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Episode 17: Crunch Time

Brothers Peter and Danny Bennett with their high-tech apple grading machine. Photo by Tony Benny.

Royal Gala apples ripen on the tree at Waipopo Orchard, South Canterbury. Photo by Tony Benny.

Royal Gala apples in the water-bath at Waipopo Orchard, South Canterbury. Photo by Tony Benny.

Originally screened on  5 June at 7pm on TV ONE.

Watch this episode now at TVNZ Ondemand.

Crunch Time

South Canterbury is poised to become an internationally significant apple producing region, according to a dynamic duo who are expanding their orchards near Timaru. 

Brothers Danny and Peter Bennett, who run Waipopo Orchard, say South Canterbury apples take longer to ripen and are often smaller than those from more traditional growing regions like Hawkes Bay and Nelson.

But that's a good thing, they say, because cooler summers make the fruit mature more slowly - which means it's crisper and riper.

The result, the Bennetts say, is that retailers around the world see their fruit as some of the best available anywhere.

Like many of their neighbours, Peter and Danny started out as mixed cropping farmers on the family property, which is just north of Timaru.  But when they were approached by a group of local investors interested in growing apples in 1985, the brothers decided to diversify and planted 28 hectares with 16,000 trees.

Waipopo orchard ticked over for ten years, supplying fruit to the Apple and Pear Board but not making great returns.  In 1996 the Bennetts bought the investors out and decided to go it alone - they didn't want to see the orchard fail.

Their big breakthrough came in 2001, after the Apple and Pear lost its marketing monopoly.  A representative from Sainsburys supermarket chain knocked on the door and invited the Bennetts to become suppliers of Cox's Orange apples during the European off-season.

Sainsburys had identified their apples as some of the sweetest and crispest fruit the Apple and Pear Board supplied - and in the new deregulated environment, the grower and the retailer established a direct relationship between each other.

The Bennett brothers have started another venture - soon they'll supply a new apple variety, Honeycrisp, to the American market.

Developed at the University of Minnesota, Honeycrisp has transformed fruit retailing in the States.  The apple is described as "explosively crisp", sweet and juicy with an almost champagne-like fizz - and it doesn't go brown when cut.  American consumers love it and willingly pay twice as much as for traditional varieties.

Honeycrisp was bred in a region with severe winters and the Bennetts say it doesn't thrive in warmer climates like Nelson or Hawkes Bay.  But it loves cooler South Canterbury, where the brothers are planting thousands of trees.

This year there's been a small first harvest which sold on the local market, but next year they'll start exports to the US, filling the off-season gap there.

The Bennetts are planting more Honeycrisp as well as trialling new varieties for the American market - and they're looking for new growers in South Canterbury to help fill what they believe will be a massive demand. 

More info

- Honeycrisp apples in NZ
- Background about Honeycrisp apples from Science Buzz
- More on Honeycrisp apples from the University of Minnesota