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Julian Raine:
The apple of a horticulture robot’s eye.

Julian Raine podcast_apple orchard_featured image

Ideas That Grow: Julian Raine, 1997 Nuffield Scholar.

Julian Raine is a 1997 Nuffield Scholar who quietly gets on with things worth shouting about.  
 
Julian runs a mixed Dairy and Horticulture operation and no matter what he’s producing, the one constant is innovation. From robots to getting back to milk in glass, Julian has an entrepreneur’s motivation and an innovator’s foresight. 

In this podcast, Julian talks with Farmer’s Weekly Editor Bryan Gibson about his diverse operation, some of the challenges he faces and some of the innovations he’s making to meet them – including moving to robot-ready on horticultural sites.  
 
Julian also talks about his Nuffield travel, what he learned and how his research played a role in helping shape an industry.  

The interview took place in May 2022 and the version below was edited for clarity. Listen to the podcast above for the original conversation.

Bryan Gibson – Editor of Farmer’s Weekly.

I’m Bryan Gibson, editor of the Farmer’s Weekly. And today we are talking to Julian Raine. How’s it going? 

Julian Raine – 1997 Nuffield Scholar, Dairy and Horticulture farmer/grower, Nelson. 

Good. Thanks, Bryan. 

The apple of a robot’s eye.

BryanAnd where are you calling in from today?

Julian:  I’m in Nelson. We have a farming operation, which includes dairy and horticulture, just south of Nelson in the Tasman region.

BryanThat’s quite a diverse business you got going there? 

Julian:  Yes, it is. The agricultural bit has been in the family for 180 years, so we’ve been around a while. Whereas the horticultural bit, I started with my business partners about 40 something years ago.

Innovating in a diverse operation.

Bryan: What do you focus on in the horticulture side of things? 

Julian: We have about 200 hectares of apples. I’m just trying to do the quick numbers off the top of my head – about 40 hectares of berries, all boysenberries. About 45 hectares of kiwifruit, and about five hectares of a new crop for us, feijoas. 

Bryan: Fantastic. And how have things been going this year? 

Julian: It’s been a good year in terms of growing. Been a lot more difficult to get things harvested with the shortage of staff. We completed harvest nearly a couple of months ago for all crops, so that’s good to have that behind us, although we were still packing apples well into July.  

There’s plenty of challenges with shipping and trying to get containers. We were running about a month behind with our shipping program, so that’s been a bit of a worry. 

Bryan: You haven’t had any of the weather or climate related yield issues they’ve had up in the North Island? 

Julian: No. No, we’ve been a bit fortunate thankfully, there was enough to contend with from COVID. 

Bryan: And the agriculture side of things, can you just tell me a little bit about that? 

Julian: Yes. We operate a fresh milk business. We deliver to about 3,000 households in the top of the South Island, Marlborough-Nelson-Tasman. We operate two dairy farms, and we buy and milk from another two dairy farmers. 

Bryan: So, it’s direct to the consumer. 

Julian: Yes. The home delivery is to the letter box, or to the back door, or front door. To cafes, restaurants. And we have several vending machines dotted around Nelson as well. 

Bryan: That seems to be a growing industry, isn’t it? 

Julian: It’s kind of back to the future really. When I was a lad, all the milk was basically bought at the front gate. And occasionally when you ran out, you went down to the dairy. So, we’ve kind of gone back to that model. 

Bryan: My first job I did all through high school was pushing a milk cart round the streets. I was there for the change from glass to the tetrapaks. 

Julian: Right. We’ve gone back to glass as part of what we do. 

We visited Julian at his apple orchard in April, where he has trees producing mostly the variety ‘Pink Lady’.

Julian spoke briefly about a new 500 cow, all-weather shed he has built, giving his operation ‘the tick’ from the SPCA, one of the first dairy farms in New Zealand to receive this endorsement. This dairy operation supplies Appleby Farms (Ice cream), a business collaboration between himself and Murray Taggart, a fellow Nuffield Scholar.

A Nuffield report creating impact.

Bryan: Now, it’s been a little while since you did your Nuffield report, 1997 I think you did it. But integrated fruit production, still relevant, I think. What do you remember of writing that report? 

Julian: As you say, it was 25 years ago. So, a bit of a distant memory, but many of the issues are still relevant today. What came from that report was a system I wrote called Green Grow, which was to deliver three things: Fruit with no residues, have some environmental indicators, and have a food safety system under something relatively new then called HACCP.  

This was a hazard analysis control point, which was what NASA used to send their astronauts into space. Because if you’re sick up there because of food, you’ve got a major problem. So, they wrote a food safety programme, and I adopted the bones of that, or the principles of that. 

They wanted to know whether the product was safe. The only way that we could guarantee the product being safe was essentially to take residues away. So, in terms of how we produce it, it’s up to us to battle the elements, with insects and fungi. 

When the consumer comes to consume it, they want to know that there’s nothing on there that can harm them or their kids. And then as part of that, some environmental indicators that say we haven’t harmed the environment in producing that fruit. 

Bryan: Space age fruit production, that sounds awesome. 

Julian: Yes, years later, I chaired the Apple Futures Programme, that was a three-year programme to deliver wider systems to get to the same point for the average grower. That’s pretty much about 80 something percent of the New Zealand industry now, with a fair chunk of the balance being organic. I wasn’t pretending to be organic. And yeah, we converted a whole industry in less than a decade. 

Bryan: The industry as a whole – horticulture, pip fruit and candy fruit, and that sort of thing has come a long way in the last decade or two, hasn’t it? 

Julian: It has. That was late 2000s, and since then it’s advanced even further. 

Setting up for horticultural automation.

Bryan: Do you have any other observations on how things have changed, running a kiwi fruit growing business in that time? 

Julian: We’ve set up our orchard systems now for being robot ready. We can’t keep going how we are. And so, investing in an orchard production system is a long timeframe. We must think about what the future will look like when we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a hectare setting up an orchard.  

We’ve set our orchards up in anticipation for robots to be able to harvest. We think about how they’ll optically see the fruit, how they’ll pick it, and then how they’ll get that fruit from the tree into a bin. That’s what we’ve been busy at in the last decade. About 30 something percent of our orchards, anything we’ve planted in the last 10 years, are robot ready. 

Bryan: That’s interesting. You often think about building robots to pick the fruit as it sits. But there are a lot of things, I guess, row spacing and the way you propagate the trees, that sort of thing. 

Julian: Yes, and how we set the structure up. So single plane trees. It’s like a single plane hedge row, so the robotics and the sensors sensing the fruit, can’t go through the tree. So, it’s got to be on a single plane essentially. 

Bryan: That’s amazing. How far off do you think you are from getting the robots? Are you involved in any of that? 

Julian: The Americans and the Europeans are leading that race. We don’t have the technology here that’s needed for it. Although, there’s a small group headed by Steve Saunders in the Bay of Plenty who are working on kiwifruit robotics. They’ve tended to go more into the pack house and look at optics and how you pack fruit. 

In ten-years-time, we’ll have lights out factories packing apples. Again, to try and get 24 hour a day, seven day a week packing businesses going, we need to do the same thing with our harvest processes. When the sun goes down, we don’t all go home – robots will carry on. 

Bryan: Sounds very high tech and quite cool.  

Julian: There’s a lot of work to get it to that point. A few of us, I suppose, think about these things in the middle of the night, when other people are sleeping.  

You’ve got to work out where your business is going. About how you make it more efficient and keep a lid on cost. Because everyone is really cost conscious now, the consumer wants to buy more for less. And we’ve got to get cost out of our business and keep a high standard, because that’s really what our New Zealand brand is built on. 

Nuffield and the international travel experience.

Bryan: Now, going back to 1997, you also did a bit of travel as part of your studies? 

Julian: Yes. Through Southeast Asia, Europe, and Eastern Europe. It wasn’t long after the wall came down, I was in Hungary looking at soft fruit production. I was also in South America looking at what they were doing in Chile and, North America, in Washington.  

Really interesting to get a handle on what the leading lights were doing at that point in terms of their growing systems. 

Bryan: And in the time since, how would you say being involved in the Nuffield Programme has informed what you’ve done in those years?

Julian: Well, for me it was about the personal experience and honing my leadership skills and trying to lead producers through changes. Also, trying to think about things holistically, looking at a problem, not from just a single plane, but being able to not only go around and see the other person’s view, but be able to walk right around that issue and look at several points of view.  

I’m probably not finished yet – I’m always willing to give back to the industry. 

Bryan: The Rural Leaders, Nuffield Programme would be something you’d recommend? 

 Julian: Without Nuffield I wouldn’t have got to where I am today. It gave me not only a critical thinking ability, but it’s also given me a lot of resilience as well.  

I am also able to call on the experiences I saw around the world – the interactions not only with other primary producers, but also government officials and how government thinks.  

And how the EU operates, rightly or wrongly. And then most importantly, how consumers think, and always interacting with your customer to keep yourself up to date with what the customer wants to pay for, and what they don’t want to pay for.

Thanks for listening to Ideas That Grow, a Rural Leaders podcast. This podcast was presented by Farmers Weekly.

For more information on Rural Leaders, the Nuffield New Zealand Farming Scholarships, or the Kellogg Rural Leaders Programme, please visit ruralleaders.co.nz 

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