By Elaine Fisher
This article was first published in the August 2020 issue of The Orchardist.
Krista Manuel, who really has been in the horticultural industry all her life, understands that no two seasons are the same, but nothing could prepare her, nor the industry, for the challenges of harvest 2020.
Covid-19 didn’t bring Kaiaponi Farms’ harvest teams and packhouse to a halt, as it did so many other businesses, but the virus threat did bring changes to procedures, which were redesigned to keep staff safe.
“We are classed as an essential business and industry so picking and packing of apples, feijoas and citrus continued but we made changes to the way people work and the schedule and procedures for taking breaks to reduce the risk of spreading the virus,” says Krista who is technical product manager at Kaiaponi Farms’ packhouse in Gisborne and a member of Women in Horticulture.
Kaiaponi, like others in the horticultural industry, already had food safety and hygiene measures in place, so stepping those up a notch was well understood and accepted by staff, she says. “Everyone is committed to keeping each other safe.”
Measures included having just one person per packing lane, setting up small fruit lanes next to large fruit lanes so that the speed of delivery of fruit meant one person could manage the volume without having to call for help, and ensuring workers remained two metres apart.
“We opened an additional room for breaks so people could spread out, and staggered break times between different packing lines. Our staff in the packhouse are mostly local people and those picking fruit are generally locals, with support from Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme workers. There are very few backpackers working at all this season.”
By late March the packhouse was handling Jazz apples and about to start the Envy season, along with feijoas and citrus. This followed the earlier successful harvest and export of Royal Gala.
“This is one of our better years for fruit taste, because of the hot summer. All the fruit, including apple, citrus and feijoa tastes amazing with higher sugar levels. Cosmetic fruit finish is also excellent.”
The T&G club variety Envy performs very well in the Gisborne district, which is considered one of the best, if not the best growing region for the apple. Envy is well suited to Gisborne’s growing climate and has been a profitable apple variety in terms of productivity, with a mature orchard producing over 100 tonnes to the hectare.
Exports of all fruit have continued largely uninterrupted by Covid-19 and Krista thinks demand both nationally and internationally for great tasting, healthy fresh fruit should increase as people look to improve their immunity in the face of the virus.
Krista was born the year before her father David planted the first fruit trees on the family’s Gisborne orchard in 1989. “So I grew up with the orchard.” After leaving school Krista gained a certificate in horticulture at polytechnic and then worked for her father, managing the orchard and studying for an advanced Level 4 horticultural qualification from Primary ITO.
When the orchard was sold, she worked for Kaiaponi Farms before heading off for an OE in England. “I worked as a live-in carer, and the experience convinced me that what I really wanted to do was return to New Zealand and the horticultural industry.”
Back in the country she re-joined Kaiaponi as quality controller in the orchards before running the twilight shift in the packhouse.
“I then had the chance to work with an amazing piece of machinery — the Compac-Spectrim defect sorter-sizer.” The machine checks for blemishes in apples by taking 300 images of each apple which passes through it.
“With this machine we are able to ensure we do not over or under grade fruit, and that every piece of fruit which meets the quality standards can be packed. It has improved our pack consistency regardless of the quality inwards.”
It’s this kind of technology, and the hi-tech advances on the horizon for the industry, which are among the reasons Krista believes young people, both men and women, should consider careers in horticulture.
“There are so many exciting jobs already in the industry and more to come. We need more young people in the industry to ensure its future. It’s not just about picking and packing, although for those who love the outdoors, orchard work is great.”
Encouraging more people into the industry is among the reasons Krista assists her boss Scott Wilson, general manager of Kaiaponi Farms, in organising the annual Gisborne Young Grower of the Year competition.
“It’s a great way to test your skills and to find out what you don’t know. It also helps promote horticulture as a career,” says Krista, who tested herself by entering the inaugural event in 2018. “Unfortunately the 2020 event has been cancelled due to the uncertainly around the Covid-19 lockdown status.”
Despite her (relatively short) lifetime involvement with fruitgrowing, its appeal hasn’t diminished for Krista. “I love springtime and seeing the trees come into blossom, the leaves grow and then fruit form, ready for harvest in autumn.”