Considering tamarillos on your orchard?

15 May 2024

Robyn Wickenden runs a tamarillo orchard at Maungatapere in Northland with Aaron Davies. She is also both the chair and secretary of the NZ Tamarillo Growers Association. Robyn was asked what growers need to know if they are considering growing a tamarillo crop. 

Robyn says tamarillos used to be a staple of New Zealanders’ diet post-war, and growers hear (often) that ‘there used to be a tree in my grandparents’ garden, but you hardly see them around now’ and ‘why is the fruit so expensive?’  

Post-war the then Ministry of Health encouraged people to eat a tamarillo (or tree tomato as they were called back then) because it was a good source of vitamins and minerals through the winter when there were few other fruits and vegetables around. This led to many people planting a tamarillo tree in their gardens. 

What is the viability of small growers? 

“Tamarillos are a crop that can demonstrate the economic laws of supply and demand and what happens when the number of growers dwindles. Having gone from 450 commercial growers before the mid-2000s when the Liberibacter bacteria came into New Zealand, there are now 24 growers registered with the NZ Tamarillo Growers Association. Of these, the majority are small orchards of around one hectare. Orchards are small because tamarillos are so labour-intensive for maintaining tree health all year round. 

“Costs are not automatically scaled with a smaller growing operation. The inputs are mainly labour, fertilisers, insecticide sprays (as Liberibacter is carried by psyllids), compliance costs and fuel to run the tractor.” 

“The cost of employing labour means most tamarillo growers are ‘Ma and Pa’ operations who can dedicate the time to looking after their trees throughout the year, with the main labour required during the four-month picking season. The main compliance cost is GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) registration which is the same cost whether you are small or large, (incorporating a social responsibility add-on which is a requirement to sell through supermarkets regardless of whether you are employing staff).  

“The major capital outlays are a tractor and air blast sprayer to allow for penetration of the sprays, and they must be a certain size to be effective. Frost protection needs to be considered, no matter the size of the orchard. Growers must also be good at maintaining a nursery of replacement seedlings, as these replacements are so frequent.  

“When it comes to freight, there is a minimum charge for a pallet regardless of how many crates are being supplied on that pallet. Produce has to be taken to the freight depot rather than being picked up. For our Far North growers, this means driving down to Whangarei.” 

What about becoming a tamarillo grower? 

“For growers enquiring about tamarillos, particularly growers wanting to switch from other crops, please contact the NZ Tamarillo Growers Association before starting to grow tamarillos and get some good advice.  

“Our concern is that everyone sees tamarillos as a fast-growing cash crop and starts planting them. If the orchard is not looked after properly, the psyllid will get established in these new orchards and completely wipe out all growers in that area and eliminate this beautiful fruit from the winter fruit bowl.” 

What about the diversity of supply? 

“Tamarillos have a flavour profile like no other fruit. It seems you either love them or hate them. In a world that has been increasingly guiding consumers’ palates to a sweeter fruit, tamarillos stand out as not being sweet. However, if you have a Laird’s Large variety from a grower who fertilises their trees, I would dispute this. 

“Tamarillos still are very seasonal with the peak of the season hitting July or August, although with growers spread around microclimates, the season itself has been extended from April to November. Tamarillos are only picked when they are fully ripe, not coolstored or gas-ripened, so they deliver a flavour profile of freshly picked fruit.  

“Diversity of supply provides consumers with an enriched source of nutrition during the winter months. There have been several studies done as to the nutritional content and benefits of having tamarillos in your diet. These fruit are full of antioxidants, vitamins C, A, B6 and E, manganese and potassium. Promotion to the consumer of these health benefits comes at a considerable cost, so out of range for a small industry. 

“Due to the lack of tamarillos being grown, the secondary market for processed fruit has suffered, with no ‘processing fruit’ price point satisfactory to these processors. We are always receiving enquiries looking for ‘processing grade fruit’ for a huge range of products for example jam, ice cream, cider and chutney.” 

What were last season’s results? 

“We saw the impacts of Cyclone Gabrielle particularly in the Northland area where half our growers are. We also saw several growers call it quits with the prospect of replanting their orchards at their time of life too much to contemplate. Interestingly, all growers are reporting that their tree losses due to Liberibacter, the disease transmitted by the psyllid fly, are right back down to single digits again after hitting us all badly in 2021–2022.  

“There was a drop of 18 percent in the tonnage of tamarillos sold through the wholesale markets during the 2023 season compared to 2022; compounded with the previous three years, this has seen the supply shrink by 61 percent after our bumper year in 2019. This further drop in supply had a resultant effect on prices remaining higher.  

“Exports continue to decline, but again a higher price is being returned to the grower as the export supply must price competitively with the domestic supply. At this point, we are just trying to keep our export market open until the supply hopefully increases.” 

How is this season shaping up? 

“Growers are still recovering from the effects of Cyclone Gabrielle and the psyllid population explosion over the last two years, as it takes a tamarillo tree about two years to become productive and four years to reach its peak.  

“Indications are that all growers have a good crop on their productive trees, and they are sizing up well. We are keeping positive that the weather conditions continue to be favourable and we can supply a reasonable amount of tamarillos to the market in 2024.  My guess would be back to 2022 levels.” 

Article first published in the May 2024 issue of The Orchardist.