New Zealand is a well known producer of apples and pears — and they're using technology to keep up with demand. Source: Shutterstock

New Zealand is a well known producer of apples and pears — and they’re using technology to keep up with demand. Source: Shutterstock

How technology supports New Zealand’s apples and pears industry

NEW ZEALAND is one of the 33 major apple growing countries in the world, and for the past four years, it has been a leading force in the market in terms of output and innovations, despite deterioriating weather conditions.

US-based World Apple Review last year named New Zealand as a leading innovator in the industry for the fourth year in a row.

Alan Pollard, CEO of New Zealand Apples & Pears (NZAP) is a prominent name in the industry and a strong voice when it comes to representing the industry in international forums.

According to NZAP’s estimates released earlier this year, the country is expecting a modest increase in the gross crop for 2019 with produce expected to reach 604,500 tons.

This is 2.5 percent growth from previous year’s produce — and is a result of the producers in the country exploring new and innovative technology solutions.

In an interview with Tech Wire Asia, Pollard helped understand New Zealand’s view on technology in the apples and pears industry.

“Our industry funds an extensive R & D programme each year, along with R & D being commissioned by individual members.

“This includes such things as robotics and automation both on-orchard and post-harvest; production technologies around tree structure, crop protection and environmental tools; technology around pest and disease proactive risk identification, resistance and management; and new varietal development.”

One of NZAP’s members, Longview Packhouse in Hawkes Bay, is a great example of a company using technology to improve quality, output, and efficiency.

The company has brought in many technology solutions — including a Compac blemish sorter, a palletizing robot, and an automatic strapping machine.

“It’s really changed our business. Dad and myself in my younger days were having to check what our 30 human sorters were letting past and packing, and what they were throwing out,” said Packhouse Manager Michael Caccioppoli who took over the business after his father.

“It’s not easy work; they had to make a snapshot decision on each piece of fruit because every piece is subtly different.”

The sorter scans up to 60 apples a second, taking 40 photos of every piece of fruit, and sorting them based on their colour, size, shape, and any defects.

The packhouse uses the automatic strapping machine to put corner boards onto the pallet before strapping each pallet eight times – twice as many straps as was possible with manpower.

Of course, Longview Packhouse isn’t the only one using technology innovatively.

“If we are to maintain our position as the number one apple industry in the world, we will need to continue to develop and embrace emerging and new technologies,” explained Pollard.

“These will continue to focus on the areas identified above. Deployment globally of new varieties developed via our industry owned breeding programme will continue to provide international competitive advantage to NZ growers.”

However, Pollard is also mindful that technology isn’t as easily applied to agriculture as we’d like to think.

The NZAP CEO said that understanding the social impact of new technologies, accessing people for the industry with the right skills, and capital constraints are among the top challenges for the country’s burgeoning industry.

Using technology has allowed Longview Packhouse to grow its business. Its machine produce perfectly square pallets that can be easily stacked into a shipping container for transport to Asia, North America, or the UK or Europe.

“Demands from our customers are getting higher, which is fine because we’re asking for more money as we’re producing a more premium product.

“That means we have to deliver a more consistent product and the technology we use definitely gives us that,” explained Caccioppoli.

For peers in the industry, Longview Packhouse is a great example of what can be achieved when technology is leveraged to transform a business.

What they’ve achieved is interesting, but each apple and pear farmer must remember that they have unique needs and explore how different applications of technology can support them best before making an investment.