Fruits of their labour – Tauranga

Maria and Andrew Watchorn’s green patch of paradise in Tauranga is a perfect example of what research, cooperation and some natural talent can yield: in this case, a burgeoning orchard loaded with one of nature’s wonder foods – the avocado.

With three canopy-hectares of thriving avocado trees, plus a recently purchased six canopy-hectare block, you could say Maria Watchorn has a particularly green thumb. Or you might say she has orcharding in her blood. As a child growing up in Whakatane she spent a lot of time in the garden with her Italian father. “He is an amazing gardener,” she says. “You sort of learn by osmosis.” Her husband and fellow orchardist, Andrew, believes she has a natural affinity for it. But start talking to this couple and you quickly realise their success is also down to a lot of hard work. 

The story of how they came to be living in a picturesque patch of rural Tauranga starts with banking of all things. They were both climbing the corporate ladder when their son, Caleb, now 14, came along. 

“We were sort of lucky enough to make a choice as to whether I was going to stay home or not and we decided I would, even though I was very pulled because I had worked so hard to get where I was,” says Maria. Not one to sit still for very long, she soon needed a project, plus Andrew wanted out of the banking game, so they started looking for a kiwifruit orchard to buy as a source of income.

In 2005, they stumbled across their current abode. At that time it was a predominantly citrus orchard and the couple were surprised to find avocados growing among the citrus trees – they decided to stick with them. Not least, says Maria, because of how aesthetically appealing the trees are. There was a small catch. “I knew absolutely zilch about avocados,” says Maria. And so started an intensive research phase – “I used to spend a lot of time at the library”. The avocado industry was still a fledgling one at that stage and the couple found themselves pioneers of sorts with some of the initiatives they introduced. “We put a full frost protection system throughout the whole orchard and I’m not sure if there was anyone in the industry back then who had ever done that,” says Maria. “That money has probably saved us numerous times,” adds Andrew. This foresight was not their only inspired move.

The Cutting Edge

Early on in her avocado career, Maria used what she had learned from her father and it proved to bear much fruit, so to speak. “When I was younger, whenever the trees were fruiting my dad always used to go around and thin things so that what was left was a good-sized fruit – to make sure the plant could sustain the volume that was on it. I made some enquiries and got a pruner in to thin out the flower so it actually reduced our crop and gave more vigour to the tree. We did that, and that was not really happening in the industry either. 

“We started to do big limb pruning that year as well – opening up the trees and managing the height to make sure they were in good health the following season. We never just plan for today. I think you can’t be short-sighted with avocado trees,” says Maria. 

Pruning may not have been the industry standard back then but it is certainly big news now. “It’s become a way of the future for avocados,” says Maria. 

While the industry here includes high-producing, consistent orchards such as the Watchorns’, not everybody is in the same boat. NZ Avocado’s Research & Development programme engages expertise from scientists, growers and consultants to develop best practice for orchardists to improve production.

R&D manager Alvaro Vidiella leads the industry’s research programme, developed in collaboration with Plant & Food Research, with investment from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment and the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Primary Growth Partnership. NZ Avocados is working with Maria as part of a Canopy Management Working Group with the aim of identifying, characterising and evaluating pruning techniques. “It’s such an evolving industry and it’s so exciting now we are seeing results,” says Maria. “The NZ Avocado team are all so positive and motivated and I think that helps drive the growers as well.”

Orchard Life

One of the most exciting parts of the Watchorns’ work schedule is harvest time. “In Italy the harvest is such a big thing – I don’t think we celebrate it enough here in New Zealand.” The Watchorns are changing that. “My mother comes and we cook for a week and then family and friends arrive and it’s just such a cool event.”

Unsurprisingly, given her Italian background, cooking is another great love of Maria’s. She’s lucky enough to have some beautiful fresh produce to choose from with her own vege garden, chickens, eggs, sheep, cows and, of course, avocados. Her favourite recipe? “Smoked salmon, red onion, capers and lots of avocado, drizzled with lemon juice and extra virgin avocado oil, served on bread – divine,” she says.

When the hard work is over, the couple also have plenty of time to play. “That’s the beauty of not working at the bank, because it gives us that flexibility. When Caleb’s on holiday, we can be on holiday,” says Andrew of their lifestyle.
One of the other big pay-offs of owning an avocado orchard is the pride the Watchorns feel about their product. 

“Avocados are an amazing food – they have folate, potassium, vitamin B6, so many good things – they’re such a superfood,” says Maria. 

Andrew agrees. “That’s why you feel good – it’s because we know we have the best fruit in the world.”