Hops was an early cash crop, first grown in Nelson in 1842. It is ideally suited to the calm, warm, sunny climate. Autumn hop-picking was part of the rural calendar, done mainly by women and children. Local breweries produced ale from locally grown barley and hops in the early 1850s. Hops was exported as well as supplying breweries in other centres. A boutique-brewery revolution began in 1981, when McCashin’s Brewery in Stoke brewed its first beer using locally grown hops. Many other micro-breweries have since been established, including Founders in Nelson city and the Mussel Inn at Onekakā in Golden Bay.
Sour swede juice
Nelson beers have only recently acquired good reputations – two long-standing19th century local beers, Dodsons and Harleys, were described as ‘the worst beers sold in New Zealand, resembling at best sour swede juice’1.
Tobacco was grown for personal use from the 1840s. In the 1880s farmers around Riwaka grew it as a cash crop, and around 1918 the firm E. Buxton and Co. began promoting commercial growing. In 1926 there were 150 tobacco growers in Waimea county. By 1933 around 90% of the country’s tobacco came from 700 growers in the Nelson region, and the growers’ typical greeting was, ‘Good day, how’s your baccer?’2 The industry employed around 1,500 people and offered job opportunities to young women, who made up half the workforce. In 1935 a Tobacco Board was established to license growers, prevent oversupply and ensure adequate returns.
During the Second World War women did most of the tobacco picking (previously a male domain). In 1941 tobacco accounted for 40% of Motueka’s horticultural income. The crucial time of the season was when the leaf was picked and kiln-dried – during these months growers got little sleep. By the mid-1960s there was a considerable tobacco surplus, and grower numbers declined. In the early 1980s the requirement for some local tobacco leaf in New Zealand-processed cigarettes was dropped, and government payouts helped growers shift to crops such as kiwifruit. The last commercial tobacco crop was planted in 1985.
On 15 September 1919 Mahana Fruitgrowers held their inaugural dance at the Māpua packing shed. Organiser Paxton Salmond described the preparations: ‘The Shed had to be cleaned out first and the floor polished. One of my horses, “Dick”, was used to doing the polishing. He was first blindfolded and sacking pads tied to his feet. A sack of oats was towed around the floor until it became fit for dancing. Bill Argue used to take charge of Dick, and had to carry a half kero tin in case of accidents.’3
Apples and other fruit were grown from the 1840s, and by the late 19th century Nelson was the country’s major producer of currants and raspberries. In the 1890s Samuel Kirkpatrick built his Nelson jam factory with spare capacity, with an eye to the future growth of horticulture. Apples and other fruit grew splendidly, but transport to market was difficult, so pulping, canning and jam-making were the only options. From the early 1900s apples were planted in much larger acreages on previously infertile clay land in the Moutere Hills, and shipped out from Māpua wharf.
As Nelson’s port developed to handle larger ships, exports of apples took off. In the 1920s and 1930s the Cawthron Institute’s scientists addressed many fruit-growing problems (poor soils, pests, and brown rot in apples). Horticulture boomed. By 1960 the estimated value of agricultural production in Waimea county was £5.5 million ($255 million in 2020 terms) – two-thirds of it from fruit, tobacco, hops and vegetables.
While grapes were grown in the region from the 1840s, commercial viticulture was slow to emerge. In 1991 there were only 81 hectares of vineyards. However, growth was rapid in the 1990s and by 2008 there were 794 hectares. Nelson is still a minor wine-producing region – neighbouring Marlborough had 15,915 hectares of vineyards in 2008. In the 2010s Nelson marketed itself as a producer of aromatic wines, such as gewürztraminer, riesling and pinot gris.