Horticulture leads shift in land use

Pastoral farmers are selling up to avocado orchard developers keen to capitalise on Northland's idyllic growing conditions. Photo / Supplied
Pastoral farmers are selling up to avocado orchard developers keen to capitalise on Northland's idyllic growing conditions. Photo / Supplied

Generational changes, climate and new market opportunities are all opening the door to significant land use changes throughout parts of the upper North Island.

But rather than the wholesale conversion to dairying witnessed in some many districts in the past decade, this time it is the horticultural sector prompting a new wave of land use.

The Northland region is experiencing one of the most significant horticultural developments witnessed since much of the western Bay of Plenty moved into kiwifruit in the 1980s.

This is coming as pastoral farmers sell up to avocado orchard developers keen to capitalise on the region's idyllic growing conditions and the availability of quality land.

Bayleys Whangarei real estate agent and orchardist Vinni Bhula said he is witnessing a definitive move to avocado orchards through the Kaipara district, and in the Far North district of Houhora on the eastern coast.

"In both these districts all the properties being developed to avocados would be dairy or dry stock farms, largely being taken over by new buyers who are already involved in the horticultural sector."

He said both parties in the deals are usually in a sound financial position to be making the moves they are, with farmers often seeking a buyer to enable them to exit on retirement, and purchasing avocado growers with properties elsewhere in the region or beyond.

The sandy soils and climate of the Far North region lend themselves well to the subtropical crop, ensuring an earlier start to the growing and harvest period compared to Whangarei and Bay of Plenty.

"Water supply remains critical and applications can seek as much as 1500 cum a day, and councils are still trying to understand the aquifers serving these areas."

Orchardists establishing avocado operations in the region are conscious of the crop's biannual nature, but he says those that pay close attention to good crop husbandry and tree care can smooth out that contrast to deliver a consistent crop each year.

Jen Schuler Avocado NZ chief executive said there is 3700ha of land in avocados, largely around Northland and Bay of Plenty, but the new plantings in Northland stood to add an additional 850ha to that.

She said the industry sits well alongside the kiwifruit sector, sharing packing and infrastructure facilities, while labour employed in kiwifruit can move into avocados during avocado season.

"Growers can expect to see crops come to about 50% potential in year four, and 100% by year seven, so there is quite a lead up time before we see the full volume come to market."

She cautioned there was still much being learned about avocado production and husbandry in New Zealand, and there was no perfect way to grow the crop.

"People looking at a block should look back four to five years to get a good idea of its true production, due to that variation in fruit bearing each year.

"People are good at sharing information in the sector on best growing methods, and it's well worth seeking out as much advice as possible to make the most of any orchard purchase."

Parts of Waikato are experiencing stronger demand for high quality dairy properties to convert to non-pastoral, horticultural land uses.

Strawberry growers on the edge of Cambridge are on the move as growth in that town spreads into their land areas. Photo / Supplied
Strawberry growers on the edge of Cambridge are on the move as growth in that town spreads into their land areas. Photo / Supplied

Bayleys Waikato country sales manager Mark Dawe said the urban creep of south Auckland has impacted on land values for market gardeners there, representing something of a twin edged sword for them.

"It means that land may now be used for housing, and is under pressure to be built on, but the increase in value also means they can leverage off it to purchase land further south, even in the South Island," he says.

This has resulted in traditional dairying land in areas like north Waikato that may have been worth $40,000-$45,000 a hectare earning a 20% premium for market garden crop land.

"But we are also seeing it on a smaller scale, with the likes of strawberry growers on the edge of Cambridge looking further afield as growth in that town spreads into their land areas."

In the Bay of Plenty the potential for conversion of pasture land to kiwifruit orchards has also just been given another boost, with news that Zespri will be increasing the licensed area it is allocating to SunGold kiwifruit.

The hugely successful fruit has experienced a surge in market demand well ahead of supply, prompting Zespri to increase the area it intended to allocate from 500ha a year to 700ha a year for the next five years, subject to annual review.

Bayleys rural agent Snow Williams said the increased kiwifruit allocation provided pastoral farmers in areas like eastern Bay of Plenty the opportunity to lift their land values considerably by converting to kiwifruit.

"The ability to set up and start earning off orchards is really only three years. Our greatest issue at present is a shortage of listings to meet the demand."

- The Country

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