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Rob and Catherine Nichol on their orchard in Hawke’s Bay.

NZ forecasting technology helps Hawke’s Bay orchardist get back on track

Hawke’s Bay orchardist Rob Nichol is among a burgeoning number of growers putting their faith in a New Zealand-made technology platform to help manage weather, pest and disease risks on their land.

Rob and his wife Catherine have grown nectarines, peaches and apricots on their 12-hectare HR Horticulture orchard at Bay View for more than 20 years and his family has a history of horticulture in Hawke’s Bay that dates to the late 1800s.

While he says little could have prevented the damage caused by Cyclone Gabrielle last year, tech tools like the Summerfruit New Zealand Weather & Disease Portal – developed by agritech company HortPlus – can help with forward planning.

“I get daily emails with information I can use to reduce brown rot risk and I can compare the weather and risk data from nearby weather stations with the data from a Harvest weather station I have on my own property.”

Rob also uses another HortPlus desktop solution called SprayLog to record each spray application, making it easier to maintain NZGAP certification and compliance with New Zealand domestic produce regulatory standards.

Flooding caused by Cyclone Gabrielle caused the HR Horticulture Orchard Rob and Catherine run to lose around a quarter of its trees, but Rob says they count themselves among the lucky ones. Unlike many nearby orchards – particularly those in nearby Esk Valley – their orchard didn’t get inundated with debris or silt.

“It’s been a bit of a battle but we’re still here. A lot of people lost everything.”

Rob says weather patterns have changed significantly over the last two or three years and the wet weather has been a challenge.

“Trying to get consistent weather has been pretty hard and we’ve had real low yields in the past two years … trying to get your head round what’s going on weather-wise and predict what the weather’s going to do is a big part of the business now.

“The Summerfruit portal and SprayLog tool are essential – we couldn’t operate without them.”

The Summerfruit Weather & Disease Portal includes weather forecasts and models for common diseases that affect summerfruit – brown rot, leaf rust, leaf curl and Botrytis.

Rob says one of the most valuable tools in its arsenal is the ‘winter chill units’ forecast and trend data, which he uses to aid decisions on what fruit and varieties to plant, and when to apply dormancy breaking agents or other measures.

“It’s good to consider the data from the portal and compare previous seasons and pick up on patterns.

“If you apply dormancy breakers too early you can severely affect the breaking of dormancy and actually reduce the productivity of the crop. If you wait too late the same thing happens.”

The portal’s disease models make it easier for growers to make informed decisions about the best time to apply sprays or take other control measures.

“During blossom time there’s numerous times you can forecast ahead and know when the small weather window is to get sprays on – it’s definitely better to apply before it’s too late.”

The record of past spray applications recorded in SprayLog helps Rob control residue levels and comply with regulations and standards.

“Technology is huge because of compliance requirements, and more and more we need to tick boxes and say we’ve done this and done that. It’s stuff we’ve always been doing, but now it needs to be recorded.”

Rob doesn’t mind working hard to produce some of New Zealand’s finest stone fruit and gets a lot of satisfaction from seeing his crop sold at supermarkets for Kiwis to get their teeth into.

He says the orchard is just the right size for him and his wife to manage, with contractors brought in over the November to January harvest season and HortPlus’ homegrown technology by his side to help them do the right thing, at the right time, to the right crops.

The Summerfruit Weather & Disease Portal is paid for by Summerfruit New Zealand and is available to all members at SprayLog can be accessed at as a paid service, or via a free trial.

Growers of other crops including kiwifruit, vegetables, broad acre crops, onions, and apples and pears can access their own industry-specific portals via their industry bodies and associations. The HortPlus MetWatch platform behind the portals is also available to individual growers, businesses and packhouses via a corporate subscription.

Flowering apricot trees on the HR Horticulture orchard in Hawke’s Bay.
Flowering apricot trees on the HR Horticulture orchard in Hawke’s Bay.