Page 1: Biography
Earp, Roland Woodroffe
Accountant, orchardist, kiwifruit industry leader
This biography, written by Sarah Burgess, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.
Roly Earp was a pioneer kiwifruit orchardist of the 1960s and 1970s, and an influential advocate for grower control. He supported and encouraged the growth of the industry through the development of equipment to assist the commercial production, harvest and export of kiwifruit. Grower rights and wellbeing were always his top priority, at a time when the industry was expanding rapidly. For 10 years he led the sometimes contentious struggle to establish a grower authority with control over the export of kiwifruit. The resulting Kiwifruit Authority, of which he was the first chairman, helped make kiwifruit one of the country’s most successful and valuable export products.
Roland (Roly) Woodroffe Earp was born in Te Puke, Bay of Plenty, on 18 September 1923, the eldest of accountant Horace William Earp and his wife Catherine Flora Wilson’s four children. Horace worked as clerk for Te Puke Town Board and later the Town Borough.
Roly Earp grew up in the heart of an agricultural region and developed an interest in farming from an early age. He spent weekends on the farm of a friend, Grahame Bayliss, on No. 3 Road in Te Puke, an area later to become the home of the kiwifruit industry. These visits brought him into contact with many of those who were to take leading roles in the industry’s development.
Earp was educated at Te Puke District High School, save for three years at Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland. He had pestered his parents to let him attend an urban secondary school but homesickness, compounded by poor academic performance, made it a miserable experience. He failed university entrance and returned to Te Puke District High School, where he had greater success, both academically and as a member of the school rugby team. Much happier, he narrowly passed his final exams.
Horace had his own accountancy practice along with his work as town clerk, and Roly joined him there after leaving school, though he had no great interest in accounting. His development as an accountant was interrupted by active service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in the Pacific theatre, but Earp was able to undertake some study towards his qualifications while he was serving. He completed his training through Auckland University College in 1947, and the following year established his own practice in Te Puke. In 1950, after Horace retired as town clerk, he entered into joint practice with his father. Roly married Irene Angela Martelletti, a nurse and the daughter of a local dairy farmer, in Te Puke on 8 December 1951. They had four children together.
Accountant turned orchardist
Earp practised as an accountant for 13 years before taking the plunge and changing career. His interest in farming had never faded, but various circumstances, chiefly finances and the need to provide for a growing family, had prevented him from taking any action. By 1959, however, he could afford to buy 10 acres of land, and he contacted Grahame Bayliss, who was now an orchardist, for advice. They decided on a joint venture and purchased a 54-acre dairy farm in Te Puna, near Tauranga Harbour.
They decided to plant 50 acres in the Hayward variety of kiwifruit, a radical proposition at the time. Others were growing the fruit, but none had dared to make it their primary crop, and Earp later recalled that ‘People thought we were mad.’1 Most local orchards were planted in citrus and covered a considerably smaller area. Kiwifruit, though increasing in popularity, was still a minor crop, and the Hayward variety was generally considered uneconomic. But Bayliss had been exporting the fruit for a few years and believed that Hayward was likely to become the preferred variety.
Earp had little orcharding experience and was reliant on Bayliss’s expertise, in which he had total confidence. At first Earp could only afford to work the orchard on weekends, but after 18 months he closed his accounting practice to work full time on the orchard. The first few years were hard work, as the two men slowly developed their orchard, using a mix of planting and root grafting. They had to be innovative in their approach to tending the crop, as they found it difficult to keep the vines balanced and upright as fruit grew. Earp installed outrigger wires and a T-bar system, the first installation of this kind, while Bayliss developed the pergola system for holding up vines. Both systems were subsequently adopted as the global industry standard.
In 1963 Bayliss sold his half of the orchard to mutual friends Gwilym and Helen Jones, with whom Earp continued to work the property. The following year, in anticipation of the first crop, Earp built a packhouse and began working with other orchardists to mechanise harvesting, grading and packing, although manual labour remained important in the early years. Earp and two others approached local engineer John Hancock to develop what became the orbital fruit grader, the first piece of specialised equipment designed for the burgeoning industry. That year marked the first export of the Hayward variety and the year Earp’s first crop was sent overseas. The timing was good, as the Hayward variety was immediately popular and orders increased every year.
The fight for a growers’ authority
Earp quickly realised that grower involvement in kiwifruit marketing was critical. Growers then had no control over their product once it was packed and passed to exporters, and Earp was keenly aware that their lack of organisation made growers dependent on others at this crucial juncture. Exporters competed with each other for market access, there was no product promotion, marketing was uncoordinated and growers had no way to ensure their fruit would even be sold. It was a situation Earp found completely unacceptable. He came to believe that kiwifruit growers should form a body to control and coordinate the exporting and marketing of their crops, comparable to those operated by wool, meat, dairy and other fruit producers.
After his third season of exporting, Earp took the first steps in what would be a long fight to establish grower control of the industry. He called several growers’ meetings over the next few years and enlisted the support of local fruitgrowers’ associations and the local MP, George Walsh. He initially struggled to convince growers to band together; many had had a bitter experience with the Citrus Marketing Authority and were wary of a similar entity being established. He also faced resistance from exporting firms, particularly Turners and Growers, which opposed Earp’s suggestion of licensing requirements for exporters.
The kiwifruit industry was growing rapidly by the late 1960s, with total plantings and exports increasing annually. In 1970, Earp was appointed as a grower representative on the newly formed Kiwifruit Export Promotion Committee (KEPC), established to fund publicity and promotion in overseas markets of a fruit that was still a relative newcomer. KEPC proved highly effective; within a few years, kiwifruit was transformed from a curiosity to a sought-after product. But the KEPC system was voluntary, with no way to compel growers or exporters to participate and this, despite its success, reaffirmed for Earp the need for grower control.
In March 1972, at a national meeting of kiwifruit growers, Earp was elected chairman of a steering committee to work towards the creation of a kiwifruit export licensing authority. Five years of frustration, stalemate, division and antagonism followed, as growers and exporters took sides in the fight to create a controlling body. Earp found these years particularly difficult but persevered nonetheless, visiting the new Minister of Agriculture, Duncan MacIntyre, in 1976 to further his cause. Throughout these years his commitment to working for the good of the whole industry was widely acknowledged, even by those who opposed him. His persistence, and the support of MacIntyre, paid off in November 1977, when the Kiwifruit Marketing Licensing Authority (later the New Zealand Kiwifruit Authority) came into being.
An authority at last
Now that his aim had been achieved, Earp hoped to return to his vines and leave the work of setting up the authority to others. But when nominations were called for he felt it would reflect a lack of confidence to not be involved in embedding the authority, having fought for its creation over so many years. He also wanted to ensure that the steering committee, which in his opinion knew best what growers wanted, was adequately represented on the authority. He was duly elected to the committee and voted in as chairman at its first meeting in February 1978. He held the position for six years.
The authority lent confidence to the industry, which continued to expand and develop over the subsequent years. Earp feared this rapid growth was unsustainable. He was especially concerned about the large number of investors, many of whom he deemed speculators, who took advantage of a law allowing them to claim a tax deduction for the costs of developing an orchard, so long as the land was held for at least five years. At this point an orchard would be fully developed and ready to go into production, but these investors could sell for a large profit, pay little in the way of tax, and avoid the costs of picking, packing and marketing the now-mature fruit. Earp saw this as benefiting from the industry’s success without giving anything back. Alongside other industry leaders he sought to draw the government’s attention to the risks of such growth and speculation. He requested a law change to require 10 years’ ownership of an orchard before an owner was eligible to offset tax against development costs without the risk of future tax liability. This amendment came into effect in 1982 and slowed the increase in kiwifruit plantings, even forcing some out of the industry.
During his years as chairman Earp helped to lead the work of the authority. There was much to do, more than he had anticipated. He attended meetings of the authority, its committees and the wider industry, lobbied politicians for improvements to the system, and travelled extensively overseas to enhance the reputation of the New Zealand kiwifruit industry. By the time he stepped down in 1984, the kiwifruit industry had become a major exporter worth more than $100 million annually.
Later life and death
Earp retained close ties to the industry. He handed over daily management of the orchard to his son, Brian, but helped with the accounting side and offered advice. Roly remained actively involved until Brian’s death in 2008. He commented on industry matters and in 1988 published The kiwifruit adventure, a memoir of his life and involvement in the development of the industry. His dedication to the industry was recognised with the creation of the Roly Earp scholarship in 1984, the award of an OBE in 1987, and by his being made an associate of honour of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture in 1992. He continued to support growers, advising many orchardists and arguing their cases with their banks after a combination of poor returns, an increase in world kiwifruit production and the 1987 stock-market crash caused some to lose their orchards.
In his later years Earp chose to stay close to home in Te Puna rather than travel widely as he had done during his time with the authority, though he and Irene did go on occasional cruises around the Pacific. He spent time with his children and grandchildren, studied te reo Māori and took up pounamu carving, maintained the family garden, and was an avid cyclist until his late eighties. He died in Tauranga on 18 December 2016, aged 93, survived by Irene, two of their children and many grandchildren.