Ngai Tahu Farming is dabbling with horticulture in North Canterbury’s Amuri Basin.

The iwi-run livestock and forestry business has planted apples, blueberries and a smattering of stonefruit and nut trees on a 2.5ha trial orchard near Culverden.

Most of the orchard is in four apple varieties supplied by Turners and Growers.

If the test plot turns commercial Ngai Tahu Farming could become a fairly significant employer in the region, commercial development manager Ben Giesen said.

“All those things are big positives for us.”

The district has converted strongly to irrigated dairy farming on the basin flat in the past 20 years.

The shift from sheep and beef has brought jobs, wealth and new families but horticulture would a different jolt again.

A Plant and Food Research study of alternative land use found the area’s soils and temperature extremes suit most types of horticulture except viticulture.

Giesen said there is enough to do on the orchard already without grapes. Whatever the theory, there is nothing like putting the trees in the ground and giving them every chance to grow as they should, he said.

“We had a big block of land up here so what else do we do apart from dairy and beef farming.

“They came up with a few ideas and one of those ideas really just confirmed what we were already doing, which was to plant a trial block and see how we get on.”

Hot summers and frosty winters work for Central Otago so it is worth trying.

“Long, hot, fine days, low rainfall, soil types right. The only thing up here that’s not as good as other areas (like Central Otago) is the growing degree days. The data that we’ve got shows we’re at the lower end, which is going to mean the fruit isn’t going to grow to the size they do in other regions.”

A handful of farmers around Culverden had a couple of hectares of non-commercial orchard and were keen to see how Ngai Tahu went on a similar scale, Giesen said.

“When we got talking to a few of them they said some years it went really well and other years they got nothing. One of the catalysts for that seemed to be the frost.”

One of the hobby orchardists had several apple varieties, stonefruit and nuts.

“That mirrors what we are looking to do a little bit as well.”

The investment didn’t come cheap.

“With the trial block there’s obviously sunk costs there, you’re putting your irrigation in, the pumping systems and stuff like that. There are all kind of one-offs that you’d normally put in for a block that’s four or five times the size.”

Ngai Tahu Farming has applied to the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment for a grant to closely monitor the orchard’s performance.

After two years it will probably be clear whether commercial growing is a goer.

“We’re pretty confident they’re going to grow because they already are in the region. It’s how well do they grow and what do they yield.”

The orchard design replicates wood and steel trellis systems in Nelson and there will be the usual drip-feed irrigation and frost protection systems.

“It’s all been tailored to what we’ve seen out there and what we think is best practice.”

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