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.
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“The pigs come in, and they push the smaller trees right over to get at the fruit,” John explains. “Then with plums, for instance, that have low-growing fruit, they’ll stand up against the tree and snap the branches by dragging them down. Last year was one of the worst years for fruit due to weather conditions,” John adds. “All the animals were hungry, so the pigs and possums were right into the fruit.”
As we walk through the apple and pear orchards, clouds of pale, perfumed flowers and developing fruit on the plums indicate that this season promises to be a good year for pip and stone fruit. About 50 varieties of apples, both heritage and modern types, pears, tropical fruit including guava and cherimoyas, many types of stone fruit and citrus mean there’s something ready for picking all year round, and if they’re not at that stage, trees and bushes will be flowering, or setting fruit. “People don’t believe that we grow our own apricots and nectarines,” John says, “but every type of fruit we sell is grown right here.” John’s seen a change in attitude during the last few years as younger people have – for economic reasons, or wanting to be sure of where their food comes from – become more interested in preserving. “Shoppers know they can buy cooking apples from us, for example – they’re not easy to come by at the supermarket.” Nothing goes to waste. Leftover fruit is either made into preserves by Marion, or given to the cattle that the family raise.
“We often buy cattle that are quite wild, but after feeding them apples for about three weeks, they’re ready to sit on your knee,” John says.
A while ago, Nicole ventured into trialling raspberries, and several grape vines and passionfruit have been planted along the fences leading into the apple and pear orchards.
Honey production’s a relatively new development. “We’ve got 500 acres of manuka and kanuka as well as the orchard itself,” John points out, “so it made sense to get into bees. They pollinate the fruit and extract the nectar, so it’s win-win.” Nicole and Tammy are helped by beekeepers Sera Grubb and Bobby Leef of Mana Kai Honey to get the honey to market. When it’s extracted, the honey, once marketed under the name of Whakamuhu Valley where Orira Orchards are based, is now sold under the Orira brand.
The very latest venture is a range of fruit juices. When John’s father had the property, he ventured into dairying and provided fruit for canning and drying at the factory that was then at nearby Ivydale. But now that orcharding is the main activity again, John’s noticed that markets are where people source their fresh local produce, and the family wants to be in a good position to cater to that market.
Nicole and Tammy have jobs away from the orchard, so the day-to-day running of the orchard sits with Marion and John. “There’s not room for a whole heap of people doing what we’re doing,” he says. “We’re in a high-rainfall sheltered valley with a natural water supply that hasn’t run out yet, so we don’t need to irrigate, and the soil needs very little fertilising.”
The property has its own jetty, necessary when coastal trading was the main means of access, but now only used when family members want to go fishing. Daughter Tammy’s a keen fisher, but John doesn’t do much at present. “If Marion fancies fish for lunch I’ll go down and get one or two,” John says, “but I don’t get much time for fishing – maybe when I retire,” he grins.