Aspara Pacific providing potato and asparagus seed to domestic and international growers
Established by Peter and Linda Falloon in 1990, Aspara Pacific is New Zealand’s only asparagus breeder. The company has also played a key role in New Zealand’s seed potato industry. They produce potato seed, asparagus crowns to New Zealand growers, asparagus seed to New Zealand and international clients, and an international consultancy advice. They also grow asparagus for supply to local restaurants, hybrid radish seed, and lucerne.
Peter Falloon is a registered horticultural consultant and a plant breeder. Along with his wife Linda, he pioneered “High Health” asparagus crowns. They ensure the varieties supplied to growers are true-to-type, free of weeds and major diseases that affect production and longevity of the plants. Peter has held a number of industry leadership positions, including Chairman of the New Zealand Asparagus Council, and as a member of the Research and Innovation Board of Horticulture New Zealand. With over 100 papers published in scientific journals, he is an international authority on asparagus.
Linda has considerable experience in micro-propagation of plants under sterile conditions and spent several years at crown research institute Crop and Food Research (now Plant & Food Research). Linda manages Aspara Pacific’s plant tissue culture laboratory that produces pathogen tested seed stock to the potato industry, as well as propagating asparagus varieties.
Peter says that asparagus is a good option for farmers (and life-stylers) looking to diversify and grow a relatively low-risk, perennial horticultural crop. As well, the environmental footprint of asparagus is relatively small, using about 100 units of N per year per ha. While plants are relatively drought tolerant, irrigation is useful when beds are newly established. He describes a growing block near Lake Ellesmere that has been producing strongly for 19 years and shows little sign of slowing down. The average production-life for older asparagus varieties was around 12 years.
The commercial harvest season varies depending on the region in New Zealand and can run from the first week of September to mid-January, depending on regional temperatures and altitude.
There are around 40 growers in New Zealand, with around 560ha producing 1,900 tonnes a year. Domestic sales reach around 8.6 million dollars and exports make up about half a million dollars. Peter believes there is an opportunity for growers to reap the rewards of greater returns by producing at the shoulders of the season to fill gaps in international markets. This is being made possible by selection, developing varieties that produce early and late in the season. Some producers grow asparagus in tunnel houses, where returns can vary from 8 to 30 dollars a kilo, depending on when it is on the market.
Traditional (GE Free) breeding and selection processes have created a number of successful varieties. Thirty years of breeding has produced Pacific Challenger (1 and 2), the world’s first Phytopthera-tolerant asparagus. Phytopthora is a plant-damaging water mold (aka “root rot”). International trials have demonstrated this asparagus not only survives attacks but is more productive than many current varieties.
After several years of evaluation a seed block of a new asparagus hybrid is established to produce commercial quantities of seed. Spears from male and female plants are placed on sterile tissue culture media. Meristems from the emerging spears are then cut out – this rapidly growing tissue is usually free of virus but is checked using a PCR technique. Only virus-free plants are multiplied for the commercial seed block.
Peter says the growth of New Zealand’s horticulture industry is dependent on available labour at harvest, and the asparagus sector is no exception. The RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) and the Working Holiday Visa schemes have been very important to the industry. And he adds, if the industry is to expand, more picking power will be needed. Luckily, asparagus is harvested in spring which doesn’t clash with the peak labour requirements later in the year for crops like apples, kiwifruit, and blueberries. Advances in robotics learning show promise with crops that require selective harvesting (like kiwifruit or apples). Trials are under way by Hamilton-based company, Robotics Plus, to build an asparagus harvesting robot.
There is a lot of suitable land for asparagus in New Zealand such as deep, free-draining volcanic soils in the North Island, coastal sands near Foxton and Levin, and coastal sandy soils by rivers in Canterbury. There are 2000 ha of deep Motukarara sandy loam soil close to Lake Ellesmere alone. Converting some dairy farms to asparagus production in this location could help with nitrate pollution problems in this environmentally sensitive area.
Continued development of better asparagus varieties is an ongoing process. Peter says, “we are about to release a new hybrid for the southern European area (Spain, Italy, Greece) called Pacific Green. This year we will have the first seed of a second hybrid called Pacific Summit that is performing well in Japan and central America. So while there is now strong demand for New Zealand bred asparagus varieties from overseas, our domestic growers will always have “first bite of the cherry” of new releases.”
Peter and Linda’s son Mathew has become involved in horticulture after training as a physiotherapist. “Matthew will continue to develop the asparagus seed and crown production part of our business. Local development of new varieties bred in New Zealand for New Zealand growers will remain our core business as we are the only asparagus breeding programme in the Southern Hemisphere”, says Peter.
Information about available varieties and identifying the best methods and areas for growing are on Aspara Pacific’s website: http://www.asparapacific.co.nz/index.htm
Horticulture New Zealand also has comprehensive information under Product Group - Asparagus: http://www.hortnz.co.nz/
Showdown Productions Ltd – Rural Delivery Series 15 2020