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A Winning Formula

Franz and Sandy Imlig have taken best practice orcharding to the next level. Now their innovation and environmental passion has been recognised with three wins in the Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

The couple took home the WaterForce Integrated Management Award, Predator Free NZ Trust Predator Free Farm Award and the Hill Laboratories Agri-Science Award. The hard-working pair are motivated by a love of the environment and an awareness to not rely on a one size fits all approach.

Twenty years of input has resulted in a consistently producing avocado orchard, which combines profitability with environmental sustainability. Sandy was a self-confessed townie when she met Franz. He was the polar opposite, raised on his parents’ farm at Galatea with his Swiss father farming to a philosophy of sustainability and low environmental impact.

Franz says back then his father’s alternative practices made him seem eccentric, when in fact his thinking was before his time. The couple met when 16 year old Sandy stayed with relatives in Galatea and Franz was her cousin’s friend.

They married at the age of 19 and later started their own electrical business in Galatea, utilising Franz’s electrical trade. Later they developed the mechanical and electrical engineering side of the business, focussing on irrigation and pumping. Looking to keep their options open, in 1996 they bought a 14ha block in Lower Kaimai, near Tauranga.

They planned to keep the land as an investment to sell later on but instead fell in love with the property and its challenges. The bare land had around 60 avocado trees planted around the fringe areas. Franz says at that time the avocado was the “poor cousin” to kiwifruit.

“We did our homework and while the block was marginal for avocado growing, it could be done, and I thought there was potential,” he says. They started planting avocados in 1998, about 200 each year. Today Springfield Orchard has 4.5ha of avocados, with 480 mature trees and 200 young trees planted 2 years ago. The family of four, with young children Michelle and Simon, would drive 2 hours each way every second weekend to work on their block and live in a caravan.

Sandy says their kids worked as well. “They were aged four and six when we bought the block – and they would help with battens and wind-cloth and fertilise by hand. We paid a small amount into their bank accounts,” she says. “They didn’t like it much at the time but when they turned 18, we gave them their accounts and it was life changing for them.”

That was the pattern for 15 years until the “umbilical cord cutting” in 2011 when they sold their electrical business and made the permanent move to Springfield (named as a tribute to Franz’s father’s farm in Galatea) Living on-site meant the couple had more time to focus on the operation and become more environmentally-conscious.

At nearly 500ft above sea level, the altitude means they do not produce as much fruit as lower orchards nearby, although they do produce consistent high yielding crops. “We have our regime of doing things, which can be quite different to what others do,” Franz says.

It is that point of difference that saw the couple take out three categories in their region’s Ballance Farm Environment Awards, which recognise and celebrate good farm practices that promote sustainable land management.

The WaterForce Integrated Management Award recognised Franz’s strong interest and ability in electrical engineering, which he used to develop a smart irrigation system ensuring optimal use of water and electricity.

The Imligs have an unconsented bore which, under their Regional Council’s rules, means they are permitted to take and use up to 35m3 of groundwater within 24 hours. They have five 30,000L tanks on-site. Franz has wired the bore so if the maximum usage is hit, the bore will stop and the submersible pump will not turn on again for another 24 hours.

For irrigation, they use tensiometers to measure ground dryness and how hard the tree is working to pull moisture. The property is divided into five zones, each block with its own tensiometers.

“There is no one size fits all, it is dependent on the size and age of the trees. There are lots of different requirements and we are always keen to read what each tree is asking for rather than taking a blanket approach,” Franz says.

As well as saving water, the process reduces electrical costs by not pumping unnecessary water around the property. Franz has installed a variable speed controller on the irrigation system, so if the system does not need the full power to draw the water, it does not use it.

The Predator Free NZ Trust Predator Free Farm Award was in recognition of Sandy’s outstanding passion for insect life, which has seen her enhance a habitat for beneficial insects and native birds, while minimising the effects of browsing animal pests. Sandy says they use soft sprays wherever possible, even though they are more expensive.

They are a bee stud for an apiarist and have wild bees, so spray at night when the bees are in their hives. We only spray specific sprays, so we don’t kill beneficial insects, and we shoot possums and rabbits,” Sandy explains.

The Imligs love birdlife, have their own aviary and enjoy planting trees to attract birds. This has prompted their passion for restoring a Bay of Plenty Regional Council-listed reserve on the property with native fauna and plants that are less attractive to pests such as pigs, possum and deer.

Sandy jokes that her children call her the “bug lady” due to the pest monitoring work she carries out for New Zealand Avocado, from photos of pests to collecting insects and her input on the avocado growers’ first detector site. The Hill Laboratories Agri-Science Award recognises the attention to detail of managing avocado trees in a marginal climate and the opportunities taken to enhance production and profitability.

Franz says the altitude brings a lot of rain, resulting in the using a minimum amount of hard fertilisers. Spreading by hand allows them to give more to trees that need it. “We have installed a fertigation system, putting foliar nutrients in our irrigation, which means we can do small amounts (and often) for tree uptake,” he says.

For 3 years they have been using reconstituted gypsum – old processed house wallboards – which they say is a great alternative for a waste product. The couple are innovative by nature but have also been prepared to take risks and chances. They have been part of a number of trials – both to improve their own orchard practices and find ways forward for their industry.

“We haven’t yet had a bad result – and in fact, some of those risks have resulted in significant benefits,” Franz says. Trials have included soil microbiology, planting methods, new rootstocks and using a different product to lessen the use of copper on orchards and the successful trial of the plant growth regulator, Sunny. The Imligs are currently involved in a Farmlands trial using the adjuvant Wetcit and trialling how much water is needed for chemical application. Pesticide spraying of avocados traditionally involves high water volumes to ensure adequate coverage over large trees. Franz says their usual water rate for spraying was

2,000-2,500L/ha and they are now using 1,500L/ha, which provides good coverage using ess water and is very effective against pests.

The trial involves a cold-pressed orange oil extract blended with biodegradable wetting agents, which have lipophilic properties that stick to the impenetrable waxy surface of the avocado leaf. “It’s actually working better than our standard way of spraying, so we’re conserving water and getting better efficacy. We used to spray five tanks, now we spray three and a half tanks,” Franz explains.

The couple has great relationships with their Farmlands Technical Advisors and were thrilled when one of them, Alex Ashe, won the Bay of Plenty Young Fruit Grower of the Year award in February. Franz and Sandy say they have thoroughly enjoyed their involvement with the Ballance Environment Awards. They entered after they had been invited as one of three growers to become accredited to send fruit to China and were working with industry specialists and going through an intensive auditing process to ensure their procedures and processes were fit for market. “One of the team suggested we should enter the Ballance Environment Awards and that is how it started,” Franz says.

The progressive couple has added to what they affectionately call “Imligville”, buying a 2.5ha kiwifruit orchard a few hundred metres up the road.

The property was organic but they converted it to a conventional practice and have gold kiwifruit and avocados. They also bought a 1ha block across the road, which has a mixture of 90 mature avocado trees.

Franz says ensuring their operations become more sustainable hasn’t been very difficult. “It just takes a little bit of thought and ideas and putting them into practice and monitoring the outcomes to see what the effect is over time. And it’s not just about orchard production – it’s about everything we can do sustainably while still making a profit,” he says.

“Most of what we do is normal practice, it just comes naturally. We love the environment and we like that we can work together as a team and our skill sets complement each other. It can be hard work but it is not a chore because the end result is worth it.”