Half a million tonnes of potatoes were grown in New Zealand in 2007 and New Zealanders ate the bulk of them.
In the 1960s virtually all potatoes were sold fresh and prepared and eaten in the home. By 2007 over half the New Zealand potato crop was processed, mainly as French fries (chips) and crisps. Export of processed potatoes began in 1991 and has grown steadily since. Potatoes are New Zealand’s second highest vegetable export earner (NZ$94.2 million in 2007). Frozen potatoes account for 77% of this income.
The potato industry was made up of around 268 growers on 10,850 hectares in 2007.
Potatoes were first planted in New Zealand in 1769 by the French explorer Jean François Marie de Surville. Māori were quick to see some advantages of potatoes over their traditional root crop kūmara and began growing them in quantity. Potatoes could be grown in cooler climates, gave higher yields and were easier to store.
The first potato varieties gave yields of around 13 tonnes per hectare. During the 20th century a combination of plant breeding, improved growing practices and fewer viruses led to major increases in yield and quality. By the start of the 21st century New Zealand potato growers were averaging 60 tonnes per hectare, with yields of 80 tonnes per hectare being achieved in well-managed fields.
Fit for purpose
Potato breeders have developed varieties that are suitable for different purposes.
French-fry potatoes – big squarish tubers are preferred, and they must have a low sugar content to prevent caramelisation when they are fried.
Potato crisps – round tubers high in dry matter and low in sugars are preferred.
Fresh potatoes – small tubers are popular; they must store well and preferably have a good skin that washes well.
Over 50 varieties of potato are grown in New Zealand. They crop best in sunny locations on rich well-drained soil with plenty of organic material. Production is mainly in the Pukekohe, Manawatū, South Canterbury and Southland areas. Ilam Hardy and Rua are the main varieties grown for domestic consumption. Both were bred in New Zealand – Ilam Hardy in 1951 and Rua in 1960. The common processing varieties – Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Shepody – were introduced from North America in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Onions are New Zealand’s highest-earning export vegetable and the fourth highest-earning horticultural export. Onions are mainly grown in Pukekohe and around Matamata. Smaller volumes are grown in Hawke’s Bay, Horowhenua, and Canterbury. In the mid-2000s some 110 onion growers cultivated 5,000 hectares of land. They produced around 200,000 tonnes of onions each year, with a retail value of around $120 million.
Japan was the main export market for New Zealand’s fresh onions in the 1970s and 1980s, but since the 1990s most of the export crop has gone to Europe.
When onions are peeled or cut they release pungent oils that irritate eyes, causing tears to flow. But in 2007 New Zealand and Japanese onion scientists developed a tearless onion. It might be some years before home cooks get their hands on them though. In the meantime, home chefs can reduce their tears by storing onions in the fridge for a few days before peeling them under a running tap.
The mainstay of the onion industry is the Pukekohe Longkeeper. It is a strongly flavoured, firm cooking onion with golden brown skin and white flesh. Originally developed in the 1920s by John Turbot, a Pukekohe grower, it quickly gained favour for its long-storing quality. Other common commercial varieties include Crusader, which was developed for South Island conditions, and Californian Red, a red-skinned onion with a milder flavour and shorter storage life.
Pumpkins and squash are members of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae). In New Zealand the terms pumpkin and squash are used quite loosely, one person’s squash may be another’s pumpkin, but in general pumpkins are hard-skinned squashes, typically with an orange rind.
Before the 1980s Whangaparāoa Crown pumpkins were the most widely grown variety. Large (30 centimetres in diameter, weighing 4 kg) and grey-skinned, with a bright orange flesh, they keep well and are available year round. They are usually eaten as a vegetable or pureed into soup.
Zucchini (courgettes), scallopini and marrow are soft-skinned squashes that are available during summer months. Unlike the hard skinned squashes, they do not store well.
Since the 1980s the buttercup squash has been the main variety grown and has become a major export earner. These are green-skinned, medium-sized pumpkins (20 centimetres in diameter, weighing 1.5 kg) that have a shorter shelf life than hard-skinned varieties.
Squash are grown around Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay, which have fertile soils, and hot summer days and cool nights ideal for ripening firm-fleshed squash fruits. Harvest is from January to April. Two-thirds of the crop is exported, mainly to Japan. There the squash is known as kabocha.