Springhill Orchard

April 2023

A hi-tech under-net apple orchard in Hawke’s Bay.

Growing healthy people and environmental sustainability are key drivers behind the innovative apple orchard Springhill, in Central Hawkes Bay.


In 2019 Craigmore Sustainables purchased 480ha in Ongaonga (of which 180ha will be planted in apple orchards) with a vision to invest in the local community and develop a sustainable orchard operation. While not a traditional apple growing area, Ongaonga ticked quite a few boxes for Craigmore Sustainables, including its free-draining soil that would mitigate some risk from any climate-change-driven downpours. As well as land area and climate, the company also saw a lot of potential in the people of Central Hawkes Bay. All these factors sparked interest in what is an under-developed region with an under-utilised potential work force. 


By 2021 and three years into development, Springhill Orchard, now one of the largest pip fruit orchards under net in New Zealand, was producing 11,000 bins of apples from nine varieties - and they’re well on the way to yield an estimated 33,000 bins when the orchard reaches maturity.


Creating secure full-time roles has assured good staffing levels and productivity. Ben James, Business Manager of Apples at Springhill Orchard reiterates, “Good staff retention equals uplift and productivity gains” and, he adds, “Being positive in the community supports a positive flow through to the orchard”. 


Springhill works to staffing levels of one person per 3.8ha, as opposed to the standard industry model of one per 6ha. Utilising synergies with a 180ha vineyard (set up at the same time on adjoining land) this staffing rate and careful planning has created 70 full-time equivalent roles - offering secure work that has had good uptake and support from locals.


The staffing policy at Craigmore is to source from locals first, using RSE workers to plug the gap. Part of supporting a local workforce has involved a Youth Development Programme with other stakeholders. The programme has been aimed at getting 16-18 years old work ready and involves:

  • Knowing yourself and whakapapa
  • Eating well, health and holistic well-being
  • Horticulture units
  • NZQA literacy and numeracy credits
  • And driver licence training has been run by another CHB partner.


Craigmore employed a tutor, and the first intake of 11 students produced three full-time permanent staff for Springhill. Three more individuals went on to further study and the other five are in full-time roles across the region. Business Manager of apples, Ben James, explains the programme is an important factor in connecting to the local community and they’ve been able to meet and build networks to support both youth and current employees. The programme will continue – and includes a six-monthly check-in with previous students. Ben says, “The personal growth in the young people makes me really proud”, and he cites a case where one of the graduated students reached out to the tutor for advice in a family crisis. “It’s about creating safe networks for our staff”.


Another innovation is the use of picking platforms. The technology and tools are aimed at attracting staff from the growing pool of willing but less physically able (such as the semi-retired) pickers who for various reasons are unable to operate for hours on end climbing up and down ladders with bags full of apples. 


Springhill was planted in 2019 with all trees under net, making it one of the biggest covered pip-fruit orchards in New Zealand. The nets are primarily a risk mitigation factor, providing protection from hail and wind and also do a “fairly good job at managing spray risk”. However, nets can exacerbate frost as they cut down on air circulation, so Springhill has a wind machine every 6ha (industry standard is around one per 7ha).


Trees are planted at 800mm spacing with rows 3.2 metres apart. Rows are set up for time and cost-efficient mowing and spraying. They can cover three rows at a time with the sprayer travelling on every third row, reducing soil compaction and fuel use. Tree spacings and pruning and training methods make it easy for orchard workers to harvest apples.


Other sustainable factors include side-discharging of grass clippings to suppress weed growth, which in turn reduces use of herbicides. In addition, no plastic spray guards are used but tree trunks are painted immediately on planting. They’re also working towards the removal of plastic reflective cloth in the orchard.


Further futureproofing is apparent in the portable, live connectivity around the orchard. Access to fast wifi is orchard-wide and feeds data from a series of sensors, such as soil temperature probes and weather stations with wind anemometers, from which humidity, leaf wetness, wind and rainfall data are collected. A technician based at the Hastings office collates and interprets the data. Although in its infancy, the sensor network enables in-time decisions “that are the right decisions”. There is also an interface under construction that will send spray maps and instructions to equipment to unlock variable spray rates, so trees that do need chemical assistance to prevent pest or disease attacks get individual treatment, rather than indiscriminately spraying all trees in a row unnecessarily.


Real-time information is also sent from teams of people through supervisors and managers to ensure productivity and progress measures are factored into orchard operations, so that additional training or assistance can be delivered - before it becomes a problem. 


Values promoted by Craigmore Sustainables are incorporated into every working day, and regular gatherings of staff are held to acknowledge and celebrate wins, both big and small. The company culture is underpinned by this clear set of values – that include not only a sustainable food production system but also the well-being and personal growth of staff. As Ben James says, “Social licence dictates are really important for business”.