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08Nov

One of summer’s greatest delights

One of summer’s greatest delights

Words and images by Annie Studholme

What started out as a stepping stone has developed into a successful horticultural business for Mid Canterbury's Grant and Marilyn Smith of Smithfield Raspberries.

Even after more than 30 years, if there’s one thing that Grant Smith doesn’t get sick of, it’s fresh raspberries. “You just can’t have too many,” he smiles.

But while everyone else is sitting back and enjoying their summer holidays, Grant and the team at Smithfield Berries are in the thick of the busiest two months of the year, ensuring the rest of us get to enjoy one of summer’s greatest delights.

Grant and Marilyn first purchased the 4.5 hectares block of bare land on Ashburton’s northern boundary about 37-years ago. “I was shearing and really wanted to go farming, but land prices were going up as quickly as we were saving. We thought this would be a good stepping stone to buying a farm, but it never happened,” says Grant.

While Grant continued shearing, the pair initially farmed ferrets hoping to cash in on the booming fur trade abroad. Known as fitches in the trade, ferrets were originally introduced to New Zealand in the late 1870s as a biological control of rabbits.

Fur was considered a glamour item, conferring both status and style, throughout much of the 20th century. Inspired by what they saw in the social pages and in the movies, most women aspired to own a fur coat. Although ferret never held the same cachet as other furs such as squirrel, farmed mink, American musquash, Australian red fox, Russian marmot, possum and Belgian and French rabbit, it was sought after in Europe and pelt prices were good.

Grant and Marilyn imported fitches from Finland and Scotland, and at the height bred from around 300 females producing on average more than 2,500 pelts in one season all in specially-designed Scandinavian sheds.

However, with the rise of the anti-fur movement worldwide, discouraging consumers from purchasing fur products, the market collapsed almost overnight. “It was great while it lasted. We used to send our skins to Copenhagen. One year we were getting $90 a skin, but it dropped to just $15 the next, making it completely uneconomic,” says Grant.

Coincidentally, about the same time, Grant and Marilyn planted their first raspberry canes, growing berries on contract for Grant’s brother-in-law, who owned the nearby Tuabridge Berry Farm. They had originally planned to harvest the berries mechanically, but later discovered none of the varieties they had planted were suitable for machine harvesting, so instead everything had to be hand-picked into large 16 kilogram bins and block frozen for the jam market.

Following the closure of Tuabridge in the late 1980s, Grant and Marilyn opted to go it alone, opening up for gate sales during the picking season. Cane by cane, block by block, Grant started switching over to Willamette, an American-bred variety renowned for its prolific crops of tasty, dark red fruit, and other varieties better suited to the fresh market.

Finding markets was left up to the Canterbury Raspberry Marketing Authority, which dealt with everything and ran successfully for many years, explained Grant.

During the apple and pear boom of the 1990s, which saw 1,000s of trees planted, Grant and Marilyn spotted another opportunity, ripping out more than half of the raspberries to replace them with Taylors Gold pears.

Formed on the back of struggling traditional export markets as a single-desk seller for all New Zealand fruit in 1948, the New Zealand Apple and Pear Marketing Board had a statutory monopoly for more than 50 years, but just as Grant and Marilyn were getting into pears, changes started to occur within the industry. First the local markets were opened up and then the NZAPMB was corporatized into ENZA Limited, followed by the complete deregulation of exporting in 2001. With that, the number of exporters dramatically increased from one to almost 100, while the number of pack-houses and growers subsequently declined.

After a couple of good years, times got tough for growers. Trading conditions were harsh while at the same time the industry was suffering from fragmentation at the export end and a lack of marketing understanding, leading to poor returns. ENZA's decision to pull out of Canterbury entirely left Grant and Marilyn jostling for a share of the tough local market.

By 2008 Grant realised they had a better future in growing raspberries, electing to rip out the last of their pears. “We decided we could make more out of the block from raspberries than we could from the pears,” he says.

Today, Grant and Marilyn run a well-oiled, small-scale business, sending fresh premium quality raspberries all over New Zealand, as well as having a loyal local market buying delicious berries, bursting in flavour, straight from the farm gate.

It hasn’t all been plain-sailing though, says Grant. “It's taken a lot of trial and error to get to where we are now. The internet wasn't there when we started, so initially we just followed what they were doing (at Tuabridge), but over the years we developed our own systems to suit our varieties. I've always been interested in what and how others were doing it, learning as we've gone along. We also did plenty of homework around the world, from looking at different types of packaging in Scotland to how they were growing raspberries in Kent (England) and Queensland, making changes where we thought necessary."

Through the years they’ve experimented with many different raspberry varieties, recently sticking with Selwyn and Waiau for their consistently good yields and large, juicy, sweet berries. They also grow blackberries and ranui berries providing local customers with an alternative. Ranui’s are a hybrid cross between auroraberry and marionberry that look similar to a blackberry with a taste comparable to a boysenberry, while their Karaka blackberries taste amazing and are much larger and juicer than the wild variety, explains Marilyn.

Growing raspberries is very seasonal. They require little work in the off-season apart from occasional spraying, regular mowing between rows and pruning, which Grant manages to do largely on his own, but its crazy busy during the picking season, from December until the end of January.

Management of the packing shed, organising pickers and on-farm shop falls back on Marilyn. "She's the people-person," laughs Grant, who does his best to avoid it. “She loves having that face-to-face contact with our customers.”

Once picking’s underway the farm is a hive of activity with 40-50 pickers on site each day, working for a minimum of five hours. Each paid by the kilogram. To begin with their children and children's friends were roped into help, some returning year after year, but now it’s mostly foreigners.

Where they used to sell everything block frozen, where possible, raspberries are now sold fresh. The majority are picked and packaged up in 125 gram punnets ready to be sent through to FreshMax’s Christchurch distribution centre where they are on sold into Foodstuffs stores nationwide. Their berries can be spotted as far away as Auckland and Invercargill, and the demand is growing all the time.

Although it’s tempting to do away with gate sales altogether when market prices are high, Grant says they remain committed to it for the time being. 

“The majority of what we grow goes to the market; only a small percentage is sold at the gate. We could sell it all to the market no trouble, but then we wouldn’t have that face-to-face contact with the customers. Some people get grumpy at Christmas when we put the price up, but in reality, it is still much less than what we are getting for them at the market,” says Marilyn. “It evens out though,” Grant’s quick to add, “As after Christmas we need those customers when the price dips.”

Customers visiting the farm shop are able to buy big 1 kilogram punnets at a price much less than what’s on offer at supermarkets, pick-your-own or get bags of Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) berries which are ideal for use all year round if you are looking to cash in on their super health benefits. “We could do away with the pick-your-own tomorrow but it’s a truly authentic experience. As long as people don’t abuse it, I think we’ll keep doing it,” says Grant.

For most New Zealanders it’s just not Christmas without fresh summer berries, but just how many of the irresistible treats there are to go round essentially comes down to the weather. Even though Mid Canterbury’s temperate climate is well suited to growing berries, the weather is still our biggest challenge, he says.

In the wild, Rubus idaeus (derived from the Latin for red) originated in the forests in the mountains of northern Turkey. They are pretty resilient, but prefer free-draining soils, lots of sun, winter frosts and plenty of water.

“The dry climate here does suit berries, and certainly helps with the sweetness and fungus. They don’t like humidity and the older varieties need winter chilling, although with some of the newer ones winter chilling is not so important. I always like seeing frosts for raspberries. It’s pretty relative as to how they bud, but late frosts and too much rain can cause problems. Colder nights mean they don’t ripen too quickly.”

Access to additional water is critical with Grant and Marilyn relying on irrigation during the warmer months. “They like lots of water but prefer trickle irrigation underneath rather than over the top. Developments in irrigation over the years have helped. All our new blocks are done using equal pressure drip irrigation, meaning it doesn’t matter how long the pipe is, every cane gets the same amount of water which is a big plus.”  

Hail is the biggest issue, In 2008, a hailstorm wiped out their entire crop with the lasting effects on the canes effecting the 2009 season as well. This season Grant trialled a hail net for the first time and is seriously considering netting the whole property in the future.

Aside from the weather, raspberries are also at risk from other pests and diseases, and that’s where Grant’s many years of experience comes in to its own.

Grown on a large scale, raspberries require spraying to keep pests and diseases in check (like the raspberry budmoth which is endemic to New Zealand), but it’s usually done out of season to avoid the berries being contaminated. Insecticides are typically used over flowering and after picking.
“Having the pears was really good because ENZA ran a programme where you had to justify what sprays you were using, which made you learn about the insects and their life cycle. It makes you look very carefully at what chemicals you are using.”

“Like all farming, getting things done at the right time (with raspberries) is important; it’s about knowing what needs to be done and when to do it. It’s like when you are growing something, you can smell things happening before they actually happen…..so usually we are months ahead.”

They’ve had their summers dominated by raspberries for years, but Grant and Marilyn wouldn’t change it. Admittedly it was tough when their children were little as it meant no summer holidays, but now that their children are all grown up and left home, it’s great.

“We love that we are self-employed. It doesn’t have to be full-time. It does have its busy times, but it’s seasonal. It’s really only full on for six weeks of the year leaving us pretty much free in the winter. Now that we are nearing retirement age, it’s great because we’ve got all the systems in place and we can be as involved as much or as little as we want to, employing more people as needed. It’s something that we’re definitely happy to do for a few more years yet,” says Marilyn.

When Grant is not tending to the raspberries, he also runs a small pest control business spraying houses, buildings and silos, as a second income source, which works in well as both businesses are seasonal.

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