From The Orchardist, 1st Dec. 2017. Story and photos by Denise Lando.
Brian and Olive Neal bought the property to enable their other son, Stephen, a future after having been born with Down syndrome. If they hadn't provided their son an opportunity to work and live at home, he would have been sent to an institution - that's what happened in the 1970s. They then purchased a neighbouring orchard three years later and all up, La Ronde Orchard became a 14.6ha operation. Huapai, and other surrounding areas just north of Auckland's city, were known for their 'digger blocks.' The government had gifted parcels of land to returned servicemen after the end of World War II. Monte explains that in the late 1940s and early 1950s the government offered generous loans to get people started on these 20 acre (8ha) blocks. "The men who received these properties knew they couldn't be run as dairy farms because the lots weren't large enough - that's when the idea of orcharding came in," he says. "There was a large influence of Dalmations, who'd been gum-digging in the area. Huapai was all orchards in the '60s - Haupai in Maori actually means 'good fruit'. "Apples and stonefruit were grown. With stonefruit - you had to grow ones that didn't need the winter chill, so you were limited on varieties. As a kid I remember there were lots of peaches and nectarines grown out here and most orchards had gate sales - it's always been a popular place for Aucklanders on the weekends." Any Auckland grower will be honest - the land's not great for orcharding. The predominantly clay soils have pockets of sandy loam, but mainly it's puggy. In winter the soil holds water and in summer it goes rock hard, Monte confesses. He laughs, "we don't lack water, but that's made up for by humidity and poor soils." Growers need to put effort into soil structure, and in the last few years Monte has used a healthy heap of seaweed products. The life-long Auckland grower explains that trees take longer to establish here than in other fruitgrowing areas but once settled, they are strong because taproots have to get right down. "It's not the ideal fruitgrowing area, but I do think it's one of the best areas in New Zealand for producing Granny Smith apples because of the way the trees sit in the soil. The apples grow more slowly and take longer to mature, but a nicer taste comes through," he says.
Monte is still secretary of the Auckland Pipfruit Growers' Association - and will probably be the last person to hold the post before the association formally winds up. "About 30 years ago, nearly all the smaller pipfruit associations were running themselves, so we formed the Auckland Pipfruit Growers' Association just for pipfruit growers in 1993, with about 90 members. I became secretary and sent notices of meetings with posted letters." Monte recalls there were about eight grower associations around the wider north Auckland region, including Huapai, Henderson, Kumeu, Oratia, Albany, and Te Hana in Wellsford.
Just 15 years later in 2011, the association's members who gathered represented only six orchards: Monte, along with his father Brian Neal, Louis Dean, Gus Nola, Max Wintle, Filip Babich, and Leo Floyd. The group's next meeting will probably be the last. It really is the end of a horticultural era that has seen orchardists forced into submission from a harbour crimped super city population explosion and its need for housing.
Even towards the end, many associations kept themselves in place purely for social reasons. The Oratia Fruitgrowers' Association is one of the oldest fruitgrowers' associations in the country and now meets purely for social gatherings, but Huapai and Kumeu went into recess. "The Henderson Fruitgrowers' Association alone had more than 80 members at one stage, and that's where Lincoln Road in Henderson is now. It's just a city - that's slowly moving out here," says Monte.
The advance has halted a little - but it will pick up again. Both to the north and southward onto some of this country's most productive agricultural land in the Pukekohe area.
Welcome to Auckland traffic, says Monte, as we drive through the city. Over the last five years he and others have noticed a significant rise in traffic volumes and travel times, even around his Huapai home. Auckland's infrastructure is creaking at the seams, he observes. "Our family has lived here for 48 years, and I've talked to other people too who have been here just as long, the consensus is that there is more traffic built up in the last five years in north-west Auckland than in the previous 30 - it's just exploded. " "There's still a lot of glasshouse and strawberry production, but for apples and pears, the infrastructure fell through. We stopped exporting from this area from the late 1990s and early 2000s because of a lack of growers and no one was big enough to invest heavily in a packhouse. "We had one grower on the verge of that in Oratia, Louis Dean from Golden West Orchards. We exported through them for a number of years into the 2000s. Then they reached retirement age, pulled out the orchard and leased the land. Some other growers and I kept on exporting through a Hamilton packhouse, but in the end with the logistics and transport costs, it didn't work." When Monte was a boy, he remembers each shed exporting their own apples. La Ronde used to pack 200 cartons a day. The Neal family has supplied Turners and Growers for 48 years, and that relationship continues today. Monte and Angelene are not crying into their apple crates and bemoaning the siege of the city that will eventually force them out.
Both are practical realists, who have an eye for opportunity - or should that be - a knack for handcrafting their own opportunities. "Our apples are juiced in Te Kauwhata, and I've established connections with a company which runs 15 cafés. They make their own juice in store, and I supply them with fresh fruit," says Monte. "We supply supermarkets, which is good and difficult at the same time because they take volume, but you really are in the lap of the gods whether they decide to take your fruit from week to week. But I've formed a relationship with Farro Fresh, a company that runs five mini gourmet supermarkets around Auckland, and they like to tell the grower's story." "They were surprised apples were still grown in Auckland. I supply Farro with apples and juice, and do in-store tastings so customers can meet the grower in person."
When Monte returned from university, he said to his father, "why don't we just export apples - export them to Auckland." The idea of growing export grade fruit and supplying direct to the Auckland public was expanded, as Brian had already been delivering fruit. With a van full of fruit, Monte and Brian delivered direct to people's homes and workplaces three times a week. Back in the day, it was probably borderline illegal, due to the regulations in place from the former New Zealand Apple and Pear Marketing Board, but it made for an interesting time, he grins. When Angelene moved onto the orchard, she picked up the delivery role and with her background in couriers, took the service to another level. "We've always sold direct to the public. From the early 2000s I did fruit baskets for 10 years. I bought in other fruit and went to corporate businesses in town and supplied fruit for their staff twice a week. I got that idea from Europe, and it went okay until the large wholesalers got wind of it. "When I started there were three of us doing it, but now there are about 15 companies. Eventually I had to make the choice - whether I gave away orcharding or become a wholesaler and set up a fruit delivery business. I couldn't do both, it had to be one or the other. We couldn't fill the baskets with only the apples and plums that we grew. Customers wanted all sorts of fruit - strawberries, cherry tomatoes, kiwifruit, mangoes, and so on." The grower side of his heart won out, and he sold the business to Fruit Runners. Being out on the orchard was more appealing than sitting in city traffic for hours each day. Today, one of the biggest costs faced by business owners is getting their vans around town. A few special customers are the exception: He still delivers to clients the orchard's had for up to 40 years, which includes Greenlane Hospital's childcare centre. Until two years ago Monte had a contract to supply apples to every Z Energy station in Auckland, however that contract was not renewed. That's when Monte contacted Farro Fresh and asked if they wanted an apple grower. "The industry needs to catch up on telling the growers' stories. I've done farmers' markets for 15 years. I enjoy interacting with people but it takes up your weekends and I've scaled that back, however I still supply fruit to a stallholder at the market. That's the biggest explosion around Auckland - the markets." Monte loves hosting his café client's staff for on-orchard walks. These important training and learning experiences happen maybe five times a year. The walks for summer intakes of new staff for the busy Christmas period are seen as especially important. During their orchard walk, Monte takes them through the many fruits the staff will sell to the café's clientele. "Staff physically meet the grower, see where the fruit comes from, and are shown the process of picking. This gives them knowledge and confidence when they're talking to their own customers. It's not just the middle management or the bosses who come out, it's the waiters who are dealing direct with the public." "This is something the industry needs to pick up on - especially around Auckland. People like to hear a story more nowadays. Many growers are doing this, but I'd like to see all supermarket checkout operators visit the orchard - not just the produce managers. Hands-on experience is the best for those who actually deal with the public, and field trips are good for staff morale."
La Ronde Orchard's namesake was a milk bar in Mission Bay. La ronde means 'the round', hence La Ronde Milk Bar loosely means in English, to gather around a place, in this case the local milk bar. "It's an old-fashioned orchard where there's a bit of everything, with income all through the year, including our processed apple juice. We still have a couple of blocks of grapefruit, tangelos, lemons and limes. When I was doing the farmers' markets so many people wanted lemons and limes, so I chucked in 20 trees of each." Walking through the orchard today, the trees are old and have beautiful shapes, and still produce a fairly decent crop. Monte keeps some old varieties going that he especially enjoys, such as Red Dougherty apples. Plantings include twelve types of plums. His pre-Christmas favourites are the yellow-flesh Wilson's Early along with Red Beaut and Billington for over the Christmas period. "Even though we have a lot of avenues to sell our crop, at each corner you're hit with increasing costs: compliance, increasing property rates, insurance, the day-to-day costs, wages, and the ability to get around the city to deliver the fruit, and traffic," he admits.
"The rates bills are unique to our location because of the change in land use. "Economically it's been a struggle for years because we don't have a large enough scale of production to absorb a lot of those costs. When you look around Hawke's Bay and Nelson, there's no real husband and wife orchards left." Ideally, if there was still a large grower with an export packhouse nearby, Monte may consider leasing a crop to work at an hourly rate and not have the stress of wearing as many hats as he does to sell the produce. "It's a shame because there is still a market for locally grown fresh fruit, but you've really got to put in the hours." "When I was younger, I'd get home from school and get straight into work. You knew that every hour you worked yourself, you were making a dollar. Now you sit there and factor in what you pay out, and realise the guys picking the fruit are making more money than I am as a grower. It's swung that way, it's all very well having warm fuzzies about growing nice fruit but it's got to be economic as well. "It's a great way of life, but you've got to make it work. It's not easy - any grower will tell you that."
Monte says, "you've got to accept that you're not going to stop 'progress'. Auckland can only go up or out. If it goes out, it can't go east or west, it has to go north or south because there's a bloody big harbour on both sides. The biggest let down of the Auckland industry in the late 1990s was urban sprawl." "That took out a lot of orchards located around the city fringe, and the infrastructure fell through. The NZ Apple and Pear Board closed their depot in Henderson, so you didn't have that network of growers or volume of supply, it just fell away. So each grower was alone and left to their own devices."
The latest nail in the family orchardists' coffin is Auckland City's new Unitary Plan. In this document, published just over a year ago, large sections of Huapai where the Neals live, were rezoned from rural lifestyle to future urban. "So within 25 years, where we live and our orchard will be 500-700m² sections - so the writing's on the wall," he comments with a matter-of-fact tone. The smell of developers and money is now in the air.
"Basically the day after the Unitary Plan came out we started having people knocking on our door, mainly developers and land agents. We thought, 'hang on, let's do a little of our own homework'. After a while, we decided to list with one agent we could trust, and that took away people turning up anytime of the day, normally on a Sunday afternoon, promising the world with a nice car and a nice tie." Monte says plainly, "at some stage, we're going to be turned into housing, so we'll sell it on our own terms. We've set our price and we'll see what comes along."
The Neals are still keen to be involved in fruitgrowing, either by growing, leasing, or further work with current suppliers. They may have to go in a different direction but their future is still definitely in horticulture.