Hawke’s Bay is the largest apple-, peach- and squash-growing region in New Zealand. In 2007 it had 4,930 hectares of wine grapes, making it the second largest wine-growing region, behind Marlborough. It is best known for its red wines and chardonnay.
Food and wine production is concentrated on the Heretaunga plains and river valleys, and in the Ruataniwha district, near Waipawa in Central Hawke’s Bay, where water resources and climatic conditions are ideal for this type of intensive farming. Grapes are also grown along the coast between the Esk River and Te Awanga.
In the early 1850s the first French Catholic missionaries to the region initially set up their mission in Gisborne instead of Hawke’s Bay by mistake. When they realised their error, they moved south to Ahuriri, leaving behind a half-built house and fledgling grape vines. A couple of years later a fellow Catholic missionary found the vine loaded with grapes. He made wine and sent a cask by sea to his colleagues in Ahuriri. However, when the cask was tapped it was full of sea water – the sailors had obviously put it to less holy uses than the vintner intended.
In the early 19th century Māori grew peaches around kāinga (villages) from stones they had been given by traders and other early Europeans. Missionaries like William Colenso planted and distributed fruit trees and vegetable plants in the region. Food plants were mainly grown for home use or small-scale trading until the 1890s, when commercial growing began in earnest.
French Catholic missionaries introduced grapes to Hawke’s Bay in 1851, so they could make sacramental wine. They later established a successful vineyard and wine-making business that lived on as the Mission Estate winery in Napier, owned by the Society of Mary. Other early commercial wineries still in business in the 2000s included Te Mata Estate in Havelock North (founded in 1892) and Vidal Estate in Hastings (founded in 1905).
Commercial food crops
The first successful food crop business was started by James Nelson Williams. He planted a large orchard at Frimley, near Hastings, in 1892 and opened a canning factory in 1904. In 1910 there were 546 hectares of orchards around Hastings, and hundreds of hectares were converted to orcharding each year. Most were planted in peaches, apples and pears.
This led to other new businesses opening, such as nurseries and cool stores. Overseas exports began in the early 20th century, but were interrupted by the First World War. Large-scale exports, which helped the sector grow, did not start until after this. However, a strong domestic market kept the industry going in the meantime.
Let there be light
In 1928, after arguing with his neighbours over pruning methods, Italian immigrant and apple grower Vincenzo (Victor) Cacciopoli took to his trees on a moonlit night. He removed the middle of each tree, leaving only 4–5 leader branches on each and letting in lots of light, which was the method used on the family orchard in Italy (in New Zealand up to 20 leaders were kept after pruning). Cacciopoli’s first harvest was poor and his neighbours felt vindicated, but subsequent crops were record breakers. His orchard became a tourist attraction and his pruning method common.
The region’s most successful and enduring horticultural business is Wattie’s, a food processing company started in Hastings by James Wattie in 1934. The company began life pulping and canning fruit and vegetables, and later diversified into products like jams, sauces, soups, baby food, frozen produce, pet food and pre-prepared meals. It became a major employer in the district and provided income for growers in the region.
Wine industry development
Wine production grew rapidly after the Second World War, and the area planted with grapes tripled between 1945 and the late 1960s. By this time most of the vineyards were owned by large wine-making companies, and the average size of vineyards was large compared to other grape-growing regions in the country.
During the 1960s and 1970s the local industry was characterised by bulk growing of white grapes with an emphasis on quantity. In the early 1980s small-scale ‘boutique’ vineyards began to appear. While large corporate growers were still present, most wine-growers in the 2000s were small and aimed to produce top-quality wine.
Employment in horticulture
Rapid development often led to a shortage of horticultural workers, even in the early days when children could be employed. Labour shortages forced Wattie’s to become highly mechanised.
After the Second World War 60% of Wattie’s employees were Māori, and women were increasingly hired for seasonal work. The seasonal character of the industry meant that work was plentiful for parts of the year, but lacking in others. In the 1970s Hastings was one of the fastest-growing employment districts in New Zealand, but had the highest rate of unemployment because of the seasonal nature of the work.
In the 2010s horticultural farming (particularly fruit growing) employed the largest group of people in the agricultural sector, while fruit and vegetable processing employed the second-largest group of people in the manufacturing sector. Though wine production was a relatively small employer, Hawke’s Bay was renowned for its good wine and food, which attracted migrants and visitors to the region.