Page 1: Biography
Farmer, horticulturist, conservationist
This biography, written by Sheila Robinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
George Witters was born at Makauri, Poverty Bay, New Zealand, on 11 September 1876 to Ann Maxwell and her husband, William Witters, a farm labourer. He grew up wanting his own farm and in 1901 bought a 31-acre block called Kaiaponi, at Waerenga-a-hika, seven miles north of Gisborne. On this piece of fertile plain he began his lifelong business of cropping. Eventually he would grow barley, oats and maize to fatten stock, and rye-grass, linseed and clover for seed to sow on the burnt hills inland.
He married Jane (Jeannie) Adair, a draper's assistant, at Gisborne on 3 November 1904. She was musical and artistic. Their wedding photograph shows George as a fine-featured man, immaculately clothed and well-groomed. Of their 10 children, eight grew to adulthood. George purchased a new farm called Woodlands, a few miles east of Kaiaponi, and the children mostly spent their youth here or in a town house in Gisborne during school terms.
Over the first two decades of the twentieth century, George Witters acquired more land with the aim of putting each of his four sons on a farm. Several hill stations that he was associated with were unprofitable and eventually relinquished. More to his liking was the lease of flat, arable land. In 1919 he was said to have harvested a record yield of barley – 110 bushels to the acre – on land leased from Heni Materoa (Lady Carroll). He was known, in particular, for growing maize and was reputed to have had the largest maize crib in New Zealand. Professional photographers were regularly engaged to record significant harvests, machinery, workers and animals. The success of his farming methods earned him a reputation as one of the most prominent farmers in the district.
When William Douglas Lysnar launched the Poverty Bay Farmers' Meat Company, which opened a new freezing works at Waipaoa in 1916, George Witters became one of the directors. However, the business ran into trouble and then foundered in 1923, and Witters, as a guarantor, lost much of his land. His dream for his sons was not to be realised as the depression intervened. Only Kaiaponi, which had been sold in 1921, was recovered in the name of his eldest son, Hunter.
Throughout his life many community interests occupied him; he was an office-bearer of the Matawhero Presbyterian Church (1900–1911), a member of the Cook County Council (1911–33) and its representative on the Gisborne Harbour Board (1911–29), president of the Poverty Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Association (1912–15), and a lieutenant in the East Coast Mounted Rifle Volunteers (1909–11).
Witters was an early conservationist and his enthusiasm for horticulture led him to plant thousands of trees. He always put quick-growing willows in his paddocks for stock shelter and planted native trees on every property he owned. His special concern was the last stand of kahikatea and puriri on the Poverty Bay plains, known as Gray's Bush, probably the only forest community of its type in New Zealand. He helped ensure its preservation by writing to the government, which gazetted it a public domain in 1926.
George Witters died at Kaiaponi on 22 February 1934, survived by his wife, Jeannie, four sons and four daughters. His legacy lay not so much in his land as in the attributes he and Jeannie passed on to their descendants who remained in Poverty Bay, contributing much to the district's cultural and economic well-being. His children followed his enthusiasms. Three daughters became professional photographers, and another spent years conserving native flaxes into a unique and priceless collection. Two sons were farmers who achieved prominence through Aberdeen Angus breeding and growing the first sweet-corn crop for J. Wattie Canneries. Another two sons rebuilt and maintained the family assets through trade and accountancy. In the last decades of the twentieth century two of his grandsons founded a highly successful food-processing export industry, Cedenco Foods, that has its origins in the crops of Kaiaponi.