Small Business: Transforming an electric cherry orchard pays off - New Zealand Herald

Small Business: Transforming an electric cherry orchard pays off – New Zealand Herald

The electric forklift used by Mike Casey at Forest Lodge Orchard is 40 years old. Photo/Tracy Barrett

A central Otago couple has converted their ranch into their nearly electric ranch but are staring at a zero energy bill.

The innovative and painstaking work of Mike and Rebecca Casey at Forest Lodge Orchard in Mount Pisa, between Cromwell and Wanaka, has resulted in significant cost savings and near zero carbon emissions.

The couple and their business partners, orchard manager Ewan White and his wife Rachel, have turned tradition upside down and are looking for a new way to grow cherries in central Otago.

The couple — an accountant (Rachel) and a computer programmer (Ewan) — had no previous experience in farming or gardening.

The couple didn’t want to live in a big city anymore, and found a property with 9 hectares of land and an irrigation pond for the cost of buying a beautiful four-bedroom house in Wanaka.

They planted 9,250 cherry trees, but a study by the Hawaii Environmental Accountancy Company showed that the orchard is far from being carbon neutral.

“The problem was, in order to run a productive cherry orchard with all the diesel technology everyone else is using, you could potentially emit 50 to 80 tons of carbon emissions, depending on how the orchard is managed,” Casey said.

In an effort to get rid of diesel, they replaced the irrigation pump with diesel by sinking the bore and putting in an electric pump of 18.5 kW.

The pump needed three-phase power, but the property only had one phase, and upgrading the network connection would cost over $100,000.

“You can see here why farmers never really replace diesel technology,” Casey said.

They worked with solar company Infinite Energy Cromwell to design an off-grid solar and battery system to power the irrigation system.

This worked about 80 percent of the time, but there were times when they needed watering and didn’t have battery power to do so.

“Ultimately, we decided to take the bullet and take the Aurora to upgrade the connection.”

Two 30kW electric fans were imported from South Africa, purchased invisibly during the height of Covid-related travel restrictions.

“The fans will burn 30-40 liters of diesel per hour. If you’re fighting a 10-hour frost, that means 300-400 liters of diesel per fan, and we needed two fans to effectively fight our orchards with frost.

Forest Lodge Orchard founder Mike Casey during the growing season, with one of two 30kW electric anti-frost fans behind it.  Photos / Miles Holden
Forest Lodge Orchard founder Mike Casey during the growing season, with one of two 30kW electric anti-frost fans behind it. Photos / Miles Holden

“We started with the payback period for the electrification of this orchard 11 to 12 years ago, when the price of diesel was $1.20, and it went down to about 90 cents. [per litre].

“Now it’s $2.70 and the payback period is nine and a half years in terms of cost savings.”

Last season, they sold their cherries under the consumer brand they created – NZ Zero – to a boutique supermarket chain in Auckland at a 15 per cent premium.

This premium, about $3 extra per cardboard box of cherries that uses no fossil fuels in its production, should reduce the payback period to less than two years when they are in full production.

The orchard is grown using a straight fruiting branch (UFO) system where the branches are trained similar to grapevines to grow along wires.

This allows the composting system to be a drip system as it is with vineyards, meaning no water or fertilizer is wasted on the rows between trees.

The orchard buys its power under the spot price contract.

Casey wrote a program that only buys when the price is below a certain point, and they sell back to the network once the price crosses another set point.

The orchard contains two electric cars, upgraded golf carts, a 40-year-old electric forklift, and the house and outbuilding all powered by electricity.

By next summer, you will have received New Zealand’s first electric tractor.

“There is no burning fossil fuel anywhere on this farm,” Casey said. “It’s all 100 percent electric, and we’re close to a net energy bill.”

Operating costs

Fossil fuels

• Anti-Frost $21,600

• Al Rai $10,260

• The car is 15,604 dollars

• Tractor/Vehicles $10,590

• The line fee is $1,000

electrical network)

• Frost Fighting $1,860

• Al Rai 3,402 USD

• The car is $5,375

• Tractor / cars 1204 dollars

• The line fee is 12,500 dollars

Electricity (grid, solar/battery)

Frost resistance $300

• Al Rai 549 USD

• The car is $867

• Tractors/Vehicles $194

• The line fee is $4,000

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