The stories of NZ’s kiwifruit pioneers

I couldn’t wait to read Elaine Fisher’s new book ‘Seeds of Success -  the Stories of New Zealand’s Kiwifruit Pioneers’.

Commissioned by NZ Kiwifruit Growers (NZKGI) to mark its 25th anniversary in 2019, I knew it would trigger a flood of childhood memories for not only me, but many others.

Growing up on a kiwifruit orchard in Bethlehem, I’d lived the excitement around kiwifruit harvests, witnessing first-hand the hard work my parents put in. Coming home from college I’d head straight down to the packing shed where family friends, some from the South Island, had come to work through kiwifruit season, picking and packing. Shoulder massages, laughter, and  my father’s humour all combines into one happy memory.

But there was also the scary night when we heard that his tractor had overturned with a full harvest of kiwifruit spilling out across Moffat Rd. A whole year’s income lying there. That was a time when many orchardists took their whole crop to a neighbour’s to be graded and boxed.

We’d arrived on a 3.5 hectares (8.5 acres) orchard growing oranges, lemons, grapefruit and mandarins that sold mostly through mail-order around NZ. It wasn’t long before my father started looking into kiwifruit, pulling out much of the citrus, replacing them with railway sleeper posts and planting our first vines. As a nine-year-old, I was elated to earn two cents a box grading oranges, but within a decade we were hearing the rumours of the ’50 kiwifruit millionaires in Te Puke’ and started to reap some of the reward of all the hard work ourselves.

As kiwifruit plants started being sold overseas, and anxious that the market could drop, my father added in avocados, later selling up after we’d all left home. It was fascinating growing up aware that it was not only important to watch the seasons and the weather but also the changing market as kiwifruit exporting opened up.

Elaine’s book traces the fascinating stories of growers who helped shape today’s NZ kiwifruit industry which employs thousands of people and benefits regional and national economies.

Twelve months in the making, the book required many hours researching and interviewing.

“It’s been a bit of a road trip from the top of the North Island to Nelson,” says Elaine, “visiting all the growing regions of kiwifruit in NZ and talking to some absolutely amazing people who have brought their strengths and talents to make the industry the success that it is today.”

There is the Chinese gentleman in his 80s in Northland who escaped China as a 12-year-old. There’s the story of Te Puke grower Jim MacLoughlin who exported 40 boxes to England in 1953, making the first steps towards today’s $2.3 billion export industry.

And there’s the marvellous story of the woman who started it all - a Wanganui school principal Isabel Fraser, who in 1904, visited her sister in China, returning with a handful of seeds. An incredible stroke of luck meant she brought back seeds that gave rise to female and male plants, whereas seeds sent around the same time to the USA and Britain only produced male plants. Why is this important for all NZ? That’s why you need to read the book and be as gobsmacked as I was.

Elaine has an extensive knowledge of the kiwifruit industry, having edited The New Zealand Kiwifruit Journal from 1993 to 1998, and worked as a chief reporter and rural editor. She has won several national awards for her writing, particularly about the horticultural industry. There really is no one better qualified to write this book.

“NZKGI wanted the focus of the book to be on the stories of people who pioneered the kiwifruit industry,” says Elaine.

“For me the evidence of how the kiwifruit industry has transformed lives and landscapes was clearly illustrated when I visited Te Kaha and saw what has happened to the community down there.

“Finding something that brings a community together and gives them a sense of pride is brilliant.”

The kiwifruit industry has had its share of ups and downs, surviving the downturn in the 1990s and the challenges of Psa-V; and forging ahead with the establishment of a single-desk marketing structure and a popular and globally recognised brand that is as much about New Zealand as it is about fruit.

“Given the massive change that the industry is undergoing at the present time, NZKGI thought it would be a good opportunity to capture the stories of the original pioneers who are still with us and helped set up the industry,” says Doug Brown, chair of NZKGI. “We’ve put it into a book with the help of Elaine and we hope it will be a resource for people to enjoy for many years to come.”

With more than 30 inspiring stories, it’s a totally riveting read about plucky New Zealanders, full of courage and Kiwi ingenuity. Fascinating photos and an excellent design layout by SunCreative add  to this vastly informative and excellent reference resource.

The book will be launched at the 25th NZKGI anniversary celebration dinner on 3 July.

Copies can be pre-ordered now via the NZKGI website: www.nzkgi.org.nz