The Planting of Kerikeri

The beginning of Kerikeri's horticultural industry in the late 1920's has been well documented.


The vision of journalist and owner of the Northern Advocate George Alderton to see a citrus industry in Northland, and his encouragement by E.S. Little, a businessman from China, who wished to bring his family to settle here, saw the formation of the North Auckland Land Development Company which surveyed and subdivided an area of suitable land with volcanic soils for this purpose.


Block sizes of about 20 acres were established in the area from State Highway 10 to Inlet Road and shelters of Eucalyptus and Hakea Saligna formed a barrier to wind and a microclimate allowing the young citrus trees to thrive in what had a few years before been an unimaginably barren landscape.


The nature of the small settlement of Kerikeri changed until, by the mid 1930's, a colourful and cosmopolitan band of settlers from the East made up a significant proportion of the land owning population. They settled the area and endeavoured to forge a living from their groves of oranges, lemons and grapefruit.


My father, a King Country dentist, followed his brother, a Timaru dentist, to Kerikeri and purchased a 21 acre block in Inlet road in 1940—a place in the sun to give the comfort of warmth and the beauty of fast growing gardens and trees in his retirement. My father-in-law, Bus Emanuel, was a young man among the China settlers who, with his parents, settled an orchard block in 1927, and was the practical man amongst his peers whose energy and pragmatism made him an invaluable adviser and innovator amongst the early settlers.


By the outset of war in 1939 the Emanuel orchards made up the largest lemon planting in the Southern Hemisphere. The neglect of properties as this generation enlisted and served in the period of 1939-1945, followed by the disastrous droughts of 1945 and 1946, left the orchards in an uneconomic and run-down phase.


I arrived in Kerikeri in 1959 and soon determined to take over the family property and join in with a community which although only about 500 strong, had something around 50 associations and interest groups. These centred around the arts, music and drama, extended to religions and philosophies of unending diversity, and a strong and vocal Womens Institute of such characters as Hilda Perham, Violet Benner and Alice Johnston. Joan Hyde wrote short plays and skits for them to perform and the community reeled with laughter at the risqué humour and community oversight that was exposed.


At about this time another serious move into horticulture began. Tree tomatoes had been planted in large numbers by Maurice Kempthorne, Dick van der Kwaak, Rod McDiarmid, Bus Emanuel and the Riley brothers, and although new plantings of oranges, mandarins and seminole tangelos were taking place, the fast yielding tree tomato returned more wealth to the district than citrus had ever done. Over 1,000 tonnes of tree tomatoes each year were produced and sold from Kerikeri a processing plant was established in Moerewa and the area was scented with lime sulphur from the sprayers as growers got down to the serious business of controlling powdery and downy mildew in their plants.


While Bill Thomson was working at changing the name of tree tomatoes to tamarillos in the mid 1960's, I became involved in the promotion of a community irrigation scheme.


Growers were becoming more serious in their endeavours to produce quality citrus from plantings on trifoliate rootstocks. Tangelos were a new and exciting crop with high returns, navel oranges and lemons were marketed through the Citrus Marketing Authority which had been set up in 1952 in an attempt to overcome the poor prices which prevailed during and after the war. Mandarins, mostly the clementine variety, fetched very high returns and at the end of the 1960's production from the area's citrus groves was impressive and returns for fruit were stable. Interest by marmalade manufacturers in New Zealand grapefruit and a call for grapefruit juice to substitute for orange juice encouraged significant plantings of this variety in the late 1960's. The planting of 1000 acres to the north of Kerikeri was planned with feasibility studies based on a return of four pence per pound.


This proposal, although well researched, did not proceed for a number of reasons. First was the scepticism of the smaller grower of anything done on this massive scale. Second were doubts cast on the market accepting the product, given the gathering world preference for orange juice, and third, there was a growing interest in the juvenile kiwifruit industry as a much superior money spinner.


The first commercial plantings of kiwifruit were made in 1973 and 1974, and as the industry became more attractive with gathering demand overseas, there followed a boom period for the development of kiwifruit orchards during the period 1979 to 1982. Much of the investment was made by city businessmen encouraged by tax incentives and capital gains.


Kerikeri land was significantly cheaper than the preferred suitable land in the Bay of Plenty. Provision of water for these plantings caused many of these investors to create dams, this despite the fact that a community irrigation facility met with Government approval in 1980. During the construction of the irrigation scheme, a total of $350 million was estimated as having been spent on horticultural development in Kerikeri. A research station was developed by DSIR, beginning in 1982, and replacing the small research block next to the land on which the Kerikeri Club now sits.


The 1980's saw the overplanting of many of the citrus groves with kiwifruit. Tamarillo production was also negatively affected in this gold rush. Tamarillos in fact suffered from the growing prevalence of tobacco mosaic virus, which severely limited their growth and productivity.


By 1987 the inevitable supply and demand equation for New Zealand kiwifruit saw a collapse in prices, at a time when the district's production was just beginning to peak. The industry was set to experience at least five years of difficult times. Growers suffered a huge decline in their equity in orchard properties and the small orchards were often subdivided to provide a house section, while the orchards themselves were sold.


This set in train a subdivision of the central Kerikeri area which at the time was growing in popularity as a residential village. The Local Authority no longer held a strong approach to the maintenance of economic units of area for horticulture, but rather took the more expedient view of their ratepayers. What had been considered the valuable land resource of Kerikeri deep friable loams lost ground to housing development.


In the mid 1980's a recognition of the possibility of mandarin production for export to Asia encouraged the development of a large orchard in the area of Kapiro Road. A few years later a similarly large planting of lemons took place, again with a view to export. The district's kiwifruit production diminished and the famous Kerikeri orange lost ground as a result of the free flow of cheap Australian oranges under the rapidly changing trade patterns between the two countries. New Zealand grapefruit was no longer catered for by a processing plant and had a very limited market as a fresh fruit. Seminole tangelos had contracted a fungal disease which, with the move against chemical sprays, was impossible to counter. This meant that this popular variety of the 1960's was no longer an economic crop in the 1990's.


The writer's vision of horticulture in Kerikeri as we approach the next century, is of a continuation of the export focus at the expense of local market supply and a new professionalism being applied in the production of citrus and subtropical fruits for export. Asian prosperity will open up new opportunities and challenges to Kerikeri's horticultural community and an era of prosperity such as has not been known since the 1970's, should follow.