Heart of the North – Honey Tree Farms, Northland
As the New Zealand avocado industry continues to flourish, businessman and avocado enthusiast Tony Snushall is bringing a passion and a strategy to grow his part of the industry even further, all while creating a sustainable working environment for the Far North community.
Make no mistake about it, Tony Snushall is a businessman. Forget about stuffy shirts and ties, though – this guy would much rather be up a Hydralada in gumboots pulling luscious green fruit off his trees and driving trucks laden with avocados around his orchards. But while he would love to be able to justify spending most of his time doing just that, he does recognise his skill set is better employed developing the business rather than working in it.
Because Snushall is a man with a plan. Namely, to be the largest avocado grower in New Zealand. He’s not alone in this endeavour – the other investors in his avocado venture are just as excited about the potential of this burgeoning industry.
Together, Honey Tree Farms, as it’s called, has bought 230 hectares of land, of which only about 30 hectares is currently producing fruit. “So we have a heck of a lot of land to develop,” says Snushall. He’s the right man for the task.
A Man on a mission
Today, MiNDFOOD is at one of Honey Tree Farms’ avocado orchards and as Snushall walks around pointing out the strategies taken to rejuvenate this particular piece of land, it’s hard to imagine he was once a city kid, as was his wife. The decision was made to leave the rat race when the couple were expecting their first-born. “Our children [now 14 and 12] have never lived in the city.” He tells the story of a trip to Auckland when his then three-year-old son pointed to something and said, “What’s that, Dad?” It was a traffic light. “At that point, we thought maybe we need to get them out a little bit more,” he laughs. Not surprisingly, he and his family eat avocados “all the time”. His favourite is the classic avocado on toast combo.
The Snushalls initially moved from Auckland to Te Kaha in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. “Before that I’d never driven a tractor, never used a chainsaw. But, for me, perhaps if you grow up in it you wouldn’t find it as exciting and pleasurable as I do,” he says.
It was in Te Kaha that Snushall was lucky enough to come into contact with some veterans of the avocado industry – one such expert was Bruce McGregor. “The piece of land we were looking after, there were some big trees on there with shiny fruit and I went down the road to the old fulla and said ‘what are these things? They look like avocados’. He told me they were used for root stock and I said ‘well, what does that mean?’ He then explained they’re seeds you use for the root and then you graft the fruiting variety [Hass] on top. I asked how it was done and he said ‘I’ll show you’. That was my first avocado experience.”
The Snushalls then moved north and Tony worked for Apata Group Limited, a specialist pos tharvest service provider for New Zealand avocado growers. “My main job was to go and visit as many orchards as I could around the country and it gave me a relatively good sense of what the key elements are for productive orchards.” That knowledge is evident as we walk through the Far North orchard.
“We’re using best practice in terms of pan breaking [loosening the compact layer underneath the top soil to aid drainage], we’re using a compost around the tree, plus we’ve actually brought up some Kaikohe top soil as well,” says Snushall. The further north you go the better the climate for avocados but the soil also becomes far more sandy, so Snushall’s bringing up the rich, volcanic soil from his orchard in Kaikohe (he has five properties to manage) to help address this. “What we’re trying to do is get the best soils to the best climate.”It’s not just about growing, though. Snushall’s very aware the packhouses and exporters play a pivotal role in his plan, as the industry as a whole needs to work together to bring the best fruit to consumers around the world. All avocados exported from New Zealand follow mandatory standards set by NZ Avocado. Postharvest operations must register with the industry body each year and submit to compliance audits. “
We want to make sure we have appropriate markets at appropriate time slots and our exporter works really closely with us to make sure we’re placing that crop in a sensible way. The feedback I’m getting from those marketers is very much there’s untapped potential,” he says. Which is why those close relationships in the industry are essential to the success of it on a global scale. As are people who genuinely believe in the product. “It’s my real passion in terms of the things that I’m involved in.
Of my family’s investments, it’s not our largest but for me personally it’s my greatest investment.” As much as he has learned over the past 10 to 15 years, Snushall does say, “I make sure I’m listening and learning from the people who live and work up here because you do need to be aware there’s still plenty to learn.”
Another thing that sets Snushall apart from the stereotypical corporate investor is how important this local community is to him and his company. “I’m very keen to see if we can create meaningful, full-time proper jobs in this industry that allow other people to have good lives as well. That’s something that I’m pretty passionate about, sharing a bit of that equity and wealth back around. I would like to see that as one of the aspirational things for us as a business.”
He’s off to a good start, already being a big employer in Kaikohe, with six families directly benefiting. That number will only grow as the business does.
And if that wasn’t enough feel-good factor, Snushall knows the end product is something he can always feel proud to supply to the world.
“Growing healthy great food with sunlight, water and a bit of hard work is just the most crazy, fantastic thing on the planet. It’s like having the most green sustainable factory in the world.”