Apples and pears have been grown in New Zealand since Europeans first settled in the country. The missionary Samuel Marsden introduced the first apple and pear trees in 1819, and one pear tree from that original planting was still growing in Kerikeri in 2008.
Although the fruit were initially grown for domestic consumption, pipfruit growers were quick to realise the export potential. The first export apples were sent from Christchurch to Chile in 1888, and exports to the UK began in the 1890s, although quantities were small.
The term ‘pipfruit’ refers to apples and pears, because of the small hard seeds (pips) in the centre of the fruit.
In 1915 an advertisement for land in Nelson promised a bright future for apple growers: ‘The new industry which assures profit, pleasure, health and happiness. Fruit growing is the best paying branch of farming. Growing apples for export is the best paying branch of fruit growing.’ 1 Many people speculated in orchards around that time. Not all were successful, but Nelson did become one of the main areas of pipfruit production. In 1966 it contributed about two-thirds of New Zealand’s apple exports.
Since then, there has been considerable expansion in Hawke’s Bay. In 2008, over half the national export crop came from Hawke’s Bay and one-third from Nelson. The other main areas were Central Otago and Waikato.
About 60% of New Zealand’s pipfruit crop is exported, 12% is consumed domestically, and the rest is processed, mainly into juice. The annual export value of pipfruit between 2000 and 2006 was around $400 million.
In 2006, world apple production was about 60 million tonnes, of which New Zealand contributed around 500,000 tonnes. However, most of the world’s apples are consumed in the country of origin. New Zealand produces around 5% of the global trade in apples.
New Zealand pear exports are much smaller, ranging from 2,500 to 9,300 tonnes between 2001 and 2004. Worldwide, around 18 million tonnes of pears are produced. New Zealand’s pear exports in 2004 were worth $9 million.
Pipfruit are deciduous tree crops that require a period of winter chill. During their dormant period, apple and pear trees are reasonably resistant to New Zealand’s cold temperatures, frost and snow, especially as winter temperatures are not extreme by world standards.
Once spring arrives and buds begin to open, the young leaves and flowers are sensitive to spring frosts. In the past, this caused major crop losses. Today, growers use water sprinkling (in Central Otago) or wind machines (Hawke’s Bay) to reduce the chance of frost damage.
Hail can also cause major production losses. Hail storms are generally quite localised, but within a few minutes can turn potentially high-earning crops into fruit only fit for processing into juice. Many growers have hail insurance against possible losses. The only means of protecting against hail are choosing an appropriate location, and placing hail netting over the trees. A few growers use hail cannons, which send shock-wave blasts into the air in an attempt to stop hail forming.
Drought can seriously reduce crops and fruit size, but most orchards in New Zealand are irrigated.
Apples and pears grow best on well-drained soils with good moisture retention. Orchards need high soil fertility, as each crop takes up a lot of nutrients.
Apple yields in New Zealand vary from 50 to 100 tonnes per hectare. A crop of 70 tonnes removes around 82 kilograms of potassium, 31 kilograms of nitrogen, 7 kilograms of phosphorus, and 4 kilograms each of calcium and magnesium from each hectare of soil. These nutrients have to be supplied either from soil minerals or by adding fertiliser.
Some of the fertile soils in Hawke’s Bay have enough nitrogen, so nitrogen fertilisers are not used. Nelson soils – especially on the Moutere gravels – are generally poorer, and each hectare needs 50 kilograms of nitrogen, 13 kilograms of phosphorus and 70 kilograms of potassium added annually.
Although the fruit crop depletes only 4 kilograms of calcium per hectare, calcium deficiency can be a problem for apple trees in New Zealand. Most trees are sprayed with dilute calcium salts from November to harvest time (around February to May) to prevent bitter pit – a disorder caused by low calcium concentrations in the fruit flesh.
In New Zealand soils, apples and pears can suffer from nutrient deficiencies, particularly of magnesium, manganese, boron and zinc. These are normally addressed by leaf sprays.
Apple and pear cultivars vary widely in their season of maturity, skin colour, size, texture, flavour, storage life and susceptibility to storage disorders such as internal browning and softening. For many years, the New Zealand pipfruit industry was dependent on cultivars from overseas – initially Europe, but later North America, Australia and Asia.
The number of cultivars grown commercially in New Zealand has fallen over time. In 1968 the Apple and Pear Marketing Board handled 90 apple cultivars and 50 pear cultivars, but by 1990 this had dropped to 27 of apples and nine of pears.
These changes have been in response to the prices obtained for exported fruit. These in turn have been influenced by production in other southern-hemisphere suppliers such as South Africa, Chile and Brazil.
New Zealand has led the world in the rapid introduction of new apple cultivars. The locally-produced Royal Gala and Braeburn cultivars are important to New Zealand and overseas growers.
Royal Gala was a natural sport or mutation of the cultivar Gala, and was introduced in the 1970s. Gala had been bred in 1934 by J. H. Kidd of Greytown, Wairarapa, and was selected and named by Don McKenzie at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in Havelock North.
In contrast, Braeburn was a chance seedling growing in a hedgerow in the Braeburn area of Nelson in the 1950s. It was championed by a small group of Nelson growers, and began to be widely planted in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
These two cultivars accounted for about 77% of the apple production in New Zealand in the early 2000s.
J. H. Kidd was one of the pioneers of apple breeding in New Zealand in the 1920s and 1930s. Hoping to combine the heavy cropping and attractive look of American apples with the flavour of English ones, he hand-pollinated different varieties and raised the resulting seedlings. Kidd’s first success was from a cross of Delicious with Cox’s Orange Pippin, sold as Kidd’s Orange. Later he crossed Kidd’s Orange with Golden Delicious to produce Gala.
Since 2000, new cultivars have been trademarked to control the amount of fruit in the marketplace, to try to keep prices high, and to increase the financial return to the breeding programme. Apples from the Scifresh cultivar, sold under the trademark Jazz, are currently attracting high prices and interest in the overseas markets, and the trademark is being developed globally by the exporter ENZA. Scifresh/Jazz was selected from a cross between Royal Gala and Braeburn, made by Allan White of HortResearch in 1984–85.
Improved flavour, texture and storage life are key selection criteria for new cultivars. Breeding programmes also focus on disease resistance.
Although the number of cultivars used to produce apples commercially for export has decreased dramatically over the years, small quantities of many older cultivars, such as Gravenstein, Sturmer Pippin and Golden Delicious, can often be found at growers’ markets and local fruit stalls.
Pear production in New Zealand has relied solely on overseas cultivars such as Doyenné du Comice from France, William’s Bon Chrétien from the UK, and Packham’s Triumph from Australia. This may change as new cultivars from the HortResearch breeding programme become available. In the late 1980s a pear grower near Motueka found a natural sport of Doyenné du Comice with russetted (coarse brown) skin, which was named Taylor’s Gold. As the export packout (proportion of fruit which was export grade) from this new cultivar was considerably higher than that of its parent, Taylor’s Gold was planted during the 1990s, and now contributes 50% of export pears.
In the mid-1980s there was considerable interest in Asian pears (nashi), which were hailed as the next big horticultural export industry to follow kiwifruit. The first commercial orchards were established in 1984, and the area planted reached 760 hectares in 1989. Nashi export sales peaked in the mid-1990s. In the early 2000s the area had fallen to about 120 hectares, although there has been some limited recent planting to cater for the growing Asian population in New Zealand.
In orchards apples and pears are not grown on their own roots but are grafted onto rootstocks that control the growth of the tree. Clonal (genetically identical) rootstocks are used to promote early cropping, consistent tree size and freedom from some root pests and diseases.
Apple and pear trees are normally grown in a specialist fruit-tree nursery where the cultivar is grafted or budded onto the rootstock, and grown for another year before being bought by the fruit grower. The rootstocks are propagated vegetatively. Rooted stems are pruned and encouraged to send up many shoots, which are partly covered in sawdust to induce roots to form.
In New Zealand pipfruit were traditionally grown on large trees, on semi-vigorous clonal rootstocks planted at about 670 trees per hectare. The original apple rootstocks from the UK were found to be very sensitive to infestations of woolly apple aphid (Eriosoma lanigerum). A breeding programme in England in the 1920s produced the Merton (M) and Malling Merton (MM) apple rootstocks. They were resistant to this pest, and became the mainstay of New Zealand production for many years – particularly the rootstocks M.793 and MM.106.
During the 1970s and 1980s apple growers changed from producing multi-leader vase-shaped trees to centre-leader cone-shaped trees, with one central trunk and distinct tiers of branches. These began cropping earlier than multi-leader trees, and picking and pest management were easier.
Dwarf rootstocks produce smaller trees which can be planted more intensively and are easier to manage. Growers began to use them, particularly M.9, in the 1990s. This trend continued into the 2000s, with 1,250 to 3,000 trees per hectare on dwarf rootstocks.
The rootstock M.9 is sensitive to woolly apple aphid, but the pest’s effect on the industry had already been reduced by the deliberate introduction in 1921 of the tiny wasp Aphelinus mali, one of the aphid’s enemies.
Intensive planting with dwarf rootstocks allows earlier production, improved fruit quality and easier tree management. Much of the work can be done from the ground. Establishing an orchard is costly, but early production of high-quality fruit means that the orchard can reach break-even point in five years or less, particularly with new cultivars that fetch high prices.
Pear trees are normally grafted onto clonal quince rootstocks, which are easy to propagate vegetatively and allow the pear grower to control the size of trees and have them fruit early. However, not all pear cultivars are graft-compatible with quince, so a stem of a graft-compatible scion cultivar is grafted between the rootstock and the desired cultivar.
Because apples and pears were introduced to New Zealand both as graftwood and as trees, many pests and diseases were introduced at the same time. The most serious bacterial disease, fire blight (Erwinia amylovera), was introduced in graftwood from the US after the First World War. This resulted in a ban on the export of New Zealand pipfruit to Australia, which has remained free of the disease. The ban was lifted in 2011.
The other major diseases are black spot (apple scab, Venturia inaequalis) and powdery mildew (Podosphaera leucotricha). The former is more prevalent in wetter areas and the latter in drier regions. Black spot can cause major losses of fruit and leaves if not controlled with fungicide sprays. A major objective for New Zealand breeding programmes is to raise new cultivars resistant to these diseases.
Major pests of pipfruit include leafroller caterpillar (Tortricidae moth family), codling moth (Cydia pomonella), woolly apple aphid (Eriosoma lanigerum), leaf curling midge (Dasyneura mali) and red spider mite (Panonychus ulmi). Although these pests can be controlled by insecticidal sprays, much scientific work has gone into understanding their specific biology, and the role of predators and parasites in their control. Spray programmes in the 1980s relied heavily on broad-spectrum insecticides that were toxic to a wide range of insects, pest and predator alike. Pests became resistant to some of these materials, which has led to a greater interest in biological control.
By the early 1990s, consumers were concerned about the regular use of broad-spectrum sprays. The New Zealand pipfruit industry developed the Integrated Fruit Production (IFP) programme, which relies on ecologically safer methods. Trees are sprayed only in response to pests or diseases, rather than by the calendar. Chemicals are used which are primarily toxic to the specific pest, so predators and parasites remain unharmed.
The leaf-sucking European red spider mite became a serious pest in New Zealand apple orchards when it developed resistance to some spray chemicals. Other mites that ate the pest were also killed by the sprays. Growers now monitor populations of the red spider mite and its predators before deciding whether to spray. They often rely totally on the predatory mites to limit pest numbers and damage.
The IFP programme was introduced over a five-year period in the mid-1990s, and was readily adopted by growers. It is continually being updated as further work is done on pest and disease biology. In 2007 the pipfruit industry began trialling a zero chemical residue programme.
Organic pipfruit growers do not use synthetically-produced pesticides and fertilisers, but rely on older fungicides based on copper or sulfur, and organic fertilisers.
Most organic pipfruit production is in Hawke’s Bay, as the drier climate makes diseases such as apple scab and summer fruit rots easier to control. The rich soils also help with tree nutrition. The costs of production are higher, as it is more labour-intensive – but organic fruit sells for a higher price. Some growers have adopted organic methods for philosophical reasons, but for others it is a purely economic decision. In 2007 organic apples made up about 10% of the export crop.
The decision on when to harvest fruit is based on its stage of maturity. If fruit are harvested when immature, they will not have the right taste and aroma; if left on the tree too long, they soften and may develop a greasy skin.
The orchardist carefully monitors fruit maturity, looking at skin colour, flesh firmness, and soluble solids and starch breakdown patterns, as shown by the starch–iodine reaction on a transverse section of the fruit. Each cultivar has its own optimum values for these factors, which give the best cool-storage life.
Most cultivars are selectively harvested over two to three weeks, with each pick removing the most optimally mature fruit. European pears are normally harvested in a once-over pick.
The apple-picking season lasts several months, as each cultivar becomes ready for harvest. Export harvesting may begin with Cox’s Orange Pippin in February and finish in April with Granny Smith. Apples and pears are picked by hand, usually into bags slung across the picker’s chest. The fruit is emptied into larger wooden bulk bins, holding around 400 kilograms, which are quickly moved to a cool store or a grading shed. Apples are usually dumped in water and floated off to be cleaned and graded. They are graded for freedom from visible defects, usually by human eye on a grading table, then pass under electronic colour sorters and weigh cells before passing onto separate lanes for packing. Fruit are normally packed into cardboard boxes on fibre trays for protection during transport.
Pears are not normally dumped in water, as they do not float. Instead they are removed from the smaller pear bins by hand then placed on the grader. Pears are usually packed in small, two-layer cartons, which hold around 7.5 kilograms.
To preserve the fruit quality, apples and pears are stored in cool stores – European pears at -0.5°C, most apples at 0.5°C, and Asian pears (nashi) at 1°C. To slow the maturation processes even further, oxygen and carbon dioxide are carefully regulated in controlled-atmosphere (CA) storage. Typical gas concentrations are 1% oxygen and 1–2% carbon dioxide, the latter depending on the cultivar. Once fruit has cooled, it needs to be kept at these low temperatures even during shipping. Traditionally, apples were sent from New Zealand to overseas markets in the bulk holds of reefer ships, where the temperature was carefully controlled. More fruit is now being despatched in containers, some of which have CA facilities.
From around 1920, New Zealand growers wanted to reduce the problem of low prices during gluts and high prices during shortages in the local market, and to bring stability to the export market. The Apple and Pear Marketing Board was set up in 1948, and marketed both export and locally sold fruit.
From the mid-1990s there was increasing pressure to deregulate the industry, and the board’s selling monopoly was removed in 2001. In 2007 there were over 90 exporters, although 30% of the exporters are responsible for 90% of the export crop. ENZA is the largest.
Since 1921 New Zealand has not been allowed to export apples to Australia because of the presence of fire blight. Since the mid-1980s, New Zealand has sought to have the ban lifted as there is no evidence that fruit carry the bacteria. In 2007, after 20 years of failed negotiations, New Zealand decided to refer the matter to the World Trade Organization.
Key markets are the UK, continental Europe, the USA and South-East Asia. Knowledge of each market’s specific requirements in terms of pest and disease quarantine, fruit size and cultivars is essential.
New Zealand supplies most of its own apples and pears, fresh or as juice, but some fresh fruit is imported from the US, China and Australia. Canned apples and pears are imported mostly from Australia.
Ferree, D. C., and I. J. Warrington, eds. Apples: botany, production, and uses. Wallingford: CABI Publishing, 2003.
McKenzie, D. W. ‘Apples.’ In Plant breeding in New Zealand, edited by G. S. Wratt and H. C. Smith: 83–90. Wellington: Butterworths, Dept. of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1983.
Palmer, J. W., and G. Dryden. ‘Fruit mineral removal rates from New Zealand apple (Malus domestica) orchards in the Nelson region.’ New Zealand Journal of Crop and Horticultural Science 34 (2006): 27–32.