The Hastings company has combined with the Turley family in South Canterbury’s Rangitata to put in an initial 20-hectare orchard.
This is expected to expand to 100ha over the next two years, with apple growing eventually scaled up in the region to more than 500ha.
Rockit has a base of about 850ha planted in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne under company ownership or via a licence to other growers.
The apples are grown in nine other countries, mainly for domestic supply with the largest plantings in the Washington state of the United States.
Commercial general manager Tom Lane said the first commercial planting in the South Island followed several trial orchards in the south.
The company was continuing to expand to meet demand in offshore markets. Apple growing was a long-term investment with trees taking six to eight years to reach full production, he said.
"With climate change and extreme weather events we’ve seen over the last couple of years we’ve been very focused on where we’re growing and what that’s going to look like in the next 10 to 15 years. We’ve worked closely with parties to climate [model] this and that’s where Canterbury really came up trumps."
Producing premium apples required late winter and early spring chilling to get good fruit set and this was reducing in North Island orchards. Growing temperature days were expected to increase in Canterbury, he said.
Parts of the South Island also fit the bill for hot days and cold nights with long term trends positive for growing.
Other owners of apple varieties were also looking at the province to set up or expand.
This is a turnaround from several decades ago when Apple Fields dismantled orchards for property development close to Christchurch after struggling to break away from single desk exports.
Mr Lane said market conditions were different now with Rockit managing apples from the orchard to the consumer which gave better price control.
The company was selective about choosing growing sites and Turley Farm’s trial orchard over the past few years provided detailed data on soil tests and other information, he said.
"Even before we started working with them they had made the decision their site was going to be well suited for high quality apple production.
"By the time they started talking to us it was really a matter of them choosing the right variety as they knew they could grow a great apple."
He said Rockit was happy to align with Murray and Margaret Turley as they had a well-deserved reputation as excellent growers at the forefront of innovation and diversification.
Their orchards are designed to have hail netting put up in year three.
"The value of the apple just means it’s too valuable to take a risk of a hail strike.
"We know the Rangitata location is less prone to hail than some regions, but with climate variability you can never predict it with any certainty so you’re much better putting in the hail netting."
This also provides sun protection on hot days with its cost offset by the premium obtained from the apples.
A mature Rockit orchard using the new 2D growing systems — similar to espalier growing — delivers a gross orchard gate return of about $200,000 a hectare.
Mr Lane said the earnings before costs were removed were approaching gold kiwifruit returns.
The appeal for landowners wanting to be involved with the Rockit story taking apples to the market was it provided a diversified crop, lower water and nutrient requirements.
He said their apple had found a market because of its top-eating, tube packaging and smaller size.
The company won the supreme award last year at the 2022 New Zealand International Business Awards and now sells into more than 30 countries, including China, India, Vietnam, the US and UAE.
Rockit’s tubed apples are sold in the Costa Coffee chain in the Middle East and it is in talks to supply Starbucks stores.
Mr Lane said "99.9%" of its fruit grown domestically was exported.
Rockit was now looking for one or two more investors to join the company and the Turley family, he said.