Māori tribes regularly exchanged goods, but the first markets in which the public could buy produce directly from growers appeared in Pākehā settlements in the 19th century. Markets were based in tents, which were often folded away once the day’s business was done. Remaining merchandise was usually handed over to the government store to be guarded overnight.
Early settlement plans had assumed that larger farms would become commercial operations, and that farmers would sell their produce to the public in markets. But most farmers, particularly those in the South Island, sold their produce wholesale on the national and international markets.
In early towns and cities small shops were set up to sell groceries, fruit and vegetables, meat, and fish. City dwellers mainly got their food from these shops.
In the early days of Pākehā settlement food was mainly imported, or purchased from Māori, who sold a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, often from their canoes tied up at wharves and jetties, particularly in Auckland.
William Swainson recorded that in the 1850s, Auckland was annually visited by 100 ships from overseas, 600 coastal vessels and nearly 2,000 canoes, including ‘once or twice a year the native chief Taraia and his tribe, from the eastern boundary of the Gulf … in their fleet of forty sail of well-manned war canoes’. They set up a market by the beach with ‘the appearance of a fair: pigs and potatoes, wheat, maize, melons, grapes, pumpkins, onions, flax, turkeys, geese, ducks, fowls, and firewood, are exposed for sale in great abundance, and meet with a ready market.’1
For the rest of the 19th century produce sales in Auckland continued to be informally organised at the bottom of Queen Street near the wharf.
There were repeated calls in the 19th and early 20th centuries for markets to be set up in New Zealand cities and towns. Some places did put aside land for markets, or even built market halls, but the English model of regularly held markets in a central place did not take hold.
Christchurch built Market Hall in Market Square (now Victoria Square) in the 1850s. Farmers sold produce – and initially livestock – there. It was never exclusively a market. It was known as ‘the coffee-palace’, and the post office operated from it during the 1870s. The city council built a concrete strip on Victoria Street (then named Whately Road) for a market in the 1870s, but this was no longer in use by the mid-1890s.
In Auckland, the Crown gave the city about 2.5 hectares off Queen Street (in the area later occupied by Aotea Square) for public markets in 1855. The council built the City Markets there in 1872. It rented stall sites to vendors, including fancy-goods retailers, second-hand dealers, and a variety of entertainers, as well as sellers of food and poultry.
English visitors found it surprising that New Zealanders did not buy their food in markets. On a 1915 visit to Wellington, Mr Austwick from Yorkshire told the Evening Post that he had ‘much praise’ for the city but one complaint: ‘I think you are behindhand … in not having a market. In England, almost every town of any size has its market’.1
The council put the market buildings up for lease in about 1902. Edward Turner – who had started with a small fruit and vegetable shop in Karangahape Road in the mid-1880s, and then ran a produce auction business – won the tender along with several other auctioneers. In 1918 the produce markets abandoned the by then dilapidated building, and relocated to two acres of reclaimed land in Customs Street East.
In 1895 a man wrote to Wellington’s Evening Post about the ‘exorbitant’ price of fish when there was a ‘plethora of fish to be had’ in the Marlborough Sounds. ‘Oh you long-suffering Wellington fossils! Where is your City Council and their fish market?’’2 Wellington set up a fish market in 1912, but it was a failure.
There was pressure on city councils to set up markets to keep food prices down, by giving customers direct access to growers and their produce without having to go through middlemen – shopkeepers and hawkers. In the early 20th century newspaper columns often carried correspondence about the need for markets.
In 1906 in Wellington a public meeting was held to lobby for a municipal market. The Evening Post endorsed the idea. ‘Auctioneers and Chinamen have practically a monopoly of the fruit trade of this city … The producer and the consumer rarely indeed come face to face; and the middleman who comes between them exacts a profit proportionate to the exorbitant rents which he has to pay.’ The paper noted that vegetables and fish were ‘hawked door to door – stuff in many cases not fit for consumption’.3
Wellington and Auckland city councils did set up fish markets. Wellington’s began in 1912 and even extended to a fishing trawler. But both closed in 1915. The councils had found it difficult to pay fishermen a fair wage while keeping prices low. Few people went to the markets as they could buy fish at competitive prices in their local fish shop.
Urban New Zealanders mainly bought their food from small shops. Before the suburban sprawl after the Second World War, most lived within walking distance of a suite of shops, which often contained a grocer, a fruiterer, a butcher and a fishmonger. Most shops offered home deliveries. One of the objections to setting up markets was that people might not patronise them because they would not want to have to carry their purchases home.
The market system that flourished in New Zealand was the wholesale market system. Market gardeners, often non-English-speaking immigrants, produced fruit and vegetable crops, usually on a small scale, and either sold direct to shops and restaurants, or by auction early in the morning at wholesale markets where shopkeepers acquired fresh produce.
Turners and Growers was the most successful produce auction firm of the 20th century. Edward Turner moved from retailing fruit and vegetables in a small shop in Auckland, to wholesaling by auction around 1900. When he began, shopkeepers went to the wharves to buy imported produce, and Turner auctioned what was left over.
Edward Turner’s nine sons all worked in what became Turners and Growers. He thought third-born Harvey’s voice too weak for auctioneering. Harvey took lessons – and took on the job on Boxing Day 1909 when shopkeepers wanted to buy fresh fruit, and Edward hadn’t turned up. Harvey got high prices, and when Edward returned after a short illness, he handed the auctioneer’s hammer over to him. Harvey became managing director of Turners and Growers from 1920, and later its chairman till 1969. He was also one of the architects of the New Zealand Fruit and Produce Merchants’ and Auctioneers’ Federation.
After the Auckland Provincial Fruitgrowers’ Cooperative Society was liquidated in 1919, Turner’s sons, led by Harvey, enlisted growers in a new cooperative company. Turners and Growers, which combined grower shareholders and the Turner auctioneers, was formed in 1921, after the Turner family decided to offer a proportion of shares to their grower suppliers. From 1936 they formed associate companies, and built their own markets in many other cities and towns.
In the early 2000s wholesale produce firms – including Turners and Growers which was by far the biggest – were still brokers between growers and buyers – but they no longer used an auctioneer. Selling on behalf of growers, they kept detailed and constantly updated price lists which they sent customers, many of them supermarkets. They negotiated prices by giving quotes and then settling on a figure, which depended on how much a customer wanted to buy and when.
In the 20th century markets in New Zealand were usually fundraising days for churches, schools or charity organisations. Food did not predominate, but on the varied stalls, among the bric-a-brac were often jars of home-made jam and preserves, cakes and produce – usually surplus home-grown fruit and vegetables.
Charity groups drove the development of open-air markets from the late 1970s. Some markets set up to raise money for charity became large, regular markets, for example the Riccarton market, founded by the Christchurch Rotary Club in 1989. By 2003, when it had 300 permanent stall holders, selling mainly fresh produce, handmade crafts and second-hand goods, it had raised $844,000 for community charities in its 14-year existence.
Te Puke Ōtara marae opened the United Flea Market in South Auckland in 1978 – before there was Saturday shopping. The market, in the car park behind the Ōtara town centre, was a fundraising effort for local charities and quickly became a major weekend event.
The market had a distinctly Polynesian/Pasifika atmosphere and a strong food component – with Pacific Island food specialties such as taro and sugar cane.
As the Nelson market grew strongly in the two decades after it began in 1988, founder Nita Knight applied limits to the content of stalls. ‘It’s hard to keep the integrity of the market, but I want it to reflect what’s going on in the region – the produce and arts and crafts – to bring out the flavour of this area.’1
Auckland’s Avondale market, established around 1982, became known for high-quality Asian foods and produce. The city’s fast-growing Asian community could find dumplings, long beans, bok choy and other specialty foodstuffs not then available from supermarkets and shops.
Brown’s Mill market, which opened in an old flour mill in Auckland’s Durham Lane in 1968, was New Zealand’s first craft cooperative. Its members were furniture makers, glass artists, jewellers, ceramicists and fabric artists. It was open in the weekends.
Other markets centred on crafts flourished in the 1970s – including Victoria Park and Cook Street markets in Auckland, and Victoria market in Wellington. Many of these markets, usually held on the weekends, declined in the 1980s, but some survive, most notably Christchurch Arts Centre weekend market, which sells arts, crafts and produce. In the early 2000s a resurgence in crafts led to a number of occasional craft markets around the country, some of them held in galleries and bars.
Some cities established markets to celebrate the produce and crafts of their own area. The Nelson Saturday market in Montgomery Square opened in 1988 with a focus on regional specialties.
A farmers’ market is a food market where local growers, farmers and artisan food producers sell directly to the public. Open-air markets, such as Ōtara and Avondale, have a mix of food, second-hand goods and cheap imported items, but farmers’ markets are strict about what can be sold, and where it comes from.
Farmers’ Markets New Zealand (FMNZ) was established in 2006 as a national body to help organise farmers’ markets and certify their activities. It held its first conference that year.
FMNZ says that to be an authentic New Zealand farmers’ market people can only sell ‘what they grow, farm, pickle, preserve, bake, smoke or catch themselves from a defined local area’.1 While 80% must be locally grown food, 20% can have ingredients sourced outside the region – to cover goods like locally roasted coffee, and bread.
Farmers’ markets began in New Zealand in 1997 with the Whāngārei Growers Market, followed by a market in Hawke’s Bay two years later. By 2006 there were 21 markets that met the FMNZ criteria. Two years on the number had more than doubled, to 43. By 2009 most New Zealand cities had at least one weekly farmers’ market.
Open-air markets in which farmers sold directly to consumers developed on the outskirts of American cities in the 1960s and 1970s. New Zealand farmers’ markets grew from this movement, rather than from the traditional European markets in town squares, where small landowners traded surplus produce for things they didn’t grow themselves.
Farmers’ markets are an alternative to supermarket food, and emphasise the quality of food, its freshness, and where it comes from.
Jennie and Bob Crum of Marlborough prefer to sell their 20 types of plum at the local farmers’ market. Jennie says supermarkets want fruit that is picked well before it is ripe so that it has a longer shelf life. ‘It is so much more satisfying for me as a grower to sell people fruit that is ripe and therefore full of flavour. But I have to teach my customers at the market what “ripe” is – because people don’t know any more.’’2
In the early 2000s New Zealand farmers’ markets had become taste destinations, places where people sought out regional foods, such as whitebait or fresh fruit. Some markets required significant travel for city dwellers. For example the markets at Matakana were more than an hour’s drive from Auckland.
Markets were seen as a boutique shopping experience, often including music by local musicians, and meals served al fresco. A wide variety of food could be sampled free, and people could take their time deciding on purchases.