The Apple Industry


Hard Graft for Early Apple Growers

Apples have been planted in the Nelson/ Tasman region since the arrival of the first European settlers, who found that apple trees flourished in the temperate climate.

William Cullen, a farmer from Somersetshire, planted 14 acres of apple trees in the lower Queen Street area in 1845. John Sheat took over the orchard in 1849 and profitably shipped apples to the West Coast goldfields and across the Tasman.1  Apples (569 bushels) first featured as cargo at Port Nelson in 1855. In May 1865 a special prize was awarded to a dish of Nelson apples at England's Cheltenham Horticultural Exhibition.2

Packing apples. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Guy Collection: ½ 68
Click image to enlarge

It wasn't until the early 1900s that there was rapid development, when hundreds of acres of apple trees were planted 3 in the area embracing the Waimea Plains, Moutere, Tasman, Mahana, Motueka and Riwaka.4

The first trial shipment, of several hundred cases of apples, was sent to the London market in 1907, laying the foundations of Tasman's pipfruit industry.5

Apple loading at Port Nelson. The Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: ½ 27
Click image to enlarge

However there were a few setbacks:  "...New Zealand apples were of excellent quality, but were badly carried, many being frozen worthless,"  was reported from London in May 19116 ; "Nelson Apples Immature" from London in May 1912 7; "Nelson Fruit in London Arrival in Bad Condition" from London in October 1916.8

The apple growing potential of the district attracted many businessmen and entrepreneurs. Among them, a newspaper editor, printer and small orchard owner, Arthur McKee, who was convinced that the Moutere Hills area was uniquely suited to growing pipfruit.  He bought several thousand acres between 1908 and 1910, which he subdivided and sold as orchards.9

"Why has Tasman so suddenly sprung into prominence? may be found the combination of perfect soils and climatic conditions, and these so perfectly blended as to proclaim this district unsurpassable for apple growing not only in New Zealand, but in any part of the world," he extolled in ‘A place in the sun and an occupation yielding health, wealth and happiness : apples for export, New Zealand's new industry' in 1915.10

The future wasn't so rosy for some of McKee's investors, who were inexperienced and  found the orchards to be uneconomic. Some of them sought damages on the grounds that McKees' claims were fraudulent.11

The Millionth Case. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Ellis Dudgeon Collection: 255268
Click image to enlarge

"It is estimated there will be a million and a half cases of apples for export (from  Nelson) in a very few years time," the Press Association reported in 1915. 12

Apple picking. The Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: 9949
Click image to enlarge

In reality, progress was a little slower, but by the 1920s, Tasman was one of  New Zealand's main pipfruit producers. About 114,000 cases were shipped from the Mapua Wharf in the 1925 season - about one third of New Zealand's export fruit.13

In May 1932, it looked like the magic one million cases mark was achievable, with The Evening Post headline,  ‘Nearly, Not Quite', announcing 991,738 cases of apples were exported from the Nelson district in that year.14  It wasn't until the 1934 season that the one millionth case of apples was presented to Lord Ernest Rutherford, who commented that the establishment of the Cawthron Institute in 1921 had been a turning point for the industry.15

Science was certainly integral to the development of Nelson's apple industry, but so also was the development of fruit growers associations, co-operative packhouses, improved cool-store facilities, and the Apple and Pear marketing board which was established in 1948.16

The transhipment of apples from Nelson to overseas markets via Wellington was virtually eliminated in 1965. That year 1,230,000 bushels were loaded directly on to overseas ships at Port Nelson, resulting in savings in freight costs and fruit arriving in overseas markets in  better condition.17


Sources used in this story

  1. Newport, J. N. W. (1978). Footprints too: further glimpses into the history of Nelson Province. Nelson, New Zealand: J. Newport.  p. 26
  2. Newport, J. p 25
  3. Beatson, C. B. (1992).  The river, stump and raspberry garden: Ngatimoti as I remember. Nelson, New Zealand: Nikau Press. p. 70
  4. ‘Pumice'. ( 1935, May 1). Care for an apple? - Then visit Nelson. The New Zealand Railways Magazine, 10 (2), 45 -48. Retrieved from the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre
  5. Southern Apples for London Market. (20 April 1907) Wanganui Chronicle, Volume L, Issue 1274, Page 5
  6. Nelson Fruit Exports The Rimutaka Shipment. (8 May 1911) Colonist, Vol LIII, Issue 13100,  Page 2
  7. Nelson Apples Immature. (4 May 1912) Colonist, Volume LIV, Issue 13408,  Page 5
  8. Nelson Fruit in London. Arrival in Bad Condition. (7 October 1916) Colonist, Volume LVII, Issue 14210,  Page 6
  9. Mackay, Deirdre. (2008). Aporo: a taste of Tasman. Nelson, New Zealand: Tasman Area Community Association. P 21-22
  10. McKee, Arthur.  A place in the sun and an occupation yielding health, wealth and happiness : apples for export, New Zealand's new industry.  Auckland , N.Z. : Wilson and Horton, 1915. p 6.
  11. McKay, D.  p28
  12. Wealth from Apple Lands. (9 March 1915) Evening Post, Volume LXXXIX, Issue 57, page 6
  13. McKay, D. p 70.
  14. Nearly, Not Quite. (13 May 1932) Evening Post, Volume CXIII, Issue 112, Page 8
  15. Wells, Bernard. (1990). The Fruits of Labour: A History of the Moutere Hills Area served by the Port of Mapua. Bernard Wells. P 175
  16. John Palmer. 'Apples and pears - Marketing and distribution', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Mar-09. URL:
  17. Monigatti, Rex. (1966). Fruitful years: an account of the development of New Zealand's fruit industry from 1916 to 1966. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Fruitgrowers' Federation. P 101.

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Further sources - The Apple Industry



  • Growth of orcharding (1971)  New Zealand's heritage, v. 6. Sydney: Hamlyn Paul, pp.1743-1749
  • Mackay, Deirdre. (2008, April). The Tasman apple industry and a changing landscape. Orchardist, 81 (3):51-53.
  • Roche, M. (2003). Wilderness to Orchard: The Export Apple Industry in Nelson, New Zealand 1908-1940.  Environment and History Journal 9. 435-450
  • Rush, E. (1993, April 2) Apples in Tasman. Motueka Sun, p.3


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