Peter McBride is best known for his association with the kiwifruit industry, but its avocado trees that surround him at home.
It’s a private love affair that he shares with wife Linda at their orchard in Te Puna, a property that Peter fondly describes as their “oasis”.
It’s a sprawling setting that welcomes the couple and their visitors on arrival – a feature that Peter never tires of seeing.
“I enjoy the trees and their park-like qualities. They’re very different to kiwifruit.”
As productive as they are attractive, the trees are proven performers, collectively earning the Zespri board chairman an award at this year’s Avoco Grower Conference.
The McBride Family Trust was named Team Avocado’s Grower of the Year in recognition of consistent production for two successive seasons.
The award was the first of two presented to Peter this year. At the Horticulture Conference in July he received the Bledisloe Cup, horticulture’s premier award, recognising his outstanding leadership in the kiwifruit industry, which he’s been involved with for 40 years.
“I’ve never received any awards before so to get two in a row was a surprise,” says Peter. “The Grower of the Year is pleasing though. We’ve improved the orchard and learnt a lot.”
The couple bought the property, an established block with 400 mature trees, 15 years ago. Previously based at Paengaroa, Peter and Linda had been searching for an avocado orchard for some time.
The orchard had a history of irregular bearing but that didn’t dissuade the couple who decided to transform it and build a family home.
“When we took over, it had a big crop on it. But we took out half the trees and started re-engineering the place,” says Peter. “We bowled whole rows, taking out about 200 trees and built a house in the middle of the orchard.”
It was Peter’s first experience managing an avocado orchard, but he’s enjoyed overseeing its re-development.
“Avocados, like many other horticultural crops, have their challenges and they’re very different to kiwifruit. But in owning the property for a number of years now, I’ve achieved a much better understanding of the nuances of what works here.”
Irregular bearing remained a problem for the first decade but changes adopted during the last five years have led to significantly healthier trees, boosting production.
“It wasn’t immediately obvious but most of the trees were suffering from sub-clinical phytophthora. This had been masked and misdiagnosed as a lack of nutrients.
“We started injecting all the trees twice-a-year and that really was a critical decision. I had tried different ideas prior to that but they didn’t work.”
Their proactive management approach also extends to pruning. The McBride’s contract Mike Dillon to prune late-autumn and again in November most years.
The strategy is to target a tree height that means fruit can be picked from a 6m hydralada and prune to allow more light into the centre of each tree.
For Peter, it’s all about getting the balance right to enable more efficient harvesting. Aggressive pruning also makes it easier for sprays to penetrate the orchard canopy. As a result, the number of sprays they’ve had to apply each year have reduced.
Although their area isn’t known for early maturity, their fruit is maturing slightly earlier each season and grower larger, in line with overall improvements in tree health. It’s no surprise then that Peter wants to remain disciplined in his orchard management approach and “stick to what works”.
“The formula isn’t rocket science. The focus is on injecting and pruning. If you don’t, there’s a much higher risk of heavy cropping one year and that’s when you get those massive swings in production.”