Getting the conditions right for organic

9 February 2024

Doug Voss jokes that his grandfather did a “great selection job” when buying the land that he now owns, 103 years ago.

A stalwart of growing organic kiwifruit in New Zealand, Doug owns 40ha of 259ha his grandparents settled in the farming district of Oropi, south of Tauranga, in 1921.

Gradually most of their land was sold, but what remains in Doug and his partner Paola Galimberti’s ownership is an optimal environment for their 32ha of organic green, gold and red kiwifruit, as well as avocados and flowers, in an operation called Manaia Orchards.

Doug also owns Oropi Management Services and is a former owner of Waimapu Packhouse and Coolstore.

He started growing kiwifruit in 1976 and converted to organic over three years from 1983, just as the practice was taking off.

Neighbours in the Oropi-Pyes Pa area converted at the same time, and the growers banded together to support one another.

Nowadays, more knowledge and support exist, and growers have access to all the required “organic inputs” to grow their crops, except for a direct replacement for Hi-Cane.

This year, Manaia Orchards had its “best bud burst ever”, thanks to ideal climatic conditions, combined with its good elevation and the organic practice of tying down more new cane than in conventional orchards. 

Doug says organic growers in the Oropi district are getting comparable crops with their conventional neighbours, and nationally many are using increasingly sustainable practices.

In both conventional and organic farming there is an increase in the use of compost, which is one of the “mainstays” of organics for soil health.

Doug has seen first-hand how natural processes work. In his orchard, strains of bacteria that cause rot had become resistant to fungicides. “Then when we stopped using them they (slowly) looked after themselves. Nature balanced the whole thing.”

Consumers are also taking more interest in “where does this fruit come from?” and that is helping lead a bigger movement, Doug says, adding that millennials and Generation Z are at the forefront of change.

Two of Doug’s four children Stephanie, 40, and Richard, 33, work full-time with him on the orchard and live on the property with their families.

They bring their approach and Doug brings his experience. He is a former director and chairman of Zespri International and Zespri Group. He has served a term as president of the International Kiwifruit Organisation and is currently an executive of the NZ Certified Organic Kiwifruit Growers Association (COKA), a former chair of Organics Aotearoa (OANZ) and a member of the Organic Sector Advisory Council (OSAC). He has a Diploma in Agriculture, and a Diploma in Valuation and Farm Management.

For those kiwifruit growers who are not interested in converting to organic, Doug says conservatism and “intensive” auditing are two things that may put them off with a tight paper trail of practices required. Historical certification does not guarantee current or ongoing certification for organic inputs.

However, once a grower develops a system of growing organic fruit, the time involved isn’t any greater, and while conventional green is currently being paid out at $9 per tray, organic green is $12, 30c off the price of gold.

There is no rule as to how far apart an organic orchard needs to be from a conventional one, but both organic and conventional growers must comply with local and regional councils with the requirements to have effective boundary shelter.  Doug advises seeking advice from an experienced organic grower or consultant.

Conversion to organics begins with BioGro, the sole certification agency appointed by Zespri. To obtain organic certification, kiwifruit growers must use only certified inputs for at least three seasons and can start after the last non-organic input.

BioGro requires a record of all non-organic products used on the property during this time, and they will conduct a soil test to detect any leftover conventional product residue. The orchard is then audited annually.

As the organic market progresses, standards are taken “extremely seriously” in the international marketplace.

In New Zealand, the Organic Products and Production Bill was passed in parliament last year (2023), so those who want to market their products as organic need to meet certain criteria. This was a process Doug helped drive. Previously, New Zealand didn’t have national standards.

Also important says Doug, is National’s proposal to end a ban on genetic modification.

New Zealand developed kiwifruit cultivators without genetic modification and it would be a shame to see things change, he says.

“The negative impact on New Zealand organic products in the international marketplace is likely to be significant.

“Currently, the international place understands GMOs aren’t used in New Zealand, but if that is taken away we must expect a backlash.”

Right now, the market for organic kiwifruit is expanding in North America and Europe, where organics have become mainstream and demand for organic kiwifruit is growing in Asia, particularly in Japan and China.

Doug visited Italy with his son Richard last October on a Zespri trip, where on the Zespri SunGold orchards he visited, they averaged 13-14,000 trays per hectare. Doug says it should be noted that the use of Hi-Cane is banned in Italy.

“They have enclosed canopies completely because they have problems with a stink bug there and that's the best way of controlling that, and they were also having a problem, which seems to be a green kiwifruit problem, which is wilt disease,” he says. “It makes using bees difficult, but Italians have never been big users of bees for pollination, they reckon the wind does it, but then tell you there’s not much wind in Italy.”

They do use artificial pollination, which is something Doug also advocates. His partner Paola used to specialise in pollination and acted as a consultant in Italy before moving to New Zealand in 1988 on a combined Italian and New Zealand Government Scholarship and working at The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), now renamed Plant and Food, in Auckland’s Mount Albert.

“Some people think you can't use artificial pollination if you’re organic, but we are convinced that we want to use it and I think the better you can pollinate your fruit, there's all the normal things - size will be better, but I think it does have an impact on taste.”

In conclusion, Doug says organic growing is “good for you, good for the neighbours, good for everybody”, and more importantly, it’s shown its potential to thrive just as much as conventional kiwifruit.