A Conversation about Stone Fruit: Central Otago Stone Fruit Growers
Cromwell, with its hard to miss giant fruit sculpture, is known as New Zealand’s fruit bowl. In order to learn a little more about Central Otago stone fruit growers and their way of life, I decided to talk to two of the key orchardist in the Cromwell area: Simon and Trudi Webb and Kevin Jackson. I discovered that each has a unique story to tell about how they came to be in orchardists; however, they all agree on exactly why Cromwell’s stone fruit is world-class.An ideal climate, modern technology, advances in soil science, more accurate weather prediction and the latest techniques in fruit growing combined to make Cromwell’s stone fruit both visually pleasing, and super tasty. A delicious taste of summer in every bite, Cromwell’s cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums are snapped up by high-end export markets, supermarkets nationwide and visitors who make a point of stopping off at any one of the many roadside stalls over the season.
Founded in 1914, Webb’s Orchard is now home to the fifth generation of fruit growers as Simon and Trudi’s children: Cameron, Brooke and Ariana all take part in the summer harvest. Webb’s is one of the few large orchards in the area that doesn’t grow cherries; instead they focus on producing apricots, peaches, apples, plums and pears. With over 26,000 trees on the 32 hectares of orchard, so they produce a lot of fruit!
We had an animated discussion about Cromwell’s climate and how the cool winters set the buds and long hot summers provide ideal fruit growing conditions. When I asked what was their biggest achievement was, Simon looked philosophical and said “Still being here,” and he wasn’t joking. Most businesses have to survive currency fluctuations and other economic challenges; however, orchardists have the weather gods, the possibility of pest infestations and tree diseases thrown into the equation as an added bonus. Like most fruit growing families, they make the most of the winter months as in summer constant pruning, picking, packing and frost fighting means the opportunities to get away are few and far between.
Kevin Jackson of Jackson’s Orchard story is quintessentially “Cromwell”, as his original orchard is now under Lake Dunstan. Originally set in the Gorge between Cromwell and Alexandra, like the Webb’s, his fruit growing story involves multiple generations. His great, great grandfather was an Anglican Minister who settled in Alexandra. At the start of the gold rush, the ministerial collar was thrown aside and post-gold rush being an orchardist seemed like a good idea.
Once he left his gorge orchard (famous for its award winning apricots) Kevin toyed with the idea of buying the Shotover Jet in Queenstown. When this idea fell through, he and his son Mark and daughter Kirsten investigated buying land in either Alexandra or Cromwell. The Jackson Orchard of today was originally a sheep station. The property was the first settled in the area by William (Barry) Jackson, a successful butcher who became the first Mayor of Cromwell in 1866. Set on a gentle slope, the key benefit of this land is that it is less affected by frosts unlike other orchards found down on the valley floor.
It took seven years to put in irrigation, prepare the soil and grow the first commercially viable crop on the 30-hectare orchard, and twelve years before the first cherries could be sold. Today, like the Webb’s, Kevin is proud of his fruit which is exported overseas and consumed all over New Zealand. The Jackson road side stall also swarms with tourists sampling fresh produce and enjoying real fruit ice creams.
Cromwell really is the epicentre of the Central Otago Stone Fruit world and behind the road side stalls there are sophisticated operations worth exploring. Although, like many things the real story is about the people, that live and work on the land. This was echoed by each of the orchardists, as they said the best thing about growing fruit in Cromwell was meeting people from all over the world who come to work in the summer and enjoy the Central Otago lifestyle. To find out more about Cromwell’s fruit stalls, or to book an orchard tour go to www.cromwell.org.nz.