Seventy-year-old John Wooster seems surprised that people ask him about his retirement plans. “I don’t intend to retire – why would I retire?” he asks. “I love what I do, and I love meeting people.” Orira Orchards, near Umawera on the upper reaches of the Hokianga Harbour was founded by John’s grandfather, also named John, who was formerly a prune grower in Washington State. Having seen an advertisement in the Washington Evening Post, he and his in-laws decided they’d emigrate from America. They bought the land sight unseen in 1902 and quickly became known as ‘the mad Americans’ when, unlike the rest of the local community whose main source of income was dairying, the family began a market-gardening business. At that time there was no road north, and the harbour was a hive of activity, with Umawera itself having a grocery, butchery, post office and school. The Woosters ordered their trees by mail-order catalogue from American firm Sears Roebuck, and were the first to plant Golden Delicious apples in New Zealand. Using a launch and a whaleboat, they sold produce in four-gallon tins at the local settlements of Rawene and Kohukohu, and the surplus, packed in wooden crates, was sent by steamer to the Onehunga markets.
Generations later, Orira Orchards is still in the family. John, wife Marion, and daughters Nicole and Tammy own and operate the business, growing and supplying a vast variety of fruit to local farmers’ markets in Kaitaia, Kerikeri and Paihia. Right now (October), it’s mainly citrus, from lemons to red-fleshed blood oranges, the last of the apple varieties, and pale blue eggs from several beetle-eating ducks, members of the pest-control team.
Red heeler Honey and blue heeler Missy, enthusiastic routers of possums and hares, are also on the team, and John himself hasn’t done too badly, having this year, helped by a local farmer, already seen 47 wild pigs into oblivion. That wild pigs are present in abundance was clear from the number of pig skins we saw hanging from a fence further down the road, their presence attributed to the proximity of the Omahuta State Forest and the relative isolation of this part of the Hokianga.