Sharing the love Houhora, Northland

Jason McLarnon grew up on an avocado orchard in the Bay of Plenty but hadn’t counted on following in his father’s footsteps. Now he and his family own Alligator Pear orchard in the Far North with Mum and Dad just next door. MiNDFOOD visits to talk about the lure of avocados and idyllic lifestyle of the north.

Houhora, Northland: it’s a beautiful afternoon, the sun is out and the avocado trees are soaking it up, the fruit growing plumper by the day. Ian McLarnon’s out on the tractor, tidying up a wee bit having just finished building a shed. MiNDFOOD comments on what a good-looking shed it is and Ian takes the compliment by joking with his son, Jason, that “I’m from the generation that built everything ourselves.” 

Jason takes it on the chin, after all he knows that when it comes to avocado growing, he and his dad are on the same page. The pair own adjacent orchards, having moved north from the Bay of Plenty around 16 years ago. And while they keep everything separate in terms of workload, they do share equipment and knowledge. More specifically, “Basically Dad buys more gear than me and I use his gear,” laughs Jason. But it’s tit for tat because “he picks my brains,” he adds. 

Learning on the job

Jason’s referring to the fact he’s part of a working group looking at tree health, an initiative from NZ Avocado’s Research and Development programme, with investment from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Primary Growth Partnership (PGP). What that all means, practically, is “there’s a bunch of growers and scientists looking at all aspects of orchard management, including ground prep, and auditing everything they do and comparing notes. Everyone is actually doing something different and seeing what might be best practice in each of those areas,” he says.

Having Jason involved in this sort of research is something that works out well for Ian. “Now, I want to enjoy life a little bit so I don’t get too involved in it. But Jason goes and when he comes back we sit down and have a chinwag and he’ll tell me what went on at the meeting and what he’s learned out of it. I’ll take something from it and then go from there. It’s his turn to learn, it’s my turn to have a bit of fun,” says Ian. Which isn’t to say he’s lost interest in the art of growing avocados. “I ring Jason at seven in the morning. I get fizzed every day trying to find the answers, trying to find the holy grail to it all.” 

In Northland, that largely amounts to getting the soil right, as it’s a lot more sandy than other growing areas. As an orchardist in the Bay of Plenty, Ian hadn’t encountered that before but took the challenges in his stride. “You can fix the soil, but it’s harder to fix that up there,” says Ian, pointing to the clear blue sky. “The beauty of being up north is we have that upthere, so that’s the advantage.” 

Jason may be working hard on his trees and at his full-time job with FruitFed supplies but that not to say he’s not enjoying himself. Life on the orchard with his partner Jacky Llewell and their three children, Ila, 16, Jay, nine, and Asher, seven, is as close to perfect as it can get for him. Especially considering the close proximity to two coastlines, heaven for this enthusiastic surfer – “Where we are in the Far North is as good a place to live as I can think to live in this country – it’s warm, it has all of the coast close to me, I can’t think of anything better”. 

Jacky’s equally attached to the lifestyle. She helps out with pruning and other bits and pieces on the orchard as needed and says, “I love the peace of it, getting out there by myself. Beingyour own boss and not having to answer to anybody.” 

The ready supply of avocados is also a massive bonus for this health-conscious family. “I make a lot of quinoa salads and stuff like that at lunch – chicken quinoa salad with avocado and coconut oil,” says Jacky. “We eat avocados because it’s the king really. I try to get my fats out of avocado because it’s delicious.” The kids agree. “Jay comes home from school and has three pieces of toast with avocado every day – he just loves it,” she says. “The fruit is fantastic. Add it to anything, it makes it better,” adds Jason. 

A fine future

Jason has plans to grow his orchard and is feeling pretty good about life, “I have a dude I go surfing with and that’s regular and good for me, there’s only a few of us who float around out there and it’s nice and quiet out on the water – it clears your mind.” 

He’s also in a positive frame of my mind about the industry as a whole. “It’s always evolving, from the growing side of it to NZ Avocado’s side of it – they know what they need to focus on and they’re doing that and receiving results in those areas.” 

So, can he imagine being his dad’s age and doing what he’s doing now? “Absolutely, yeah. It’s right up my alley. And I think I do a pretty good job at it.” If the fruit from his orchard is a measure of that, there’s no argument there.