Early tobacco growing
Tobacco was first grown in New Zealand in the mid-1800s, on a much smaller scale than hops. It required more processing, and so was less lucrative. ‘The growing of tobacco does not progress in New Zealand,’ noted the 1893 Official year-book. Plantations declined from 34 acres (13.7 hectares) in 1889 to just 4 acres (1.6 hectares) in 1893.
The Wills factory
Local cigarette manufacturing began in 1919 when W. D. & H. O. Wills, as a joint venture of British and New Zealand interests, set up a factory in Wellington. At first it mainly used imported tobacco, but price rises raised interest in stimulating local supply. The company required local growers to supply the factory with flue-cured, kiln-dried tobacco. A small number of Brightwater farmers promoted the crop in the early 1920s, and by 1925 tobacco growing was established. The Wills company often financed farmers, especially to build kilns. As with hops, tobacco was attractive because a relatively small area of land could produce a paying crop. As a cash crop, it became so important to Motueka farmers that their standard greeting was not ‘Gidday’ but ‘How’s your Baccer?’
By 1931 there were 326 hectares planted in tobacco in Nelson and 106 hectares around Auckland. In Nelson in the first seven years of the 1930s, the area planted increased by 15%, and the yield per hectare increased by 110%. Most of the crop was flue-cured for cigarettes, with around 11% being air-cured for pipe tobacco.
In the 1930s some Nelson growers illicitly sold tobacco directly to the public. ‘One grower was well known to have taken loads of his brew to the West Coast for sale to men in the relief work camps there. Packaged in paper bags of a pound or so, the illegal tobacco was sold for 7s 6d a packet to the eager buyers. Customs raids did occur, but the clever “smugglers” soon devised a variety of ways of avoiding detection. Successful hiding places included beehives and petrol drums. One truckload stopped and searched on the Hope Saddle kept its secret well – the illicit cargo was hidden in the truck’s tires.’ 1
Low prices and high government duties led to considerable uncertainty in the industry during the early 1930s. After some years of lobbying and discussion, the industry was regulated by the Tobacco-growing Industry Act 1935. All growers were licensed and all trading in raw tobacco was managed at fixed prices by the Tobacco Board. Manufacturers were required to use at least 30% domestic leaf. Member of Parliament Keith Holyoake, who came from a Riwaka hop, tobacco and fruit farm, lobbied so much on behalf of the growers that they dubbed him ‘minister of tobacco’.
With this protection, tobacco growing expanded after 1945. With other horticultural crops, it was a major employer of seasonal labour in the 1950s and 1960s. Manufacturers had long-term contracts with growers and often financed them to improve kiln and harvesting technology, but by the mid-1960s there was a considerable tobacco surplus. In the two years after the 1964–65 growing season the number of growers fell by 200, to 529.
In the 1970s, the industry was in decline, in the face of heightened public awareness of tobacco’s effects on health, and manufacturers challenging the level of government protection for growers. They argued against enforced local tobacco content when they could import tobacco more cheaply. A new Tobacco Act in 1974, however, maintained the 30% local-content rule. It attempted to combine flexibility with certainty in production by requiring manufacturers to give growers forecasts of their needs.
End of an industry
By the end of the 1970s many protected industries were being scrutinised. The government announced in 1980 that over five years, the licensing system for tobacco growing would come to an end. The local content requirement would be phased out even faster, so tobacco was no more protected than any other similar crop. Growers and their allies lobbied for a slower transition with more certainty. There was an exodus from tobacco growing, and government payouts helped growers shift to other crops. The last commercial tobacco crop was planted in 1995.