Meet New Zealand’s Avocado Growers

new zealand avocado growers

Sharing the love – Jason McLarnon
Houhora, Northland

Jason McLarnon grew up on an avocado orchard in the Bay of Plenty but hadn’t counted on following in his father’s footsteps. Now he and his family own Alligator Pear orchard in the Far North with Mum and Dad just next door. MiNDFOOD visits to talk about the lure of avocados and idyllic lifestyle of the north.

Houhora, Northland: it’s a beautiful afternoon, the sun is out and the avocado trees are soaking it up, the fruit growing plumper by the day. Ian McLarnon’s out on the tractor, tidying up a wee bit having just finished building a shed. MiNDFOOD comments on what a good-looking shed it is and Ian takes the compliment by joking with his son, Jason, that “I’m from the generation that built everything ourselves.”

Jason takes it on the chin, after all he knows that when it comes to avocado growing, he and his dad are on the same page. The pair own adjacent orchards, having moved north from the Bay of Plenty around 16 years ago. And while they keep everything separate in terms of workload, they do share equipment and knowledge. More specifically, “Basically Dad buys more gear than me and I use his gear,” laughs Jason. But it’s tit for tat because “he picks my brains,” he adds.

new zealand avocado growers

A Growing Trend – Leonie Batt & Sue Culham
Ngunguru Rd, near Whangarei

There’s a rising movement in the avocado business – females are cottoning on to the incredible opportunities across the industry. But it’s not just in the orchard that women are reigning supreme – MiNDFOOD talks to a range of experts from different areas.

There’s a moment Jen Scoular distinctly remembers in her four years as chief executive officer of NZ Avocado – at a Katikati road show, after about a year of being in the job, she suddenly noticed the women in the audience numbered about half.

“Whereas at my first couple of road shows there were 10 or 20 per cent females,” she says, adding that a couple of women have since come up to her and remarked how nice it is to have a woman leading the industry. “Perhaps they feel more comfortable, it used to be quite a male-dominated space,” she explains. “But in actual fact, women are often at least half of the people managing the orchard. And it is still the ladies who show the greatest interest in the amazing nutritional attributes and versatility of the fruit they nurture in their orchards.”

From Scoular’s in-depth knowledge of absolutely everything avocado – from orchard to export – it’s hard to believe she’s come from a background of merchant banking in London and a four-year post as consul general in Germany (where she was one of nine females out of 109 diplomats). These days, she’s more interested in the fact a female orchardist has told her where she can buy a battery-operated chainsaw, which makes it a lot more light weight to operate. “I want one!” she says. “Although it’ll be a few years before I need it – my avocado trees are only little.”

new zealand avocado growers

Fruits of their labour – Maria and Andrew Watchorn

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.

new zealand avocado growers

Heart of the North – Tony Snushall
Honey Tree Farms, Northland

As the New Zealand avocado industry continues to flourish, businessman and avocado enthusiast Tony Snushall is bringing a passion and a strategy to grow his part of the industry even further, all while creating a sustainable working environment for the Far North community.

Make no mistake about it, Tony Snushall is a businessman. Forget about stuffy shirts and ties, though – this guy would much rather be up a Hydralada in gumboots pulling luscious green fruit off his trees and driving trucks laden with avocados around his orchards. But while he would love to be able to justify spending most of his time doing just that, he does recognise his skill set is better employed developing the business rather than working in it.

Because Snushall is a man with a plan. Namely, to be the largest avocado grower in New Zealand. He’s not alone in this endeavour – the other investors in his avocado venture are just as excited about the potential of this burgeoning industry.

Together, Honey Tree Farms, as it’s called, has bought 230 hectares of land, of which only about 30 hectares is currently producing fruit. “So we have a heck of a lot of land to develop,” says Snushall. He’s the right man for the task.