While pastoral farming is the Wairarapa’s main industry, forestry, fishing and horticulture are important and growing players in the economy.
Wairarapa (including the whole Tararua district) had around 67,900 hectares planted in exotic forest in 2014. The first major forest was planted by the state at Ngaumu in the 1940s to stabilise hill slopes, use marginal land, and supply building timber. From the 1960s many farmers planted forests. Institutional investment doubled plantings in the 1990s. Most trees are radiata pine, milled after 30 years.
In 1990 the government sold the Ngaumu cutting rights to the Japanese company Juken Nissho, which opened a mill and laminated-veneer plant at Waingawa. It is Wairarapa’s largest manufacturer, employing about 300 workers and processing up to 30,000 cubic metres of wood each year.
Fish was a major source of protein for Wairarapa Māori, who fished inshore and managed a large eel fishery in Lake Ōnoke. In the 1840s John Wade established a short-lived whaling station at Te Kopi in Palliser Bay. Since then the lack of a sheltered port has limited the size of the industry. Boats are launched from beaches, mainly at Castlepoint and Ngāwī. The most important commercial fisheries are crayfish and pāua. These species have high market returns, which sometimes leads to problems with poaching.
Horticulture and arable farming make up 5% of Wairarapa’s economy and use 2% of its land area. After mixed cropping (mainly barley and peas), grape-growing for wine dominates the sector.
Fruit and vegetables
In the early 1900s, Greytown’s rich alluvial soils attracted orchardists. Among them was James Kidd, who bred new apple varieties, including Gala and Kidd’s Orange Red. A berryfruit and vegetable-growing industry followed and Greytown soon became Wairarapa’s ‘fruit bowl’. Its heyday was the 1950s and 1960s, when there were strong domestic and international markets. Because of rising costs and poor organisation, this growth was not maintained. Between 1994 and 2004 the number of pip-fruit growers shrank from 35 to 10. The industry’s future is uncertain.
Olive growing began in 1991 with a grove of 60 trees in Martinborough. The industry now reaches as far as Masterton and has 70,000 trees. Boutique enterprises produce high-quality oil, mainly for the domestic market. The growers produced about 12% of New Zealand’s olive oil in 2014.
Wairarapa is New Zealand’s sixth-largest winemaking region, focusing on premium wines. In 1996 the region had 174 hectares in grapes. By 2013 the area was 972 hectares – 3% of the national total.
One of Martinborough’s most colourful early winemakers was the snowy-bearded Stan Chifney. He and his wife Rosemary arrived in 1980 after a career making vaccines in the Middle East and Nigeria. Their first vintage was in 1984, and their red wines helped establish Martinborough as a premium winemaking district. An accomplished musician and shameless romantic, Stan often played the violin to his grapes.
Wine grapes were first grown in the 1880s by Masterton pastoralist William Beetham, who made wine and encouraged others to have a go. Prohibitionists crushed the fledgling industry by voting the district dry in 1908. It stayed that way until 1946.
In the late 1970s a few wine enthusiasts bought land in Martinborough and planted vineyards. The gravel soils and warm climate were ideal for growing grapes, and the district is now renowned for its pinot noir.
The early winemakers’ success attracted others. By 2014 the region had almost 40 wineries. Several were north of Martinborough, at Gladstone and Ōpaki.