Tobacco

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The growth and production of tobacco brought wealth, jobs and growth to Motueka and was integral to the social fabric of the district for more than 70 years. But the financial well-being of the crop and the growers was often at the mercy of the Government.. 

Tobacco farm c1921Tobacco farm c1921
Motueka District Museum O'Shea tobacco collection
Click image to enlarge

For more than seven decades, the Motueka district’s tobacco fields provided work for locals and itinerant workers: topping plants, nipping out laterals and picking leaves.1

Tobacco seeds and the smoking habit were brought to New Zealand by sealers and whalers in the first half of the 19th century. Maori began growing tobacco in Rotorua in 1839.2

As early as 1843, Mr McGee’s tobacco leaf earned special mention in the first Nelson Agricultural Show, and Pastor Heine planted 50 plants in the Upper Moutere in 1850.3 By the end of the 19th century, tobacco was beginning to appear in the Riwaka district, where Maori growers were known for producing excellent crops.4

Tobacco farm c1921Tobacco farm c1921
Motueka District Museum O'Shea tobacco collectionClick image to enlarge

There were several key players in the development of Motueka’s tobacco industry. In 1918, Charles Lowe grew tobacco on his Harakeke farm and built New Zealand’s first flue-curing barn.5

Meanwhile, in the early 1920s, Brightwater farmer, Cecil Nash, working for the National Tobacco Company, persuaded farmers in the area to plant tobacco. In 1925-26, more than 150 acres of tobacco were under contract to the Company. By the 1926-27 season, two companies were buying the district’s tobacco: the National Tobacco Company and W.D. and W.O. Wills.6

Hanging sticks of tobacco for drying (Burley)Hanging sticks of tobacco for drying (Burley) c1921. Motueka District Museum O'Shea tobacco collectionClick image to enlarge

A growers’ association was established at Riwaka in 1926 and by the early 1930s, 90% of New Zealand’s commercial tobacco was grown in the Nelson region. In 1933, tobacco was the most widely grown crop in the district and there were about 700 growers.7

In July 1934, about 100 growers went to Parliament to meet the Customs Minister, Gordon Coates, to argue that duty concessions would easily be offset by the income generated by the tobacco growing industry. Coates told the growers that the Government had to raise £1,600,000 in revenue from tobacco.8

A typical early kilnA typical early kiln, Fibrolite exterior.
Motueka District Museum O'Shea tobacco collectionClick image to enlarge

A Tobacco Industry Act was passed in 1935 to try to co-ordinate the industry and solve issues such as over-production. A Tobacco Board was established, with all growers licensed to ensure they had a guaranteed buyer and planted no more than they could process.9

Legislation did not solve all the ills of the industry and by 1938 grower numbers had fallen to 342, even though tobacco could supply a good, steady income. The Board aimed to stabilise the industry, and increase acreage and the number of growers. A research station was established near Riwaka in 1938 and began to research mosaic disease - a crippling disease which causes mottled colouring and blistering on leaves.10

Wartime demand and Government assistance saw significant increases in acreages from 2000 acres in 1936, to nearly 3000 acres in 1941.11

Tying leaves onto sticksTying leaves onto sticks – a job done mainly by women, who became very adroit at the task.
(c1920s)
Motueka District Museum O'Shea tobacco collectionClick image to enlarge

The industry continued to provide a good living for many families in the district, with the number of growers peaking at 763 between 1960 and 1964. In 1989, WD and HO Wills closed its packing plant after 61 years in the district.12

Rothmans withdrew in 1995, citing low international leaf prices and declining tobacco use. The demise of the now-deregulated tobacco industry was a $5-$6 million/annum blow, with many growers diversifying into other crops. Nowadays, apple trees are the most common sight in the Motueka district.13

From Tobacco Leaf to Cigarettes

Corrugated iron drying kilns were a familiar sight throughout the district and three packing plants in Motueka were major employers. Air dried tobacco(known as burley) was the mainstay of the tobacco industry until the late 1920s. It required no specialized equipment: the leaves were dried, then stripped from the plants, sorted, hanked into bunches of 15 or 20 leaves and pressed- usually in a hop press.

Flue-cured or kiln dried tobacco involved tobacco leaves being tied on sticks, with up to 750 sticks being loaded into drying kilns. The kilns (wood-fired initially and later by coke and coal) had to be watched around the clock and the temperature raised in stages to 170-180 ºC. After curing, the leaves were lightly steamed for ease of handling, then graded and packed in large bales, where they were shipped to processing factories such as the Wills’ cigarette factory in Petone, Wellington.14

Tying leaves onto sticksTying leaves onto sticks – a job done mainly by women, who became very adroit at the task.
(c1920s)
Motueka District Museum O'Shea tobacco collectionClick image to enlarge

There will be a permanent exhibition on tobacco at the Motueka Museum from mid-2009.

2008 

 

Read more about tobacco in the Nelson region. An essay by Kaitlyn Turner, written as an NCEA assignment, 2016. [PDF]

Sources used in this story

  1. MacKay, D. (1998, February 21) The days of golden harvest. Nelson Evening Mail p.13.
  2. O'Shea, P. K. (1997). The Golden Harvest : A History of Tobacco Growing in New Zealand, Christchurch, N.Z.: Hazard Press, p 12
  3. O'Shea, P. K. p 17
  4. McAloon, J. (1997) Nelson: a regional history. Whatamango Bay, N.Z.: Cape Catley in association with Nelson City Council, p 100.
  5. O’Shea, P.K., p 18
  6. O’Shea, P.K., pp 23, 25
  7. McAloon, J. p 160-161
  8. O’Shea, P.K. p 69
  9. McAloon, J. p 160-161
  10. O’Shea, P.K., p 78-80
  11. McAloon, J. p 192.
  12. MacKay, D. ; Clark, Karen (2001, 12 February). New Crops suggested for region, The Nelson Mail, p.3.
  13. Tocker, Alison. (1995, 11 October) Motueka `loses $15m'. The Dominion Post, p.18.  ; Crean, M. (2006, April 29) Growing pains near Riwaka. The Press p.D4 
  14. O’Shea, P.K. pp 29-35

Want to find out more about the Tobacco ? View Further Sources here.

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Comments

  • Do you have any records at all of my grandfather working in the tobacco fields he used to tell us stories when we were young his name was terry nesbitt
    I would normally suggest you contact the Motueka Museum http://motuekadistrictmuseum.org.nz/ as they hold a lot of information on the local tobacco industry. Unfortunately they are closed for :"seismic strengthening" until December 2017. You could try emailing them : savepast@snap.net.nz or contacting the Motueka and District Historical Association TW-CR.Smith@xtra.co.nz though I think their resources are held in in the Motueka Museum. Sorry can't help you more, Ed.

    Posted by Peter Otten, 14/08/2017 8:08pm (2 months ago)

  • Many thanks for this useful item. I'm researching the development of Commonwealth tobacco between the wars and was digging for information on grant-aided ex-servicemen farming tobacco in New Zealand.

    Posted by Rory MacKay, ()

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Further sources - Tobacco

Books

Tobacco industry generally

  • James, R. W. (1970). In Tobacco Research Station. (Ed.), Tobacco production in New Zealand / R.W. James Dept. of Scientific and Industrial Research, Tobacco Research Station.
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/153377057
  • New Zealand Tobacco Company. (1928). Prospectus of the New Zealand Tobacco Company Limited.  Auckland:  R.J.K. Simpson.
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/191752923
  • New Zealand. Committee of Inquiry into the Economic Position of the Tobacco Growing Industry in New Zealand. (1971). The economic position of the tobacco growing industry in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Govt. Print.
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/153708927
  • Sutherland, G. F. (1901). Tobacco-growing in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Dept. of Agriculture.
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/181914797
  • Thomson, R.,1903-. (1948). Flue-cured tobacco growing in New Zealand. DSIR (National Library)
  • Walsh, A. (1884).  Tobacco culture in New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland Tobacco Company.
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/152394289
  • Wise, H. L. (1945). Tobacco growing and manufacture in New Zealand. Christchurch, New Zealand: Whitcombe & Tombs.
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/39101421

Articles

  • Booker, M. (1989, July 25), Tobacco company pullout accepted bravely in Motueka. Dominion, p.6
  • Clark, Karen (2001, 12 February). New Crops suggested for region, The Nelson Mail, p.3
  • Cottier, W Gourlay, E S.  (1955, 15 October) New horticultural pest found on Nelson tobacco. New Zealand Journal of Agriculture, 91, 349-351
  • Crean, M. (2006, April 29) Growing pains near Riwaka. The Press , p.D4
  • Davis, K. (1989,August 16) Tobacco industry in crisis.. New Zealand Farmer, 111,.32, 6-7
  • Dick, A. (2007,August/September), Motueka. NZ Today, 23, p.68-75, 78-90.
  • Dissmeyer, T. (1995, February 5), Town braces for tobacco withdrawal. Sunday Star Times, p.A7
  • The end of the golden leaf', (July 10, 1995), The Guardian p.10-20
  • Gillespie, O.N. (1939) New Zealand Industries Series:Tobacco. The New Zealand Railways Magazine, 14, 2
    http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-Gov14_02Rail-t1-body-d4.html
  • Hyde, W. C. (1946) History of tobacco growing in NZ. New Zealand Journal of Agriculture, 72, 5, 457-459
  • MacKay, D. (1998, February 21) The days of golden harvest. Nelson Evening Mail p.13
  • Moore, C. (1998, Mar 2), Tobacco's wistful roads; roll your own 'boutique' supplies. The Press,  p.23 
  • O'Connor, Naomi.  (1995, May). End of the golden crop: the last tobacco harvest. North and South,.94-100.
  • Revival Of Tobacco Growing May Lead To NZ Cigar Industry. HortNews 
    http://www.hortnet.co.nz/news/2001/n4011.htm 
  • Tobacco seized in Motueka', Nelson Mail, on Stuff:
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail/news/3660067/Tobacco-seized-in-Motueka
  • Tocker, Alison. (1995, 11 October) Motueka `loses $15m'. The Dominion Post, p.18

Other

Audio-Visual:

  • The End of the Golden Weed: the story of tobacco growing in the Motueka area 1920s-1990s. personal memories, produced by the NZ Tobacco Industry Historic Trust. [Copies available from the Motueka Museum.]

New Zealand Film Archive - available to view on  MediaNet at Elma Turner Library, Nelson Public Libraries:

Web Resources

Image links