First market gardens
Māori had extensive gardens in New Zealand and became the first commercial growers of vegetables. They traded potatoes with European whalers and traders in the first decades of the 19th century and exported tonnes of potatoes to Sydney in the 1830s. In the 1840s Māori in the North Island also grew maize, tobacco, wheat, cabbage and turnips, and supplied fresh produce to the developing settlements of Auckland, Wellington and Nelson.
European settlers established their own vegetable gardens from the 1840s as Māori began to lose fertile lands into European ownership. Merchants like William Brown and John Logan Campbell entered the export trade, sending potatoes and onions to Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Between 1880 and 1913 sons and young male relatives of Chinese gold prospectors took up market gardening as Otago’s goldfields became exhausted. They settled throughout the country, leasing land, often from Māori. They usually worked in kinship groups and sold their produce to relatives running greengrocery businesses.
Market gardens increase
By 1899 about 1,390 hectares were in market gardens. As roads and railways appeared, market gardens began to develop in districts like Pukekohe and Levin, some distance from the cities that were their main markets.
1920 to 1940
In the 1920s a few Indian immigrants from the Punjab region settled in Pukekohe and began growing potatoes.
Around the same period some Chinese market gardeners discovered the rich volcanic loams of Ohakune and began to grow vegetables there. They took up short-term leases on Māori land that needed tree stumps removed following burning of its dense forest cover. The Chinese grew crops for three years then sowed the land to grass and returned it to its owners, before moving on to a new lease.
The government bought up large tracts of prime horticultural land in the Hutt Valley during the 1920s for housing, and some market gardeners relocated their businesses to Ōtaki and Levin.
There was a slow increase in the land under vegetable cultivation up to 1940.
During the Second World War vegetable production became an essential activity. The government compulsorily leased land for growing vegetables and directed people to work in the gardens. Wattie’s factory in Hastings canned and dried produce to send to New Zealand troops overseas and to American troops in the Pacific.
Although of alien status, Chinese market gardeners were willing participants in the government’s effort to help boost vegetable production during the Second World War. By 1945, 6,800 hectares were in vegetable cultivation and a surplus of vegetables was being produced. Two years after the war's end the area in market gardens dropped to 5,000 hectares.
1950 to 1990
With the exception of the Second World War, vegetable production was solely for the domestic market from 1900 to 1950. Since 1950 there has been a steady increase in the volume of produce grown for processing and for export. In the 1950s canned vegetables were important exports, but frozen and dried products overtook them. Fresh vegetables were freighted to their destination in holds of ships, or in ventilated, temperature-controlled containers.
During the 1950s and 1960s market gardening land in the Māngere and Panmure areas of Auckland, and parts of Marshlands in Canterbury, were lost to suburbs. A few centres of vegetable production began to develop through the country, each specialising in a limited range of crops. With the development of a regular vegetable export trade in the early 1970s, the area in vegetable production began to increase, reaching 31,500 hectares by 1980.
Vegetable growing after 1990
Since the 1990s there has been increasing consolidation of vegetable growing, with fewer growers on larger holdings. Single-owner or family-owned enterprises are being replaced by corporate businesses. Partnerships with overseas companies are common, ensuring off-season supply for northern hemisphere and Australian companies.
Established growers supply two supermarket chains, which distribute fresh produce daily throughout the country. New growers are most likely to sell their product in local farmers’ markets which operate on weekends.