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Kaiaponi Farms: Grow, Pick, Pack

Kaiaponi Farms has a long history of cropping, dating back to 1907. Originally purchased by Cedric Witters, the land has been used for growing many varieties of fruit and vegetables over time, including avocados, pears, tomatoes, squash, apricots, beans and grapes. Instilling the same family values since the beginning, Kaiaponi has expanded to become a leading grower of apples, feijoas and kiwifruit, with an involvement in citrus fruits for their suppliers.

Grow, Pick, Pack is the slogan of Gisborne-based orchard Kaiaponi. The play-on words indicate that they are growers at heart, picking not only high-quality, nutritious fruit but also picking the right staff, commercial partners and relationships, along with having the resources and ability to pack their own, and other growers’, fruit on site.

Kaiaponi is a privately owned, grassroots business that is adapting to the times, supplying consistent quality fruit to both the domestic and export markets. The Witters family are still a key shareholder of Kaiaponi, and they pride themselves on having a family ethos throughout the growth of the business, alongside the evolution of innovation, community support and sustainable growth.

Scott Wilson is the general manager of Kaiaponi and has been with them for the last 23 years, through substantial milestones, making sure their managers, workers and clients are supported, and working with them to ensure the best results for everyone. The grower-led business was formed in 1985, and today they have 90 hectares dedicated to apples, 38 hectares of gold kiwifruit, and around eight hectares of feijoas, as well as providing management services and lease arrangements for citrus.

“We still manage to maintain a small, family-run business style of operation. All the shareholders are growers or farmers, so they understand growing and are in it for the long-term benefit of the business. That has enabled us to continue to invest in both orcharding and post-harvest services to meet both our own, and other growers’, needs,” Scott said.

“We’re just passionate, enthusiastic growers, and our staff and managers are the same. I’ve got a personal ethos where we like to treat every fruit as a big deal. A piece of fruit becomes a commodity for your staff and the organisation as you get bigger. However, it’s more about understanding that it takes us a whole year to produce fruit, so we need to make sure we treat it as a big deal and capture its value for our growers, the business and our customers,” he added.

The business has been investing in their post-harvest facilities on site, which features a modern packhouse, two pack lines and multiple cool stores. It was originally built to service their own crops and get them ready for market. However, in recent years, they have also been providing packing services for other companies, including a range for growers of apples and citrus fruit. As the fruit volumes have grown, they have continued to build additional cool stores, with the most recent being completed for the 2023 season

Employing a large number of local people on a full-time basis means that the packhouse is open for 52 weeks of the year, packing for Kaiaponi fruit and their apple and citrus suppliers. They have 35 full-time employees in the packhouse, 25 full-timers in the orchard, and five staff working in the senior administration team. Over the seasonal peaks, they will employ more staff on a casual basis; these include backpackers and RSE workers. “Having core staff on a regular basis has enabled us to have well-trained, knowledgeable staff, so that really helps the foundation of the business,” Scott highlighted.

In peak harvest, Kaiaponi packhouse receives picks 1,200 to 1,500 bins of apples daily, each weighing 420kg, which equates to around 600 tonnes per day. They grow three varieties of apples: Royal Gala, DazzleTM and EnvyTM, with 30 hectares dedicated to each variety. “Dazzle has proven to be an apple that grows well in our environment and is performing well in the market,” Scott said.

“We are a significant fruit supplier for the domestic market, under the Kfruit brand. Our fruit is supplied in returnable, reusable plastic crates, so all the packaging is in a continual cycle. We’re not purchasing one-use packaging for that part of the business. We manage our water like gold, utilising water resources with diligence and care.”

The last 18 months have been tough for growing apples in the Tairāwhiti Gisborne region. The rainfall has been challenging for fruit growers, as it increases the risk of pest and diseases, along with operational challenges. However, Kaiaponi considers itself lucky in the grand scheme of things.

“Horticulture is sustainability 101, isn’t it really? We’ve got the sun as our energy source, we’ve got land, and we’ve got water, which produces food, so we’re in the right business of sustainability. Our cool stores are run on glycol and propylene, so they don’t use any of the old CFC refrigerants. They are natural refrigerants; propylene is a natural gas, so it’s got a very low impact in terms of all those nasties that refrigerants can have if they leak into the atmosphere. It comes at a cost, but it’s the right thing to be doing. Kaiaponi is also considering the installation of solar panels on our large post-harvest roof area to further reduce our future energy needs.”

Kaiaponi are the key sponsors of the Waikanae Surf Lifesaving Club and have been for the past five years. “I love that the club does a whole lot of things, from the community service side of lifeguard activities to training kids in terms of water safety and confidence, right up to the elite athletes. It’s got all the things that fit well with our company’s ethics and background, which is about growing something that’s healthy and natural.”

They are committed to community outreach and donate fruit to local schools, whether it’s a gala or a trip, along with any additional fundraising activities for schoolchildren. The business is continually looking for opportunities to grow, seeking to enhance what they’ve already successfully implemented. They are wanting to focus more on their post-harvest business, adding further automation services to address higher efficiency moving forward. Since removing uneconomical crops from their property, Kaiaponi has space to utilise another crop or growing system that would work well within the region – kiwifruit and apples are the main two contenders. We’re looking forward to seeing their progress and the good work that Kaiaponi will continue to do within the fruit growing, packhouse and community spaces.