It was those small, not-quite-pretty-enough avocados that the King Avocado orchard team, growing millions of the popular Millennial fruit in the Far North, thought should not go to waste.
Up until now around half a million undersized or flawed avocados grown on the orchard’s 100,000 trees ended up as “press grade”, sent to oil manufacturers and turned into products like margarine. Each year 40,000 tonnes of imperfect avocados produced in other New Zealand orchards also end up as oil, the flesh, fibre and skins wasted.
Valic NZ, which owns the 200-hectare Far North orchard, set about finding a way to upcycle what they see as a superfood. The company started looking at what else could be done with the flesh, and eventually the skin and the pith or stone. Now, after years of research and development, the company has launched a subsidiary, Ovāvo, producing dehydrated avocado powder for use in food production.
Heading the operation is avocado grower Andrew Vivian. To him the new operation is a win-win for avocado growers.
“The only way to clear the little ugly ones was to squeeze the flesh to produce oil but the returns for the growers are low. Everything else was discarded and growers scarcely recover half their costs of producing the fruit.”
This year the company will crop 8 million avocados, rising to 10 million within a couple of years. Around 5 per cent of that crop will be “press grade” and in other orchards the wastage can rise to more than 10 per cent.
“We’re looking to take our fair share of that and pay a premium for that fruit,” Vivian says. “So it has wider benefit to the avocado industry.”
Valic teamed up with the food technology department at Massey University who have developed food prototypes using avocado flesh – ice cream, muesli bars, chocolate, tortilla wraps, hummus-style dip and chocolate breakfast drink for a start. They examined how freeze-dried avocado would react to different processes including baking, pasteurisation and extrusion.
The idea is that Ovāvo will be able to hand food manufacturers a tool box of formulas and recipes to help them add avocado to their products. And why wouldn’t you? Seen as a superfood and trending on social media, avocado aficionados point out the fruit is bursting with vitamins and minerals. A 100g serving of avocado flesh powder has four and a half times the amount of potassium than the same amount of banana, is higher in iron than sirloin steak, has more vitamin C than carrots and more vitamin E than broccoli.
The Massey University experimenters discovered avocado improves the melting point in icecream and that it makes a creamy plant-based replacement for butter in baking.
Would that not mean that the shortbread and icecream would turn out green with the same shock factor of Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham? Well yes, possibly, Vivian says.
“We think that’s quite a good thing.” But, says Vivian, if a manufacturer wants to create a muesli bar that does not turn green, Ovāvo can supply a recipe for that, too.
He and his wife Natalie put an avocado in their morning smoothies.
“But we put blueberries in as well so you don’t see green because the blueberries [overpower it].”
It’s all about innovation, he says. When supermarkets review their ranges they want to see something new that appeals to the masses. Avocados, one of the most popular fruits in the world, already tick the mass-appeal box.
The trick is to come up with something that’s not too weird, and is different.
“Supermarkets aren’t interested in me-too innovation,” Vivian says.
The company has contracted Auckland freeze-dried experts Fresh As, renowned for their freeze-dried raspberries, to process the avocado powder, and it will be distributed by Auckland ingredient company Invita.
Perfecting the freeze-dried avocado has been a team effort, involving support from scientists, Massey University, Callaghan Innovation, NZ Food Innovation Auckland (the Food Bowl) and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) to look at the global market.
The company already exports avocados to countries including Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and India and it will work with NZTE to sell the dehydrated powder globally as well. Australia will be the first export target, followed by the US, parts of Asia and Europe.
Perfect for growing avocados
From Vivian’s point of view there’s no better way to make a living and no better place in which to do it. The orchard is half an hour north of Ahipara with Ninety Mile Beach and the Tasman Sea a couple of kilometres to the west, and the Pacific Ocean three km to the east.
The soil is free-draining, the climate is warm – which means the avocados ripen earlier for export markets – and Valic has access to a major self-replenishing water aquifer to quench a thirsty fruit.
The King Avocado orchard was established by Sky Television co-founder and former test match cricketer Terry Jarvis who recently sold his mānuka honey company, King Honey, for $36 million to NZX health supplement and skincare company Me Today.
Jarvis sold King Avocado for an undisclosed amount in 2015 to Vulpes Agricultural Land Investment Company, owned by UK hedge fund billionaire Stephen Diggle. Based in Singapore, Diggle has increasingly invested in agriculture around the world and received Overseas Investment Office permission to buy the New Zealand orchard.
The company trades in New Zealand as Valic NZ Ltd. Diggle and avocado grower Alistair Nicholson, of Queenstown, are listed as directors.
As avocados rose in popularity and the industry became more lucrative, Netflix documentaries like “Rotten” and “Green Gold” highlighted the dark side of the luscious pear-shaped fruit. Drug cartels muscled in on growers in Mexico and in Chile large consortiums siphoned away water from small neighbouring farmers, forcing them to sell their land cheaply. High on the hit list is the amount of water avocados needed – estimated to be 320 litres to produce one avocado.
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