Family owned orchard top of the crop for productivity

Family owned orchard top of the crop for productivity
All in the family: Nelson’s Mandy, Steve, Amy, Robyn, Sally and Matthew Russ.

A small family-owned apple orchard near Nelson has weathered the ups and downs of an often volatile market over the past 26 years by staying focussed on improvement and through having a determined approach to productivity.
Steve and Robyn Russ established their ninehectare orchard, 6km out of Richmond, on former deer and dairy country in 1992, planting out several popular varieties’ including Cox’s Orange and Braeburn.
The couple chose an orchard business because they felt it would give them the flexibility they needed to take care of their family.
They have four children, one of whom is severely disabled. Steve has a background in engineering and freight, while Robyn grew up on a dairy farm. The idea of pooling their skills in an orchard came via Robyn’s family.
“They’d decided to pursue horticulture and had planted part of their dairy farm in orchard and suggested it could be something we could do as well,” Robyn says.
Their initial lack of orchard experience was more than made up for by a willingness to learn. “I was never afraid to ask the dumb questions,” Steve says.
“There’s really no such thing as a dumb question – just a dumb answer! I always ask myself, is there something else we could try?” The orchard has been proactively restructured over the years with new varieties coming on stream.
For example, some of the country’s first Jazz apples were grown at Russ Orchard.
They have also worked hard to lift output by trying new methods such as double grafting to reduce space between trees. Every part of their operation is constantly scrutinised to find ways to further improve productivity.
“Currently we grow five varieties,” Robyn says. “We have a fairly good mix and very high production. Returns are improving in the industry through better marketing and more niche varieties.”
Their most successful new variety is one that hasn’t yet reached the domestic market. It’s a Gala Braeburn cross called the Kanzi, which produces a bountiful crop of good sized tasty and sweet fruit.
“It suits the European market and it’s not too difficult to grow. We had some trial plantings in 2009 – we’ve got the first trees that came into the country – and we’ve got more blocks coming in now. Kanzi makes up around twenty per cent of our orchard.”
Steve’s engineering expertise has paid dividends for the business too. For example, he built a couple of platforms to work the top of the trees, enabling two crews to work on the ground and another on the platform for pruning, thinning and picking.
Orchard income is also supplemented by cartage services that Steve provides to apple tree nurseries and other smaller growers.
Russ Orchard is part of an MPI monitoring group that tracks how the orchard is performing compared to other growers, providing an objective snapshot of their operation.
Meanwhile, the couple is optimistic about the coming season. “The trees are looking good; there are enough buds and we’ve had rain at just the right time.”
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