Final Report: Viable Economic (& Sustainable) Production of Ashiro Gentians for Export

Objectives

The original SFF project application identified five major areas in which work was required over the three year period from 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2006 to ensure the development of a viable and sustainable Ashiro gentian production base. These included:

In April 2006, SFF approved the request for an extension of the project by a further nine months to 31 March 2007. During this extension period, the focus of the SFF project was to:

Overall approach

The project has been conducted following four key principles:

  1. The need for high $ value prices per gentian stem: All members in the Ashiro Gentian Growers group acknowledge the need for consistently high “per stem” prices for exported Ashiro gentians (to offset the costs of air transport and the high costs of achieving the necessarily high quality standards for flower stems exported to Japan and other markets) to enable the development of a robust and sustainable gentian production sector to occur.
  2. Research based progress: The project has been based on evidence-based research evaluations (by Crop & Food Research Institute and other research providers) and through carefully designed “on farm” trials by growers. The initial project manager (Bev Joe) is an experienced floriculture consultant. When Ms Joe had to relegate her role (through her being relocated internationally) the project management role moved to Dr Conway Powell – who has over 20 years experience as a plant scientist and research centre director (as well as being an Ashiro gentian grower).
  3. Active co-operation between members of the Ashiro Gentian Growers group: The group includes gentian growers, the exporter (FlowerZone), Crop & Food Research Institute and consultant advisors (Karen Bradley and Beverly Joe). Right from the start of the SFF project, all members of the group have continued to work openly and co-operatively towards the common goal of trying to develop a profitable long term export based gentian production industry for New Zealand. This has occurred through regular use of an email bulletin board, regular Ashiro member workshops, open access to research activities at Crop and site visits to grower properties.
  4. Extension and information transfer: one of the most outstanding and successful features of the SFF project has been the programme of spring (November) and autumn (March/April) grower workshops each year. The spring workshops have rotated around grower properties and have provided direct opportunities to discuss and evaluate new and developing growing techniques on the ground – including agronomy trials (eg nutrition, cloching and thinning techniques. The autumn workshops have usually been held at the Palmerston North base of Crop & Food Research – and have provided an excellent opportunity to hear updates and view trial work underway on post harvest research, plant propagation research, new gentian cultivar breeding and selection and plant physiological research. Tied in with this, we have focused strongly on keeping all members (growers and others) up to date with recent information and research results. Flowerzone, Crop & Food Research Institute and some of the individual Ashiro growers have travelled to Japan to visit gentian researchers and growers in the Ashiro prefecture – and have shared the information received amongst the group. Similarly, Flowerzone has hosted Dr Takashi (principal gentian researcher in the Ashiro prefecture) and some of his staff in visits to New Zealand – and including visits to grower properties.

Outcomes

The main outcomes from the project are summarised below:

Irrigation management - In Japan, Ashiro gentians occur naturally in boggy ground, are grown commercially in paddy conditions and irrigation is rarely required. Under New Zealand conditions, it rapidly became apparent that regular daily irrigation is required, especially in the first 3-6 weeks after new seedlings or cuttings are planted into the field. Most growers irrigate through drip or T tape for several hours per day.

Nutrition - regular soil and leaf analysis is advised to ensure correct plant nutrition. In the 4-6 weeks leading up to harvest and during the harvest period, some growers incorporate N:P:K foliar feed (eg Nitrosol) into the regular insecticide sprays to help maintain good green leaf colour. Several cultivars are prone to the development of red leaf at harvest – this seems to be alleviated through the use of nitrogen based foliar feed (although efforts are also being made to reduce this problem through breeding and selection).

Thinning - based on the Japanese practices and experience by the New Zealand Ashiro gentian growers, the number of new stems on young cutting and seedling raised plants should be thinned back to 6 in the first season, increasing to 10 per plant over the next two years.

Weed control - weed control is vital to reduce competition for young plants to enable them to establish. Most growers plant out Ashiro gentian plants in double rows in 90 cm wide black weed mat through holes (10-15cm in diameter) cut or burnt in the weed mat. Grower trials have shown that white weed mat (which might otherwise have been useful in reflecting solar warming and therefore been a management tool for delaying soil temperature build up) is not effective in preventing weed growth. Most growers plant at densities between 6-8 plants per lineal metre of 90cm wide weed mat row.

Pest and disease control - gentians are susceptible to a range of root rotting diseases and should only be planted out into new ground. Growers use a range of fungicide sprays to control leaf diseases if and when they become apparent. Overhead irrigation and/or humid weather increase the disease pressure and the need for fungicide application. Conversely in hot but low humidity environments such as Wanaka, for instance, the need for fungicide applications is minimal. Grower trials to explore the use of beneficial soil micro-organisms to control root diseases were inconclusive. A long running grower trial to investigate the effectiveness of the biological control agent Trichoderma (a naturally occurring fungus that can, on occasions, block other pathogenic fungi on plant roots and leaves) was inconclusive. As an export crop, Ashiro gentians are susceptible to infestation by a range of contaminant insects (eg thrips and mites) which must be controlled rigorously. Growers follow a regular insecticide programme (which is repeated on a 7-10 day basis or after significant rain) for the 6-8 weeks before harvest and during the 4 week harvest period to control insects and also discourage bee activity. Bumble bees in particular are a major problem as they are highly attracted to gentian flowers and cause pollination of the flowers which, for many cultivars, initiates senescence and shortened vase life. Most growers adopt an insecticide programme including a range of synthetic pyrethroids, miticides and organophosphate products.

Cloching to advance harvest period - several grower trials were carried out to investigate the use of plastic cloching (approximately 1.2 metres high – erected over the plant row) in advancing harvest date to meet periods of high market demand for flowers. Results indicated that through cloching and the application of the growth hormone GA3, it was possible to advance harvest date by 10-14 days. The actual extent of harvest advance will depend on local climate conditions.

Post harvest treatments - Scientists at Crop & Food Research Institute at Palmerston North have carried out an extensive range of post harvest trials, some of which have been had some support funding through the SFF project. Evaluation of the ability of cutflower stems to withstand coolstorage and transport as dry stems to export markets is a standard component of new cultivar selection. Results from several years’ postharvest trial work indicate that:

Overall, this trial work (briefly summarised above) indicates that many gentian cultivars (from both the Japanese Ashiro breeding programme and the New Zealand breeding programmes) are capable of very good vaselife results, which reaffirms the opportunities for development and extension of the export gentian production industry in New Zealand.

Grower seminars/workshops - The regular workshops and seminars which have been held regularly in early spring each year (to view and discuss grower practices and trials early in the growing season) and in the following autumn (to review post-harvest research results and feedback from the exporter Flowerzone on the export season) have been an outstanding success and have been a feature of the project. The regular contact has been an excellent vehicle for information sharing, the development of new ideas and planning of new trial work and a high level of co-operation and assistance between growers, researchers and the exporter.

Future opportunities for the Ashiro gentian industry in New Zealand - a successful, robust and sustainable Ashiro-based gentian industry in New Zealand requires all parties involved (exporter, plant breeders, growers and research organisation) to have confidence that they will make substantial income, a good return on the capital that they have invested and the opportunity to develop and maintain a premium market position internationally. As a result of the work done with the assistance of SFF funding in this project we now know (pretty much):

We have also developed a network of experienced growers and have (alongside us) a New Zealand gentian breeding programme of international standard which is now starting to produce some very exciting new cultivars. We have retained the willingness of the Ashiro gentian organisation in Japan to continue to make new Japanese cultivars available to us (despite the slower than expected buildup of New Zealand exports of Ashiro gentians to Japan).

Our immediate goal now is to ensure that the suite of new and promising Ashiro and New Zealand bred gentian cultivars is developed and released in an orderly manner that will enable existing and future growers to select cultivars that enable them to match harvest times with major Japanese (and other) export markets peak demand times and command premium prices.

The Ashiro Gentian Growers group formally agreed at its recent workshop in Palmerston North in late March 2007 that, even after the cessation of the SFF funding support under project 03/013 at 31 March 2007, it will continue the grower trial work and information sharing process now underway, to ensure that the goal is reached.

Contacts: The following people and organisations may be contacted for further information regarding the Ashiro-based gentians industry in New Zealand:

Role Organisation Name Contact person Contact phone(s)
Exporter and Ashiro plant licensor Flowerzone International Ltd Lyall Fieldes 09 2758883
Research organisation and plant breeder Crop & Food Research Institute Ed Morgan 06 3568300
NZ plant breeder and Chair of Ashiro Gentian Growers Group Inc Rhindo NZ Ltd
& Southland Flowers
John Moffatt 03 2255310 or
027 2087700
Grower (Taranaki) Jillian Millar Jillan Millar 06 7522562
Grower (Motueka) Blue Harvest Dion McLean 03 5433864
Grower (Christchurch) Max Pascoe Max Pascoe 03 3252554
Grower (Wanaka) Wanaka Flowers Conway Powell 03 4436143
027 6228154

Acknowledgements: We thank the Sustainable Farming Fund for their financial support, involvement and assistance with the project and their willingness to back the initial programme with a nine month extension from the initial cessation date of 30 June 2006 to 31 March 2007.