Innovation and passion for the fruit they grow are enduring hallmarks of the Webb family who has owned Stonehurst Orchard since 1914. Successive generations have built on the leading edge developments of those before them to supply local and export markets with top quality, flavoursome fruits. “You plant varieties that are going to get a market reaction – the wow factor,” says Simon Webb, a fourth generation Webb.
The orchard is situated in Cromwell on gently rolling country in the foothills of Central Otago’s Pisa mountain range. The area is well known in New Zealand for producing succulent fruits that reflect the intensity of its seasons in their flavours.
The Webb family orchard grows predominately apples, apricots, peaches and nectarines, plus some plums and pears. When JR Webb first bought the 100 acres of land it grazed 150 sheep and had a mixed orchard, which he added to. “JR did a lot of planting for that era,” says John Webb, who is a director of New Zealand Fruit Growers Federation, chairman of Otago Regional Fruit Growers Committee and Simon’s father.
Apples have always featured strongly on the Webb family orchard and now account for a third of the fruit grown there. “I like growing apples,” say John. “I get satisfaction from seeing a crop of apples on the trees.”
So when the bottom fell out of the apple market in 2004/5, John and Simon went into development mode, investigating new varieties and intensively planting Jazz and Envy on dwarf stock; 2000 trees to a hectare. Today Stonehurst produces the only export apples in Cromwell and the Jazz variety has become particularly popular. “Crunchy, juicy, sweet – I love that apple, it’s always a winner,” says Simon.
Roadside fruit stalls are an iconic feature of Central Otago and the Webb family stall has been a constant feature on the Cromwell to Wanaka Road since the late 1950s. Fruit is specially picked at maturity for the stall and aside from getting in cherries, the Webbs sell only what they grow. This includes Central Otago apricots, which are revered for their intense flavour. “At first you taste the sweetness, then that acidness that follows,” says Simon.
Plenty of fruit also makes it into the family kitchen. Simon’s mother Ainsley, a registered nurse, preserves apricots, peaches, pears, plums and greengages. And John recalls the early days of their marriage when Ainsley would prepare three meals a day for orchard staff. She taught Simon how to preserve and cook and while he doesn’t have as much time for it nowadays, he still has a passion for it. One of his tips is to put preserved plums in the slow cooker with pork, “beautiful,” he says.
Simon and his wife Trudi both have horticultural degrees. Simon says university gave him the tools to implement new ideas and it taught him how to adapt situations. “It’s a buzz when you see a hundred bins of Jazz sitting there, from what was a wasteland,” he says.
“The biggest thing is to keep your passion going, keep moving; develop varieties, develop markets, look for opportunities,” says Simon.
It is a philosophy he is instilling in his own children – fifth generation Webbs; that, and an appreciation of good food. His preschool daughter is always keen to accompany him to work on the orchard and, says Simon, “she wouldn’t go past the cool store without getting something to eat.”