Thirty-seven years ago, Eletheria Jones asked her husband if he could build her a little roadside fruit stall so she could read books in the sun and sell some fruit from the family orchard.
“Well, I haven’t read a book yet,” she laughs. “It was a funny thing. A bus stopped and when they were leaving the driver said Mrs Jones you better get some more fruit, two buses coming tomorrow.”
Today the bustling business is a tourist attraction in its own right with some groups being driven there from Queenstown Airport straight off international flights, then back to the resort to check into hotels, head to Milford Sound and tick off other South-Island-whirlwind-tour highlights.
The stall hums everyday with hundreds of visitors who come to see and to sample the elaborately displayed goodies, and to meet Mrs Jones.
It was the government’s worker recruitment programme of the mid-1960s that bought her to Cromwell from her home in Crete. It was quite the adventure in those days, travelling halfway across the world then finding a job in the Hotel Cromwell, waitressing and housekeeping. Here she met Doug Jones who had set up a crayfish and venison export business in an old rabbit processing factory and was staying at the hotel.
A few years down the track, when ten barren, rabbit-infested acres came up for sale near the entrance to the Kawarau Gorge, the couple bought it with orcharding in mind.
“Everyone said you’ll never grow anything on that, it was so rough and dry, only rabbits and briar bushes. Doug, he was very determined and worked so hard.”
They persevered with their challenging block until trees were established, then bought more land on nearby Ripponvale Road and planted that out.
In the early days of the stall, women from throughout the region would make an outing of their annual fruit buy-up for preserving. Many would swap recipes with Mrs Jones and today some of their children now bring their own children to the stall.
Suncrest Orchard in Ripponvale was added to the Jones’over the years operation and the stall has undergone three major expansions. The couple have two children, Michael and Christina, who are fully involved in the business, as is Michael’s wife Dianne.
The property now covers 70 hectares, Michael says, including 55 hectares of cherries. The balance is planted in nectarines, apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums and in grapes.
The fruit stall carpark would now occupy almost half a rugby field and when that’s getting full, Mrs Jones says, she sometimes sends a few buses down to the Cromwell Heritage Precinct with instructions to come back when there’s more room.
At the peak of the busy summer season the Jones’ can have up to 280 people on the payroll. They provide accommodation for up to 180 and many staff come back year after year.
During summer Doug opens the stall at 7.30am and closes it at 8pm. It’s always been his job and even now in late winter, the apples, pears and multitude of other goodies are still attracting customersfinding buyers until he closes up in the dark at 6.30pm.
“He’s good like that. I was lucky with him. But we are all workaholics, the whole family. It is very hard work and long hours and everyday busy but we enjoy the people and we all get on well together. We are very lucky to live here and because we are a family orchard.”
Mrs Jones says she doesn’t advertise and never has. She believes stone fruit in Central Otago simply tastes better than anywhere else in New Zealand and that is what keeps the people coming.
The other major attraction is, of course, Mrs Jones herself. Some of the longer serving bus drivers and tour leaders call her Mum and she greets everyone like an old friend. Mrs Jones’ smile has appeared on Chinese television, in countless visitor ‘selfies’ and doesn’t seem to falter even after eight hours on the shop floor.
Twelve years ago when a block came up for sale next door, Mrs Jones quickly claimed it before her husband and son could line it up for more fruit trees. She finally had a chance to realise her dream of creating a formal English garden. Doug planted the roses -all 1500 of them- set amongst classical statues, neatly clipped buxus hedging and formal walkways.
The garden and her three grandchildren aged 15, 13 and 9, are great sources of joy for Mrs Jones. She travels to Crete every second year to visit family and the couple enjoy cruise ship holidays as a way to unwind from the frenetic pace of summer. Sadly the migrant crisis in Europe has prompted them to postpone travelling to Crete this year.
That human tragedy is a reminder of how lucky people are to live in Central Otago, Mrs Jones says, and of the importance of tolerance, being kind and of making our visitors feel welcome.
Catching up with Comedian Peter Rowley: Morning Host on Central Otago Radio
It’s an odd feeling knowing that you are about to interview the new presenter on Central Otago Radio who was also the voice behind ‘Dog’ from Footrot Flats. It becomes even more daunting, knowing that he is also a comic genius. He has worked with New Zealand comedy icons like Billy T James, McPhail & Gadsby, and Pio; in fact, he really is a comedy icon in his own right!
It’s not surprising that Peter (Harrison) Rowley is an engaging conversationalist. What is unexpected is just how candid he is about his life story and aspirations for Central Otago Radio and Central Otago in general. It’s because of this sense of authenticity that this was perhaps the most enjoyable interview with a “famous” person that I’ve ever done.
The first thing to clear up is the name ‘Peter’ as he was christened Harrison; Peter came from his childhood nickname “Peterkin”. He is absolutely unashamed about being a slightly “odd wee thing” when young and he remembers being told by most of the family to “stop showing off”. The exception here being his grandmother who lived on a farm in Hawea Flat and would ask him to “stand on a chair dear and do that thing you do,” whenever her friends came to visit.
Peter’s father flew in the South Pacific and after doing an agricultural cadetship at Lincoln started a business as an aerial photographer and crop dresser. This explains the root cause behind Peter’s love of aviation and his pursuit of his own personal pilot’s licence. His mother was a nurse at Cromwell Hospital and he was supposed to have been born in Cromwell; however, due to complications his official arrival happened in Timaru.
Peter also acquired a spirit of entrepreneurialism from his parents. His dad would fly over farms taking photo’s and drop a leaflet saying “If you want photographs of your property for your farm management plan please contact….” His mum would then do a ‘colour touch up job’ on a low flying photograph of the farmhouse and these also seemed to sell every time.
Sadly, the effects of flying under stressful conditions in World War II meant that Pete’s dad was not an easy man to live with and his parent’s marriage dissolved while he was still young. Pete’s upbringing was focused around Central Otago with time also spent on Haldon Station in the Canterbury High Country and his formal schooling completed at Christ’s College in Christchurch.
His earliest memory of Cromwell was doing road trips with his grandmother to visit the ‘big’ department store that had an ‘Air Vac’ system running around the building. The shop assistant would put the purchase order and money in a special tube and it would be sucked up a tube only to return with a receipt and exact change. To a young boy, it seemed like mechanical magic!
After years of well-documented comedy success and living in Australia Peter has returned to Central Otago because “it’s my home and I love it.” He’s now the weekday morning host on Central Otago Radio based in Alexandra and is heavily focused on ‘bringing in the Cromwell side of the story.” He’s inspired by the growth in viticulture and tourism.
When I asked him what were the biggest change that he had noticed coming back to New Zealand and he gave a no holds barred answer. “The centralisation of all things media to Auckland, Queenstown has just lost a major radio station, and we had to close our office in Cromwell. What we’ve got here is really special. Community radio is an endangered species and like so many other facets of business, we need to support our local people.’
Pete’s astute view of the world, comedic sense of timing and ability to get people relaxed and talking, blasts through loud and clear across on Central Otago Radio. If you want to hear interviews with local people, more about what is going on in the world (Central Otago and beyond), and enjoy an updated song playlist tune into 91.9 FM. Or you can stream the programme live or download the app to hear his broadcast live every day at www.localradiocentral.nz.
Going a bit nutty in Cromwell: Otto and his Central Otago Walnuts
Would you start a business if you knew it could take fifteen years to sell your first product and even longer before you could cover your annual expenses? On paper, the answer inevitably is no. However, when you meet Otto Muller, you begin to understand that his Central Otago walnut orchard was founded on innovative engineering spirit and a lifelong dream to live on a farm not the numbers in a ledger.
The journey to producing a commercially viable crop has had all the drama of a soap opera crossed with a game of snakes and ladders. The Muller’s planted their first trees on their 80-hectare block on Pearson Road, near Bannockburn in 1986, however, Otto's journey to owning an orchard started decades before that.
The Muller’s chose walnuts because of the flexible crop management requirements, the wood from mature trees is highly prized and the nuts are high in nutritional value. Otto has a background in mechanical engineering and thermodynamics. He grew up in Switzerland not far from Zurich, and studied agriculture and engineering. His innovative approach to food processing and manufacturing was realised early when he proved himself to be a bit of a “Willy Wonka” when it came to creating magical machines that achieved seemingly impossible engineering feats. He can remember turning worthless “misty wine” into high-quality vinegar through a refrigeration and evaporation process.
Between Switzerland and arriving in New Zealand, he and his first wife had a ten-year detour to India, where he was part of a multinational senior management team. He put his fluency in six languages to good use managing a multicultural workforce and oversaw operations ranging from coffee, cotton and vitamin production through to industrial steel foundries.
Happenstance saw a close friend of Otto’s move to New Zealand in the early 1980’s and send him a copy of the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture and Auckland Weekly. The thought of realising his childhood dream of living on a farm outweighed the perks and pay packet associated with his expatriate Indian lifestyle and the family soon moved to New Zealand.
He spent time working as an engineering consultant and engineering sales rep to determine the best farming location and whilst demonstrating frost fighting with water at Webb’s orchard found and purchased the land in Cromwell. He established a pig farm - many of Cromwell’s fruit growers first met Otto when he came to source wind-blown fruit to feed his pigs. He recalls taking his bacon to market and having the abattoir complain the pigs were inebriated - he had accidently fed them fermented apricots that had been stored in wine barrels! The farm was leased when he later moved to Dunedin for the children's education and his wife's health needs.
Otto’s regional claim to fame is that he was an integral part of the team that designed the heating and ventilation system in the Dunedin Hospital and he had a lot to do with a number of large-scale irrigation projects throughout Otago and Canterbury.
After 7 years he shifted back to Cromwell to start the orchard. Otto knew that Cromwell’s climate was ideal for growing walnuts and there was the Kawarau River and an underground channel providing a bountiful water source. They originally planted a research orchard of 250 trees that had been sourced from North America and Europe. However, in 1992, the wheel of fortune turned and they went “down the snake” as their trees and machinery shed were destroyed by fire. They were able to salvage some scion wood from their original trees and began the painfully slow process of replanting their orchard.
The growing of walnut trees is really only half the story. Over the years, Otto put his innovative spirit into engineering new machines to optimise walnut harvesting. Traditionally it has taken three machines to shake the trees, sweep and harvest the walnuts. Otto’s machine puts out “wings” that look like an inverted umbrella under a walnut tree and then vibrates the tree to release the nuts. The walnuts are the funnelled into collection bins. The machine was especially invaluable when Otto broke nearly all the small bones in one of his hands out the back of his workshop and Valda had to bring in an entire harvest on her own!
Otto also gets a little like a twinkly-eyed walnut Santa Clause when he talks about his shelling machine. Otto travelled to France to discover that the best machines could only process 9kg of nuts per hour. Otto decided that this was “absolutely not good enough,” and created a machine that could not only process 300 kg’s of walnuts an hour, it could also work wonders with almonds, and pecans.
Today there are over 1,300 trees and they are still planting. Otto reckons this is quite an achievement for someone in their 90’s. This just goes to show that for Otto it is all about the lifestyle and their walnut orchard patience leaves the cheese makers in the dust when it comes to “good things take time!” If you would like to sample some of the Muller’s Central Otago walnuts you can purchase them at Dunedin’s weekly farmers market or order online at Nznut1@xtra.co.nz.