Willowbrook Orchard, situated on the banks of the Clutha river, has been involved with the Farmers Market since it's beginning.
The Central Otago based orchard produces cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, pears and apples in several varieties for export as well as for sale at the Farmer's Market. Years of experience and a good eye for fruit perfection have taught John to produce quality fruit that is well sought after here and abroad.
Over the many years trees have been replaced with new varieties to keep up with the trends. Annually the trees are pruned, thinned and harvested, processes that take the entire year. Every season has it's particular chores as well as it's own beauty.
Winter pruning is done in frosty conditions in winter sun. In recent years a lot of this work has been able to be achieved using hydraulic cherry-picker type machines which keeps people's feet off the semi frozen ground. Spring, in spite of its beautiful fruit blossom, is a high risk time due to the possibility of the incoming season's crops being lost with frosts during the flowering stage.
John and his wife Diana sleep every spring night with a frost alarm set and ready to alert them of a temperature drop. Should this happen the frost is fought with overhead sprinklers. The ice forming during continuous sprinkling creates an energy therefore warmth is generated which lifts the falling temperatures. This method of frost fighting is so much cleaner and better than the old oil burning frost pots from years gone by.
Once the little apricot fruits appear and grow up to about a marble size the fruit is hand thinned by a team of workers. It will size up as the weeks go by then continue towards summer. Harvesting largely begins in January and is very labour intensive, but the reward of the months of careful preparation that goes into fetching through a high quality product that delights the consumer in New Zealand and overseas is priceless.
Willowbrook Orchard has a long standing permanent senior staff member, Noeline, who usually accompanies John to the Market on Saturday and many will know her friendly face . Other helpers at the market are often one or more of John and Diana's grown up children(Peter, Marie, Rachel and Adam) who were raised on the orchard and did their apprenticeship as kids in the shed or picking fruit . The eldest of the four , Peter, followed his parents into the industry for about 25 years after leaving school. John and Diana have two grown up grandchildren (Peter 's children Sherri and Jack).
Over the last few years of summer holidays Jack has worked the harvest season alongside his granddad and shows a lot of interest in proceeding into a future of horticulture after he leaves school at the end of 2011. If he follows through with his current desire he will become the 5th generation Gilchrist in horticulture in Roxburgh, Central Otago.
During the harvest season staff numbers increase to about 15-20 to help haul off the fast ripening apricot crops. The orchard produces several varieties of these . Each variety has it's own flavor and point of use. John is always happy to explain which varieties are best for what, whether it be preserves, jams, chutneys or eating fresh.
Diana wrote weekly cooking columns using fruit for the ODT and Southland Times some years back which generated a cookbook describing uses of various types of stone-fruit. Some copies of this book are still available on request at the Market table.
Many seasonal staff on the orchard are drawn from overseas. They are made up of backpackers on working holidays or horticultural students who come to do part of their work experience in New Zealand. The international horticultural students enjoy helping out at the Farmers markets and frequently do in the summer months.
Willowbrook have developed marvellous friendships with customers, crew and other vendors over the years at the Otago Farmers Market which they have greatly appreciated. It will always be John and Diana's wish to bring to the market place fresh quality stone and pip fruit (some strawberries too). Their hope is that it will satisfy with flavor, appearance and value for every buyer at the market tables of Willowbrook Orchard.
~ Supplying Otago folks fruit needs for four generations ~