sustainability with his presentation on how to deliver products to consumers sustainably. 

Lincoln Agritech’s Jaco Fourie demonstrated how to keep a close eye on your fruit using deep learning. Jaco’s team had been set the challenge of automating the manual process of calculating the final yield of fruit from an apple orchard block. An automated process would save on labour, be more accurate, non-destructive, and assist with orchard management decisions, eg thinning and pruning. With his background in machine vision, Jaco first took a picture of the trees and got a clever computer algorithm to identify and count the apples. Problems with occlusion meant that pictures could not show all the fruit on the tree. The solution lay in deep learning, which had first been introduced in the 1950s, and was a progression from artificial intelligence and machine learning. Deep learning uses a convolutional neural network to combine information and training. As a result, this technology can be applied to all stages of growth, including flowers, and has also been used in grape growing, making this an exciting innovation full of potential for the summerfruit industry.

Also from Lincoln Agritech, Scott Post has a mechanical engineering background with experience working at NASA. Scott’s work to develop targeted crop spraying had the summerfruit growers sitting up in interest. Using a targeted, automated, robotic sprayer could save costs due to reduced chemical use, time saving, improved targeting and less spray drift. Developments in canopy sensing technology, including ultrasonic and infrared, combined with spray mass technology could result in targeted sprayers that save growers up to 40% on chemicals. Scott’s analysis concluded that investing in a precision sprayer could save a ‘typical NZ orchard’ up to 30% of chemicals with a payback time of three and a half years.

Just before the afternoon tea break, Doug Avery of Resilient Farmer, gave a thoughtful talk and shifted the audience to a more holistic focus. Doug shared his own inspirational journey from ‘basically failure’ to the successful farming business he has today. He spoke about the importance of building resilience by examining what’s going on in the business and looking at new thinking when times are good. Doug said that by making sure you’re looking after your ‘top paddock’ you can survive the challenges of working in the rural sector.

The final session of the day was the panel discussion led by David Hughes. Air New Zealand declined our invitation, but both Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines sent representatives. Earlier in the day, conference goers had been asked to submit questions for the airlines, which were collated and put to the two representatives.

Both airlines wanted to assure attendees of how important they saw New Zealand cherries, but acknowledged that airfreighting cargo had its problems. They advised that passengers drive freight capacity and therefore, if tourist numbers increase, then the number of planes would increase. If exporters wanted to go down the plane charter route, airlines require 28 days' notice to book a plane, so it's not a quick and easy solution. However, with the growth in freight shipped out of Asia Pacific rising by almost 20% last year, the ability to access air cargo hubs in Asia can be problematic. They gave the example that there was little point in flying fruit into the Singapore hub if you can't get it out to other markets in Asia from there.

As the first day drew to a close, conference goers thoughts began to turn to the ever-popular networking drinks being held at the National Aquarium. The energetic enjoyed a brisk 15-minute stroll along Marine Parade in the cool evening air, while shuttles took most attendees along the sea front route. With the whole aquarium to explore and drinks in hand, small groups ascended the stairs to tour the numerous aquatic displays before arriving at the main tank viewing area. The unique venue combined with a happy conference crowd turned the evening into an extremely enjoyable way to finish.

Day 2

The Napier Conference Centre welcomed a slightly smaller and somewhat quieter crowd on Thursday morning to the research sessions. The previous day’s positive mood continued into Day 2 as attendees settled in to hear about the latest research Summerfruit NZ has been looking into on behalf of the industry.

In his first appearance at a Summerfruit NZ conference in the NZ Market support role, Richard Mills took on the hot topic of brown rot. Richard knows how much growers like tools so his presentation on the recently developed Brown rot action plan was warmly received. The new wall chart was developed with expertise from Phil Elmer of Plant & Food Research (PFR) who joined Richard on stage and went on to speak in detail on how the 14-point plan had evolved to become the 14+ point plan. Copies of the wall chart were included in every satchel and Richard promised that copies were being sent out to those growers who weren’t able to make it to Napier.

The next presentation focused on the work Milena Janke and the PFR team had done on the apricot pollination project. Summerfruit NZ had asked the scientists to assess pollination in Sundrop apricots in Central Otago orchards in spring last year. The driver for this project lay in the inconsistent returns growers were receiving from low yields due to the poor fruit set in recent years. Milena detailed the trials carried out and conclusions reached which included that the differences in fruit set between orchards indicated that pollination does not appear to be optimised, and that pollinator activity may be a key factor in variable fruit set rates. Future research on improving fruit set and pollinator performance is being considered.

Claire Scofield from PFR’s Clyde Research Centre then spoke about the superb new selections being released from the Summerfruit NZ/Plant & Food Research apricot breeding programme. The new cultivars have been growing successfully on the planar canopies and have produced fruit with excellent qualities prized by growers and consumers alike. Not only are the fruit firm and sweet, but they are high yielding and store well, which means they have great potential for export.

In response to requests for research on summerfruit’s nutritional content, Summerfruit NZ commissioned Otago University to investigate the bioactive content and potential health benefits of New Zealand-grown plums and apricots. In presenting the results of the study, Indrawati Oey said that the University team looked at the functionality of bioactives during digestion. They found that for plums the cultivar influence is greater than the geographical influence, but both cultivar and geography influence apricots. Indra advised that sharing nutritional information with consumers required a smart integrated approach and that further study was advisable, recommending that bioactive results should be compared with studies from other countries.

In the final presentation before lunch, PFR’s Andrew Pitman gave us a researcher’s perspective on biosecurity. We all know that New Zealand’s border is constantly under threat from exotic pests and pathogens, endangering our valuable horticulture exports, but what is being done? Andrew spoke about the biosecurity continuum specifically; prevention, eradication, containment, and asset-based protection, before moving on to the B3 programme – Science Solutions for Better Border Biosecurity, where research underpins any attempt to minimise the establishment of alien pests and diseases. The collaborative programme’s research framework consists of risk assessment, pathway risk management, diagnostics, surveillance, and eradication. It also acknowledges the part that Maori play in biosecurity as significant landowners and large players in the economy. As a comprehensive programme for improved biosecurity it is reassuring to have this in place.

The 24th Annual General Meeting was held just before lunch. All three resolutions were passed including voting to sign the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug Operational Agreement.

Kick the Dirt is always a popular conference session and this year was no exception. Bus travel can be great fun when it’s not your usual mode of transport and attendees from outside the region had an opportunity to check out a different part of the country. For locals, it was a chance to peer over hedges and check out what their fellow orchardists had been up to.

While not brilliant weather, the afternoon was perfectively acceptable for strolling around a couple of sites. Two buses took attendees off in opposite directions to avoid congestion and long queues at the coffee cart.

Stewart Burns welcomed us to Camelot Fresh Fruit Company in Twyford and gave us a tour of his orchard blocks, pointing out new commercial trials of 2D fruiting wall and FOPS in peach, nectarine and plum. Plant & Food Research’s Jill Stanley was on hand to comment on the development of the systems.

Fresh raspberries at the end of May illustrated the potential of next generation genetic material being grown in New Zealand at Astill Farms. The new berry farm was a revelation as an example of high performance horticulture using innovative technology and techniques. Dean Astill and Craig Hall escorted us around the growing tunnels and outbuildings, explaining the high-tech operation. Our restraint in not picking the growing fruit was rewarded with the opportunity to sample the berries as we left.

Against a backdrop of Napier city lights, the elegantly restored historic seminary building at Mission Estate Winery provided a stunning location for this year’s conference dinner. With so much to celebrate, the evening had a buzzing vibe as everyone packed in to the restaurant to enjoy the delicious carvery meal.

Two presentations were made on the night – one formal and the other not at all. Earnscy Weaver presented Claire Scofield with the Mack Nicol trophy recognising her commitment to excellence and Tim Jones was presented with a cake in recognition of hitting his half century. In a not entirely transparent decision by the chairman, but highly amusing for their respective colleagues and staff, both Marie Dawkins and Roger Georgieff were required to compete at push ups, as punishment for their mobile phone transgressions earlier. The general consensus being that Marie was the winner.

The good mood continued with Tony Christiansen delivering a motivational presentation on his life story that ended the conference and left attendees entertained and inspired.