New NZ organic peach shows leaf curl resistance

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New NZ organic peach shows leaf curl resistance

It has been 17 years in the making, but on the southern end of New Zealand a couple in their 70s is finally applying for plant variety rights with a peach they feel has got something special. Helen Brookes and Terry Fowler are not alone in their assessment of the Sweet Perfection, which has a good taste and shows resistance to leaf curl without the use of spraying. At we catch up with their pair, as well as Thirkettle Nurseries managing director John Penny who is overseeing its commercialization.

Terry Fowler and Helen Brookes

When Brookes and Fowler moved into their house in Oamaru almost two decades ago, neither had any experience in horticulture.

Fowler had worked as a public servant with the government, while Brookes came from an academic background at the University of Otago specializing in Darwinian biology, so she did have a strong scientific background up her sleeve.

"We discovered the benefits of Sweet Perfection as the previous owner of the property where we live had actually put five peach stones in a flower bed out the back door of our home," she says.

"When we bought the property there was still actually three of those trees growing in the flower bed. The peaches from two of the trees were what I would call rubbish, and we simply removed those, but the fruit on the tree which is currently undergoing the plant variety rights trial was actually a beautiful piece of fruit.

"It's well-colored, has red-fading-into-a-pinky-cream skin, it’s non-furry skin, it's a free stone, yellow-fleshed peach with a beautiful peachy aroma, and that’s why we’ve named it 'Sweet Perfection'."

The world over beautiful and tasty peaches can be found, but what caught Brookes' attention with this variety was its incredible resistance to a common stonefruit disease.

"Copper sprays are put onto stonefruit trees during winter in order to prevent leaf curl, because if the tree suffers leaf curl over at least three continuous summers, the most likely outcome is that the tree will actually die," she says.

"It turns out that even though this tree wasn’t sprayed with copper, and even though there were other trees in our orchard which did get leaf curl, Sweet Perfection trees didn’t ever get leaf curl over a period of three summers, during which it hadn’t been sprayed with copper in the wintertime.

"I decided that it really was in the wrong place and there was only one of it so I made arrangements with a nursery just outside of Christchurch to propagate more trees from this particular tree. The nursery provided us back with 12 of the trees two years later."

Steps towards commercialization

She says the fruit has positives as governments around the world are becoming reluctant to license all kinds of chemicals that are applied to food, which will work in Sweet Perfection's favor on the market.

"Friends agree it is a beautiful piece of fruit, but our belief is that its the physiological function side of the tree health point that is far more important than what the fruit is like really," she says.

John Penny though something similar when he first saw the Sweet Perfection, when at the time he was with a tree crops organization from South Canterbury. After he realized its uniqueness, Brookes and Fowler gave him a few trees to put in his small orchard at home.

Today Penny is the manager at Nelson-based Thirkettle Nurseries, which is undertaking the fruit's commercialization process.

"The thing that got me, and I think it’s got other people, was that it’s just a very good looking fruit with very good looking and quite commercially grown fruit without that commercial program; that was on the original tree and it looked too good to be true.

"Waimera Nurseries were going to be trialling it but it slipped through their radar a little. They're primarily pipfruit growers and in getting a stonefruit variety to trial, they guessed it really would only be suitable on gardens and that was just a wrong assumption."

He says while it has not yet taken off with commercial interests, if plant variety rights are given the fruit has attractive appeal both in New Zealand and overseas in the large and growing organic market.

"I think it’s a goer especially for people who are trying to tap into that organic market. It just puts its hand up as an easy fruit to grow organically, which is where I think its future is, more so probably than just going into mainstream commercial stonefruit growers’ portfolios where they’ve got their spray programs anyway.

"Within the stonefruit industry, resistance is becoming an important way of reducing production costs and also meeting a market that wants less nasties. In stonefruit there’s not too many varieties that have properties of good resistance to some of those diseases that plague them."

Living a greener life

Like many in Oamaru, Brookes and Fowler moved there to live a healthier life closer to nature and the food they eat. They have a micro climate that allows them to produce grapefruit, orange, lemons, mandarins, feijoas, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, while they used to have sheep until it became to difficult to look after them.

"Oamaru is increasingly attracting people from Auckland who are looking for a more environmental life style," says Brookes

"It’s really comforting to know what’s happening to the food you’re eating. We also have a very large vegetable garden, and with the fruit we saw it as being a big step towards self-sufficiency and providing for ourselves.

"We don’t kill our own meat, we have had sheep in the past but they became our friends. We don’t have sheep now, we’re too old to look after lambs."

She says it is "just lovely" waking up with the farm and the benefit it brings to her and the environment.

"Since we bought the property we’ve probably planted 2,000 or more trees, and with every tree I thought "we're doing our bit to help save the world", providing a sink for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

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