Story: East Coast region

Page 9. Growth and challenge, 1940 to 2010s

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The Second World War

The East Coast gave massive support to the war effort. At one stage it held the record for the rate of voluntary enlistment per head of population. At least half of Māori men aged between 18 and 35 from the region enlisted and served overseas, mainly in 28 (Māori) Battalion’s C Company, which was predominantly recruited from Ngāti Porou.

Post-war, 1945 to 1970

The region profited from generally buoyant prices for agricultural exports. Using aerial topdressing to spread fertiliser on pasture helped increase stocking rates. Overall though, the region’s rate of increase in sheep and cattle numbers was below the national average. In difficult hill country numbers declined – dairy cows in milk fell from 20,000 in 1951/52 to 14,000 in 1959/60. The Tokomaru Bay freezing works closed in 1952 and the Ruatōria dairy factory closed in 1954.

After severe floods in 1948 the Poverty Bay Catchment Board started the Waipāoa River flood control scheme. This encouraged the development of horticulture on the Poverty Bay flats. In 1951 James Wattie planted his first sweetcorn crops, and he established J. Wattie Canneries (Wattie’s) the following year. By 1959–60, 400 hectares in Poverty Bay was devoted to vegetable production for processing and canning, and 300 hectares was in orchards.

In the 1950s the fishing industry expanded with the arrival of individuals such as Bartolo Zame and Snow Higham. Wattie’s bought its own fleet and made its first shipment of frozen fish in 1955.

Gisborne grows

A Gisborne 30,000 club – a progress group that aimed to swell the population to 30,000 – had been formed in 1936. In the post-war years the town resumed its growth, although not at as fast a rate as it had grown around 1900. In August 1955 Gisborne’s population reached 20,000, and it was designated a city. It was one of New Zealand’s most prosperous cities through the 1960s, and in 1971 the population finally did reach 30,000.

From 1967 overseas ships could berth at the port. Gisborne hosted the national celebrations for the 1969 bicentenary of the arrival of James Cook in New Zealand. Thousands of national and international visitors went to Gisborne, as did nine ships from five navies.

Challenges, 1970 to the 2010s

Hill-country farming struggled to remain profitable; by 1994 tracts of land capable of supporting around 150,000 stock units had been converted to forestry. A drought in 1982–83 was followed by floods in 1986 and by Cyclone Bola in 1988, which caused around $60 million in damage. In Ruatōria a spate of arsons and other crimes took place in the mid- to late 1980s.

In 1983 there were 143 registered fishing vessels operating from Gisborne, and in 2011 perhaps two-thirds of that number, with Gisborne Fisheries and Moana Pacific the principal operators.

The Kaiti freezing works closed in 1994, partly because of the conversion of pasture to forest. Economies of scale led Wattie’s to close its canning plant in 1997. These two closures resulted in the loss of 950 jobs. Cedenco, which had processed tomatoes in the region since 1986, shifted its operation to Australia in 1996. Dairy cattle numbers rose in the 2010s and reached almost 18,000 by 2012, but the region still had no dairy factory. However, small-scale milk-bottling companies Ata Milk (established in 2013) and Gizzy Milk (2014) both sourced milk from local herds.

The population in rural areas continued to decline slowly, while that of the region as a whole was almost static – 45,742 in 1976, 44,262 in 1991, 44,460 in 2006 and down slightly in 2013 to 43,656. The Gisborne urban area’s population stayed around 30,000 in the 1990s and early 2000s.

New industries

As traditional agriculture declined, the region’s industry diversified. In 1988 one of New Zealand’s first truffle plantations was established near Gisborne. Japanese company Juken Nissho opened a wood-processing mill in Gisborne in 1994. Pultron Composites uses specialised resin technology to make high-performance, corrosion-resistant rods, bolts and related items, products it exports to over 70 countries.

Other new industrial firms in the 1990s included Harvest Cider, Tolaga Bay Cashmere, Waimata Cheese and the Gisborne Gold Brewery. Cedenco restarted tomato processing in 1999. Vineyards accounted for just over 2,000 hectares from 2007 to 2011, and 1,600 in 2014

Meat processing returned in 1997, and in 2011 Ovation’s Gisborne plant specialised in vacuum-packed cuts of lamb sourced from within the region.

In 2018/19 Eastland Port (the name of Gisborne’s port since 2003) shipped nearly 3 million tonnes of exports (eight times the volume shipped in 2005), 99.5% of it logs.

A social profile

In the 2013 census 48.9% of the East Coast population identified as Māori, compared with 14.9% nationally and 32.4% in Northland, the region with the second-largest proportion of Māori. Of the Māori population in the region, just over 30% were bilingual in Māori and English.

The population was youthful, with 24.6% under 15 compared with 20.4% nationally in 2013.

The economic profile of the region was relatively undeveloped in 2013 – 19.5% of the employed population were labourers, compared with 11.1% nationally. This was partly because of the large workforce involved in farming, forestry and fishing – 22.4%, compared with 5.7% nationally.

Of the population aged 15 and over, 28.3% had no educational qualifications, compared to 20.9% in New Zealand as a whole. The median income in 2013 was $24,400, compared to $28,500 nationally.

How to cite this page:

Monty Soutar, 'East Coast region - Growth and challenge, 1940 to 2010s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/east-coast-region/page-9 (accessed 12 December 2019)

Story by Monty Soutar, published 25 Aug 2011, updated 1 Mar 2015