A world first 100% electric cherry orchard.
Forest Lodge Orchard is the world's first 100% electric, zero fossil fuel cherry orchard. And visionary owner, Mike Casey, is sharing his knowledge and passion for decarbonising the primary industries through the industry-good organisation and brand, New Zealand Zero (NZ0).
After selling a successful tech start-up in Australia, Mike Casey and wife Rebecca returned to New Zealand to buy their dream home in Central Otago. They set up a cherry orchard on eight hectares alongside their new home, to produce a return from the land.
With a gnawing unease about the impacts of climate change and desire to do things differently, the Casey’s looked for sustainable solutions for their orchard. Six hectares were planted with 9,300 cherry trees using the Upright Fruiting Offshoots (UFO) training system.
UFO is a high density growing method, with trees trained to grow horizontally along a wire trellis. The upright offshoots that grow from the main stem produce the fruit. The system allows for over twice the number of trees per hectare than a standard orchard. It also minimises land use, as well as water and energy requirements. Additional benefits are ease (and speed) of harvesting.
Having planted the cherry trees, they investigated further ways to reduce emissions from the business. Dealing with a loud, clunky old diesel pump Mike asked, ‘why does this need to be diesel, when there’s so much sunshine here’? The decision was made to eliminate fossil fuel from the orchard operation – no small decision when it hadn’t been done anywhere in the world before – and they were being told it couldn’t be done.
A solar and battery system and a 3-phase power connection to the grid was installed. They imported two electric frost fans from South Africa, swapping out the traditional diesel-guzzling fans (that chew through around 300-400 litres of diesel per fan over a ten hour period) to fight frost events. Electric-solar golf carts are used instead of quad bikes to move around the orchard, and they’re presently leasing a small electric tractor.
The orchard now runs with a near zero energy bill – they generate most of the power they need but top up when required from the grid. Any excess power is sold back to the grid.
Mike is transparent in his desire to use his own experiences and learnings to help others wanting to move towards more sustainable and fossil fuel free horticulture solutions. He acknowledges the sale of his tech startup has enabled him to cover the intensive infrastructure set up costs, but he’s carefully crunching the numbers, and analysing pay back and returns, and is confident of the economic results he is accruing at Forest Lodge Orchard.
Mike wants to “build a highway for others to decarbonize” and he acknowledges that improving profits from sustainability is an important part of this. With two others, he has founded New Zealand Zero (NZ0), a consumer brand with a vision to share sustainable solutions and to build an accreditation for producers using renewable energy to gain a premium on their produce. The accreditation is designed to eliminate greenwashing and those that choose to use carbon credits over making real change – though it’s acknowledged that carbon credits still have a role to play, especially at this early stage where technology is still catching up.
Mike is clear that decarbonising isn’t about swapping out fossil fuel systems for electric and doing ‘the exact same thing’. For example, right now to get an electric tractor that does what a large diesel tractor does is cost prohibitive. He says decarbonising requires smart thinking and changes in approach. The small electric tractor on Forest Lodge could not support an energy intensive PTO kit. But with funding from the MPI’s SFFF (Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures) fund, Mike worked with New Zealand company TRS Wholesale to develop an electric sprayer that can plug into the back of the electric tractor. Tractor and sprayer can effectively run all day. The tractor can be recharged every 2 hours (when stopped to mix and refill the sprayer) with a home built ‘supercharger’ - there is no downtime. The plan is now for the electric sprayer to be commercialised by TRS, or another interested company.
Mike says setting up renewable energy alternatives doesn’t always have to mean throwing large amounts of cash around. He points to their electric golf carts – a clever fix with a solar panel on top and an inverter has produced a workable vehicle for orchard transport that doesn’t need to be plugged in for prolonged recharging periods – again eliminating downtime.
Another worthwhile lesson learned from the development of the electric sprayer, is the use of funding grants. Mike points out that in these early stages of adaptation there are many grants available for farmers to tap into.
Using an AGMARDT grant Forest Lodge Orchard harvested their second-year cherries as a market test run. The cherries were sold via an online presale system on NZ0 using a zero-carbon courier, and through retail partner Farro Fresh. An 18% premium was the sweet spot that consumers were happy to pay for sustainable cherries.
The market test has significantly reduced the payback time for the electrification costs of the orchard. When diesel was $2.70 a litre, the payback period was sitting at about nine and a-half years. With a premium of 15% on their cherries, this period has been reduced to eighteen months.
Mike works predominantly on the technology and conversion requirements, funding grant applications and business plans while the orchard is run day to day by manager Euan White – as Mike says he ‘dreams it up, and Euan does the hard yards’.
If you’re keen to talk through decarbonizing your horticultural enterprise Mike can be contacted through NZ0.