Turley Farms/Rockit Apples

July 2024

A large-scale South Canterbury arable vegetable operation adds a Rockit apple orchard.

Murray and Margaret Turley have built a large scale arable and vegetable operation in South Canterbury. Driving the success of Turley Farms’ is thorough research and measurement of risk, a drive to get ahead of land-use change, and the use of collaborative partnerships. This approach has resulted in a new venture into pip fruit with a Rockit apple orchard, the first in the South Island. 


Turley Farms operate around Temuka and Rangitata in South Canterbury. The mix of crops has shifted across the fifty years since Murray Turley began working alongside his parents and expanded the operation. Today they grow cereal crops including wheat and barley, along with onions, hybrid vegetables, ryegrass, white clover seeds, and vining peas.  


The Turleys have a long history of being ahead of the pack on land use changes. They were one of the first to start growing potatoes in mid Canterbury in 1993. Today it’s the main area for growing potatoes for processing in New Zealand. Now they’re turning their hand to apple growing. 


“We have marginal, stony land that wasn’t suitable for onions, carrots, or potatoes. Water cost increases have demanded that we pivot to more high value crops. And apples are a crop that use less water and nutrient inputs, than say dairy or arable,” said Murray. 


Initial research focused on the greenfield site they were considering. With a view to analysing frost risk and mitigation, scientists were contracted to measure the inversion layer eight to ten metres in the air. The results gave them the strong confidence they required, that wind machines would work for frost protection. Extensive weather and climate data was also collected over several years, indicating the site was well suited for pip fruit production. 


A trial orchard was set up to assess several varieties. Ultimately the “value-add proposition” made Rockit apples a key contender. Rockit apples are small convenient snack sized apples packaged in unique tubes. “We looked to the marketplace. We didn’t want a low value commodity apple and Rockit really appealed in terms of the marketing and presentation,” said Murray.  


The next step was to send one of the company agronomists to Hawkes Bay for further research. Agronomy underpins land-use adaptation and change at Turley Farms. The company employs two agronomists to bolster crop management and production, and research potential crops. 


Agronomist Dominic Cosgrove’s trip to Hawkes Bay was well timed. Rockit Apples wanted to diversify and expand into areas like the South Island – a somewhat prescient move, a few weeks before Cyclone Gabrielle. Dominic said the option to use a 2D growing system to maximise land use and fruit production was appealing. 


The system has trees espaliered on wire, bringing several benefits. The structure allows even light interception for uniform size and colour of fruit, and it’s robot ready for future harvesting. Further, the system makes for simplified tree management and training of staff. “It makes staff training easier than for conventional systems. The trees in a 2D system are quite homogeneous, and we only need a few simple rules for staff to follow,” Dominic explains. He adds however that Rockit has strict parameters around packaging and presentation. “The Rockit apple involves a lot of meticulous work around blossom and fruit thinning. We need well-spaced fruit, and there’s a lot of fruit counting to ensure the perfect crop-load for each tree.”  


Turley Farms entered a 50/50 partnership with Rockit Apples and the first trees were planted in Winter 2023 at Yap Orchard (named for the Scottish word for apple). Yap Orchard uses a standard drip feed irrigation system. Turley Farms are Shareholders of the Rangitata Irrigation Scheme, which harvests water in high flow and stores it in ponds for irrigation throughout the river season. 


The orchard has a high volume of insect traps in place to better understand what is there, and to get ahead of the game around insect control. It is also equipped with weather stations and digital soil probes and is utilising platforms for tree training. The row planting is future-proofed for the automation of tasks (such as robot spraying and harvesting) as technology develops. 


A 3-row sprayer is used for crop protection applications.  This allows a lot of ground to be covered quickly when weather conditions are optimal, and the advanced drift control technology means the product only goes where it is intended and required.     


Nutrient management is a very important part of producing a quality product. Fertigation is used to provide targeted nutrient inputs with a high degree of efficiency.  Regular leaf and soil analyses guide these decisions.    


“We’ll eventually put a canopy over top. This’ll provide hail protection and create a better growing microclimate,” Dominic said. 


The first Rockit apple harvest at Yap Orchard will be in 2025. Murray says, “We’re taking a conservative approach, budgeting on a lesser yield than Hawkes Bay orchards but we’ll keep an open mind as to what’s possible going forward.”  


The Turleys also run a shared onion packhouse with three other families; a seed dressing operation with three like-minded shareholders; and a flour mill venture with five farming shareholding families. “Partnerships and collaborations are a game changer. They enable us to get top quality infrastructure in place, and to get the scale required to turn a profit,” says Murray. 


See also: https://www.ruraldelivery.net.nz/posts/Rockit-Apples-2017-04-05-05-26-43Z