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Kelvin and Cameron Taylor: Using Technology to Their Advantage

Fourth-generation horticulture business, Taylor Apples, has been going from strength to strength – not only due to the expansion of their land and produce over the years but also by using technology to their advantage. We spoke with father-son duo, Kelvin and Cameron Taylor, as they talked us through their plans to incorporate more robotics within their business.

Based in Hawke’s Bay, this family-run business has been operating for over 100 years. Kelvin started at age 18 when he purchased the neighbour’s dairy farm and converted it into an apple orchard. The property started with his grandfather owning around seven hectares of land. When Kelvin’s father came along, he added a further two hectares to the orchard. In those days, they could make a living off that but Kelvin highlighted that, as time went on, you couldn’t stop there – you had to keep adding on. Today, their property is spread across 450 hectares of land which consists of their Golden Del orchards and packhouse.

Across the whole business they have 300 staff consisting of pickers and packers. In the packhouse, they have 100 staff but with the technology they use to sort apples for defects, this has and will reduce the amount of staff that are required. With New Zealand being a small market, 100 percent of Taylor Apples are exported; packing around 500 tonnes of apples per day and sorting 3,000 to 5,000 apples with the machine per minute.

The reason for their transition to robotics is due to labour shortages, not only within New Zealand but globally as well. “The cost of labour is going up and some varieties of apples will not be sustainable to export. The quicker we can get our staff numbers down, the better we survive,” Kelvin added.

It’s a big operation getting apples to the consumer and labour is a huge risk for their business. Kelvin and Cameron thought it was worth bringing in technology replacements as it’s getting harder to bring staff in from overseas. They used to bring in a large number of staff from the pacific, mentioning how much of a positive effect it can have on the workers when they are able to take their profits back home to their families.

“We were growing a lot but we just sort of stopped,” Cameron said. “There is a lot of uncertainty and you can’t plan anything so we’re just going to wait for a few years. We could sell twice the volume of our fruit – the market is hungry – but we’re restrictive of labour so that’s our biggest thing.”

The Taylor family use Robotic Plus in Tauranga for the placing of the fruit and other companies for stacking their cartons. They are currently using three OTO forklifts in the packhouse as a way for them to become self-reliant and give them more autonomy and stability as a business.

Robotics do tend to be quite expensive so other apple growers nationally and around the world might not be looking into this method for their orchards. Taylor Apples don’t sell to the local market and only pack five months of the year, therefore, the price of robotics isn’t as expensive as if you were to do it all year round.

Investing in technology also gives valuable key staff opportunities of learning new things and shows that the horticulture industry is a lot more exciting than much of the general public have previously believed.

When it comes to growing apples, Kelvin said that it’s more of a hobby than anything, “If you didn’t make it a hobby, you wouldn’t do it.” The family aspect is something that they make sure is evident throughout the business, especially when they are meeting their clients face-to-face. “The relationships are huge. We deal with family-owned businesses overseas and a lot of them refer to us as the Taylor family; that’s how they operate – as one big family. You get more trust and don’t have as many problems. When dealing with corporates, it’s a lot different,” Kelvin said.

When Cameron is not working at Taylor Apples, he is a director on the New Zealand Apples and Pears Board and likes travelling to Taupo to enjoy watersport activities. The majority of the time, Cameron and his father are working hard to implement positive changes for their business. “What we’re achieving here is good. Our yield per hectare is really huge and that's what you see with Goldpine, where in the old days, the tree would support itself. You had a big grunty rootstock that grew a huge tree. Nowadays, it’s a small tree and we're using Goldpine posts as the support but we're getting three to four times the yield,” Cameron said.

Sustainability and energy-saving practices are at the heart of Taylor Apples as they continue to become more innovative and navigate their way around the ever-changing industry. “I'm in the process of partnering up with a CMA shipping company so all our fruit will be shipped to Europe using biofuel. Even though we’re planting over 100,000 apple trees a year, dad and I have even discussed planting native bush,” Cameron said. Kelvin also mentioned that they give their power company authority to turn their machines on and off to save energy. This method also earns them money and it’s a good way to reduce costs overall.

Kelvin and Cameron deal with Aaron from Goldpine Hastings. They spent over $600,000 on posts on one block, giving feedback that the service they received was good and they have never had any problems with the products.

It was seven years ago when they started designing their orchards for automation, and their goal for 2023 is to have robotic tippers and electric tractors with driverless technology. “My grandfather had a team of horses and now we’ll have the robotics in the orchard. There are tractors that self-steer but now we're going to have tractors that completely do a job. You send them out with one person in an office controlling five or six pieces of machinery. It’s exciting times for automation,” Cameron said.