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Craig and Wendy Dowling: Learning New Skills Along the Way

Spread across two orchards, Craig and Wendy Dowling are the owners of Bayleaf Organics, based in the thriving fruit-growing region of Hawke’s Bay. Both orchards, one based in Meeanee and the other in Haumoana, total 40 hectares, where they grow five different apple varieties that suit their organic practices and the Hawke’s Bay soil and climate.

Craig grew up on a small, family-owned orchard which ignited his passion for fruit growing. He used to watch his dad out in the orchards and admired the fruit that the hard work and dedication produced. “I did grow apples conventionally for a while and then liked the idea of being in a cleaner, greener environment. I decided to give organics a go, and 19 years later, we’re still doing it,” he said.

We visited the pair at their 30-hectare Meanee-based orchard located just a 10-minute drive from Napier, where they grow five different varieties of apples, including Gala, Braeburn, Fuji, Pink Lady and Granny Smith. Their organic practices showcase natural, non-synthetic products that they use to control disease through weather events.

“Black spot is our biggest disease challenge. We use a variety of preventative management practices to control it, including lime sulphur spray prior to rain events. The main pests that we deal with are codling moth and bronze beetle. We monitor weekly, and use mating disruption pheromone ties and bacterial sprays for codling moth. We cultivate under tree if needed and use organic sprays for the seasons when bronze beetles are an issue. We get a lot of our information through New Zealand Apple and Pears for best practice, and our experience obviously comes with that,” Craig said.

“What separates an organic apple from a stock standard conventional apple is that everything we spray is a natural product and there’s nothing systemic around what we do. We’re not spraying a chemical that can come back and control a spore germinating on the leaf; it’s all preventative. So, it’s a lot more weather based and we have to time everything right.”

“We can’t really make mistakes around that, otherwise we get disease and then it’s an uphill battle straightaway with disease pressure. That’s really the main difference between conventional and organics,” Craig continued. Wendy comes from a viticulture background, having studied wine science and viticulture at university. She was working at Craggy Range when she and Craig met, and continued in the wine industry until they had children. With a passion for producing fresh, organic products, Craig and Wendy decided to start their apple orchard business, Bayleaf Organics, where she learnt more about horticulture. The thing that Wendy enjoys most about the industry is the people that she gets to work with, especially the RSE workers with their vibrant, positive personalities.

“It seems to be slowly becoming a younger, cooler industry to be working in with lots of exciting career opportunities for people getting into the industry. It’s mainly the people that I enjoy, but I’m also particularly interested in biodiversity and what we can do better – looking after the soil, looking after our staff and making sure that they’re not exposed to anything harmful. Also, making sure that the finished product is a really beautiful, clean, nutritious product that has been created without any harmful pesticides or chemicals,” she said.

Bayleaf Organics exports 95% of its apples, only supplying a small quantity locally to meet demand. Their ethos is to not create a lot of waste, so they’ve partnered with two businesses that use fruit that is not as marketable – an apple cider vinegar company and a local juice brand who distribute their juices throughout New Zealand. Craig loves the opportunity to form great partnerships with other people in the industry who are also using apples for good. “The thing I like the most, and what I think is most sustainable about what we do, is the way we leave our land pesticide and herbicide free. That’s one of my main sustainable goals, to look after the soil. Hopefully that continues on this land for generations to come and other people can follow suit, whether it be my family, my kids or someone else likeminded,” Craig said.

Craig is the owner and orchardist at Bayleaf Organics where he makes sure that the whole operation is running smoothly. Craig has spent the last five years focusing on the exporting side of the business – having direct relationships with importers and buyers, which has been beneficial within his role. Wendy, on the other hand, is the administrative officer and has been focusing on the local market, pushing for the supply of their organic produce to be found in supermarkets and local organic shops.

The business has five full-time staff and hires around 25 RSE workers between November and June, which includes apple thinning and picking. They pick around 120 apple bins a day and about 5,000 apple bins per year. Craig and Wendy also have a small contracting business where they make sure RSE workers are employed for the whole time they’re in New Zealand by contracting them out to other vineyards and orchards around Hawke’s Bay. “They stay employed from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. That keeps them busy, but it also helps out orchards and vineyards that are in need of labour through those key times,” Wendy said.

Wendy realised the importance of farming an organic apple orchard and wouldn’t look to go conventional. “Personally, I wouldn’t want to live on, or next to, a conventional orchard just because I’m quite aware of the chemicals that go into running a place like that. And in good faith, I couldn’t have our staff working with the chemicals. It just wouldn’t sit well with me. I think the more land that is farmed organically, in Hawke’s Bay, the better really.”

Craig has been involved in the industry since the early days and didn’t really know much about the chemicals that he was using. It wasn’t until he saw dead ground under trees and no soil biology that made him want to move toward organics. Craig did talk about the challenges that you can get with organics, including certain pests such as the bronze beetle, who live in the ground under the trees. They can chew around the apples and do a lot of damage, but Craig and the team find ways of managing the damage and continuing their sustainable business.

“I like a challenge and, in our industry, it can be challenging around weather events. The outcome can be pretty amazing when you can produce a beautiful-looking organic apple that someone can eat. It’s pretty neat that you know it can be done on a larger scale. It’s cool to share that globally as well,” Craig said.

One crucial element for the Dowlings is to be able to promote the industry, and Wendy does this through being an executive committee member of Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers’ Association. “We’re really involved in promoting the industry and trying to foster new, upcoming growers, helping them get into education and exciting new roles. I’m part of the Young Fruit Grower of the Year Competition each year, where we have a whole host of young growers 30 years and younger, come and compete to be the top grower in Hawke’s Bay and go on to be the top grower in New Zealand,” Wendy said.

The competitors do a varied range of exercises to test their skillset, including fencing, tractor driving and demonstrating chemical/pruning knowledge, etc. “You’ve got to be a jack of all trades to perform really well throughout the competition,” she said.

One thing that Wendy mentioned was the action of checking in with their staff, making sure they’re happy and if there was anything that they could assist them with. RSE workers and full-time staff alike, it’s about keeping those conversations open and being approachable, which is fundamental to the well-being of their business.

“If we don’t have happy staff then we can’t do our business, but having staff retention and RSE workers returning to us, I think it shows that we’re doing a fairly good job in that department.”

“I think we are unique in that we’re a small family-owned business and we are organic. We really try to do as much from the start of the process to the end of the process – we grow, we pick, we don’t have our own packhouse, but we do export and try to do as much of the whole process as possible,” Wendy added.

Pastoral care is also paramount to Bayleaf Organics and it’s something that they take pride in. They outsource a bit of their pastoral care to Pick Hawke’s Bay, but within the next five to ten years, they hope to consolidate and get the trees into full production and grow fruit. The business has been in a growing pattern for the last five years and now Craig and Wendy have got to a size that they feel is manageable for them. They will continue to grow with the industry and adapt to the changes as needed.