Waimea Nurseries Plantation behind Eyebright
Waimea Nurseries is by far the biggest fruit tree nursery in New Zealand. Its fortunes are tied to New Zealand’s burgeoning Apple industry and the move to high density orchards.
When founder, Doug Simpson started growing apple trees, planting at 800 trees was considered to be ‘packing them in’. During the previous century, 400 trees to the hectare was the norm. Now it’s 1800 and 3000 trees to the hectare. That means having trees as close as one metre apart and, of course, this is very good for suppliers of trees.
Doug’s father was a farmer and Nurseryman in Golden Bay. Doug and his brother Cam were the oldest in a family of five brothers and two sisters.
Doug had always been a keen ‘green thumb’ and while working on Stephens Orchards in Stoke he propagated a number of suckers from the trees into rootstock.
Some time after the Simpson family moved to the Nelson region, Doug and Cam went into business together and started Simpson Bros Nursery. Doug was particularly interested in producing fruit trees, while Cam was passionate about ornamentals and natives, so in 1971 the partnership ended, and Waimea Nurseries and C H Simpson Nursery started as separate businesses.
In 1997 Cam sold his business to Mary Duncan who moved the nursery to Hope. Now the nursery lives on under the name ‘Vibrant Earth’. You mightn’t have heard of it because it is strictly wholesale, but you have almost certainly seen their plants at Mitre 10 or Bunnings.
It would be difficult not to be aware of Waimea Nurseries. At Eyebright we are bound on two sides by hundreds of thousands of their trees. Drive to Rabbit Island and you’ll see further hundreds of thousands. Waimea Nursery plantations are dotted around the plains, and heading up towards Wakefield.
Most of Waimea Nurseries production is apple trees. Barring expensive soil treatment, it is not possible to successfully replant an apple tree where an apple tree has been within the last seven years. This is because of a syndrome called ‘specific apple replant disorder’. Waimea Nurseries is challenged by a lack of fresh ground and increasingly relies on treating soil to enable it to reuse land.
In the late 1990’s Doug and Georgi sold the business to their son and daughter-in-law, Michael and Angela at a time when the apple industry was going strong.
The 1980s and early 1990s had been boom time. New Zealand led the world in apple production. Our yields and quality were unrivalled. We had new varieties the world wanted, and we had a government backed single desk selling organisation called the Apple and Pear Marketing board.
With a bit of finance, nous, and hard work, it was possible to plant an orchard and prosper. The number of orchards in Nelson and Motueka grew to be close to 300. Then everything changed.
With the disbanding of the marketing board, came a few bad years, and those brave souls who had laid everything on the line were wiped out. The only survivors were those with plenty of finance; and even some of those went to the wall. Three hundred Nelson orchardists were thinned out to sixty, and that’s where it stands today.
As you drive South from Eyebright towards Conning, you’ll see a Waimea Nurseries plantation and then a modern orchard that has been planted by Birdhurst, an orcharding company based in Motueka. In orchards of that type, the cost of the trees, irrigation, and the metal structure for supporting the trees, would be an impossible barrier for new entrants like the ones during the 80s and 90s. Also, it’s so different now, with all the work required to be compliant with health and safety, employment, food safety standards, and negotiating your marketing arrangements. Computer work can easily soak up every day. Back in the day, if you produced the goods, and stuck to the rules, the Apple and Pear Board would take what you produced, and periodically send you cheques as your fruit sold. Unburdened by administration, orchard owners were free to work in their orchards every day.
The move from many smaller operations to fewer large one has also occurred in the nursery business. In 1990 New Zealand apple growers could choose between fifteen fruit tree suppliers. Now there are just four nurseries supplying commercial growers.
By the turn of the millennium, apple growers were hurting, and so was Waimea Nurseries. But the nursery was hurting even more than would be expected. For reasons that defied logic there seemed to be less money to pay bills than there should have been.
Michael and Angela had a son called Bruno (one of four children) who was at university studying accountancy and commercial law. Upon graduation, he was planning to go overseas to work in accounting or finance. As it turned out, there was no need for him to travel for experience.
Bruno was part way through completing his training in auditing when he came home for a holiday. He took a dive into the books of the nursery and discovered eyewatering theft.
The trusted financial manager was diverting funds to himself. He ended up in jail, and Bruno ended up working for the family business.
After the pain of deregulation and jockeying for position by exporters, the apple industry started to grow again. But during the down time Waimea Nurseries had a reset. It transitioned from a business largely run by one person to a business with heads of departments and a management team. Rather than zeroing in only on their most profitable lines, the nursery diversified, but at the same time distanced itself from retail trade, by becoming strict about only supplying commercial customers.
Waimea Nurseries main business at the moment is providing of apple trees to orchardists, but it is also the main supplier to garden centres. And not just apple trees. They supply peaches and nectarines, citrus trees, berries, nuts, and ornamentals including topiaries.
Doug Simpson with Associates in Italy
Doug Simpson was an extremely well-liked builder of relationships. His winning manner laid the foundation for what is now Waimea Nurseries greatest strength. Waimea Nurseries has exclusive rights to a multitude of sought-after overseas varieties. This is a direct result of connections established by Doug and Georgi and subsequently by Mike and Angela. Conversely, Waimea Nurseries holds the rights to New Zealand developed varieties, and licences overseas nurseries to produce them. Doug’s grandson, Bruno, has a focus on this aspect of the business, and before Covid was frequently overseas making the connections, scouting out new varieties, and monitoring overseas production of New Zealand varieties.
Waimea Nurseries has approximately 80 year-round staff and up to 120 seasonal personnel. The busiest time is winter, when trees are being lifted and new plantations established.
A game changer has been drip irrigation. Although it’s a lot of work and expense to establish (only to be removed two years later when their trees are lifted), it is largely automated; taking care of itself, using half the amount of water that sprinklers would use, avoids aggravating disease problems resulting from wet foliage, and deliverers better tree growth due to providing the right amounts of water exactly when needed.
When out back of the shop, tending my own patch, I have been gobsmacked by the technology both stationary and parading up and down the rows of nursery trees next door.
Waimea Nurseries has just turned fifty years old. It exudes energy and enthusiasm, ever doing things better.
Doug Simpson passed away in 2013, but his legacy lives on as a well-run business providing the trees to support our exports, and home gardeners who delight in growing their own