Moutere Hills Orcharding
It's extraordinary how the Moutere Hills has changed. During the 1980s apple were booming, and the hills were alive to the sound of earthmoving equipment, and hammering. New orchards were planted, packing sheds were being extended, and gullies were dammed. This all started just three years after report from Massey University recommended that ‘New Zealand apple growers should retrench to local market supply. Export was a lost cause’. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Development also happened apace on the Waimea plains, Lower Moutere, Riwaka and Motueka. New orchards were planted where the Ernest Rutherford Retirement Village now stands, and on what is now Saxton Field. But the end of the 80s brought a dramatic reversal. This occurred soon after the Apple and Pear Board and single desk selling of New Zealand’s export crop was disestablished.
Returns for our apples and pears slumped, not due to the loss of controlled marketing, but rather because of overseas competition and an overvalued New Zealand dollar. There was wholesale slaughter of small orchards, particularly in the Moutere Hills.
Cast back even further, and you’ll find an even more dramatic rise and fall of fruit growing.
Before the first world war, entrepreneurs were busy promoting the Moutere Hills as the new Eldorado. The ‘Hills’ were subdivided and willing buyers were reeled in by the promise of freedom and prosperity.
The promotional material was irresistible. Here’s an example from Moutere Amalgamated Fruitlands Ltd, in 1914. (They had 2,236 acres (894 hectares) to sell):
Bronte lies to the sun upon the gentle Northern slopes of the Moutere Hills, and it contains the finest land in this celebrated District. It is within easy reach by a good coach road to Nelson, and the harbour known as Western Entrance (Mapua) is within one- hour steam of Nelson. This harbour is accessible to any Anchor Boat at almost any tide, and at half tide is to larger vessels to within half a mile of the village of Bronte, with excellent water carriage to the very door, so that fruit can be placed on board ship with minimum haulage and delay. In the mean-time and until the fruit trees come into profit, a good source of income can be obtained by planting tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, pea, beans etc. for all of which the land is the land is admirably suited.
And so on. Land prices started at £8 per acre.
If your perplexed about Bronte village, that’s because it never happened. It was 21 town-sized sections at the end of the Bronte peninsula that only ever existed as lines on a map.
It’s easy to see why Amalgamated Fruitlands found buyers. Between 1914 and 1920 all its blocks were sold, despite the fact that most of their potential buyer, and in particular the young men answered the call of duty in France and Gallipoli. Many did not return.
Amalgamated Fruitlands and other developers brought vast quantities of trees over from Tasmania and these trees were planted on nearly every slope. Many of the locations were boggy, and or shady, very steep and, or had difficult access. Within a decade most of the buyers walked off their land, but a stoic few stayed on and, for some, their sons were still growing apples when the good times started in the 1980s.
There were 280 apple growers in the Nelson Region in 1985, by the start of the 90s there were about fifty. A few years later the number fell to about forty, where it has stabised. Today in the Moutere Hills , heartland of the industry, there’s remains half a dozen growers.
For those of you who enjoy the juxtaposition of the old and the new, when travelling to Mapua from Richmond, rather than going down the main street (Aranui Road) turn right at the new roundabout onto Higgs Road. You will pass land on both the left and the right that looks much as it did when Apples were king. A few moments later and you’re amongst houses that are all less than ten years old. Thank Graeme and Eileen Thawley, both in their late 70s, for this glimpse of the past. They’re still growing apples, and still tending sheep.
It gets better. Eileen is an avid preserver of history. I called on her and Graeme earlier this week, and they showed me into their packing shed. The inside of the shed looks much as I remember it over three decades ago when I was a horticultural consultant with the Ministry of Agriculture. It was as if all Graeme needed to do was pull the plastic covers off the round bins, throw the switch, and they would once again be grading apples for export.
When Graeme switched off the grader in 1997 he didn’t know the finality of that moment. New requirements were invoked before the next harvest that were a bridge too far. Since then hygiene and compliance requirements have mounted year on year, and Graeme and Eileen’s facility has fall further and further off the pace. During their last years of producing export apples, they contracted someone else to do their packing.
Compared to Eileen, Graeme’s fore-bearers were latecomers. His great- grandfather arrived from Wellington in 1914 in response to the promotional material from Amalgamated Fruitlands. At that time Eileen’s family had already been in the district for almost sixty years.
You can still visit the cob house where Eileen’s Great grandmother was born. It’s in Mahana, about three kilometres from the inland highway, up George Harvey Road. Eileen led the charge to save his little-known gem.
In 1914, Graeme’s father, fifteen-year-old Stan, remained in Wellington working as a clerk at the Wellington fruit and produce auction when his forty-two-year old father, Enoch, and fourteen-year old brother, Harold, set off to make a new life for the family.
Early in 1915, Enoch returned to Wellington to help pack up the household for the journey by steamer to Nelson, and by horse and cart to their new home in the Moutere Hills. Enoch, who was a cabinet maker and carpenter, was yet to start building a house, but he had most of the summer ahead of him, and set to work immediately.
Graeme never knew his grandfather. In 1916, Enoch Thawley died while working on a two-story house on what is now called Old Coach Road (that house is still there).
That day Stan and his younger brother, Harold, became responsible for supporting their mother and younger brothers and sister while developing an orchard that was yet to produce any fruit.
Sixteen-year-old Harold would have learned much working along-side his father, and the family would have been infused with Enoch’s uncompromising can-do attitude.
Ten years were to lapse before Harold was able to turn his hand to building a fireplace and chimney for the house that his father had made weather tight, but little else.
Harold and Stan had been kept busy establishing the orchard, and no doubt taking any opportunities to earn more money, working on other properties, a number of which were being managed by Amalgamated Fruitlands for absentee owners.
It was fortunate that Enoch had chosen to spend a bit more, and secure a preferred site. The orchard performed well and no doubt Stan experience at Wellington auction market would have helped him select the right varieties, and the contacts he made would have made would have subsequently helped in selling the fruit.
Thawley Homestead and Orchard c 1926
Harold eventually married and moved to the site now owned by Graeme and Eileen.
Graeme and Eileen came to own this property because Stan bought it off his brother and moved up there in 1944. Graeme was only five at that time. Graeme eventually purchased the property.
Graeme's elder brother, Norm, was already running the original orchard. Norm’s son, Jim, and Jim's sons now run that orchard and with other land have grown it to the large operation you see on the left (travelling from Richmond to Motueka) just before you turn off for Mapua.
Graeme and Eileen still have a small area in orchard; an old block of Sturmers, and a young planting of Fuji. Their fruit is sold to a cider maker. They also have a flock sheep which enjoy the treed slopes across the road from their house. They have put this land (70 acres) under a Queen Elizabeth covenant, insuring that it will remain much as is in perpetuity.
After the disastrous period in the early 1990, apple growing returned to prosperity, but only for those able to pay for very expensive infrastructure; in other words, large scale producers. Sadly the days of working hard and eventually coming into profit are past.