THE HISTORY OF PROCESS TOMATO PRODUCTION IN NEW ZEALAND

M.A. Nichols, W.T. Bussel
New Zealand consists of two main islands stretching over about 1 500 km of latitude between 37° S, in the South West Pacific some 2 000 km east of Australia. In fact New Zealand is the exact antipode of Portugal. A brief look at a world map shows us that the majority of the world's process tomato crops are produced between 35 and 45 degrees of latitude, one reason clearly being the tendency for mediteranean climates to occur at these latitudes.

New Zealand does not experience a mediteranean climate as the relatively small land mass surrounded by ocean with no large land mass nearby ensures a unique climate of mild winters and warm (but not hot) summers. This climate is highly suitable for growth and fruit set of tomatoes, but is less than ideal for ripening.

Although there is a tendency for low levels of rainfall in the summer (particilarly in the East Coast of both islands) the major characteristic of the New Zealand climate is its unpredictability. This can result in substantial fluctuations in yield from year to year. For example heavy tomato and bean losses occurred in Hawkes Bay in 1979 due to 300 mm of rain falling in 2 weeks in the middle of the harvest.

In international terms New Zealand's process tomato industry is minute. Production is aimed primarily at supplying the local market with paste products (soup, Ketchup, etc) and with whole canned tomatoes. Some export trade has developed in recent years, in whole canned, but prospects for exporting paste are not good, due to high production costs per tonne of raw product, low solids and high shipping costs.

Little is known of process tomato production in New Zealand prior to the 1940's. We do know that tomatoes were first grown for processing at Nelson in the 1920's and near Auckland perhaps even prior to the 1914–18 war, but information is very scarce - in fact official government statistics were not available until 1963 (table 1). It appears that until the 1940's New Zealand relied predominantly upon imported tomato products, but since then, importing has occurred only when a short-fall in local production has occurred (e.g. 1976).

In the early 50's process tomatoes were grown in 4 districts; Auckland, Gisborne (30 ha), Hawkes Bay (near Hastings) (160 ha) and Nelson (60 ha). The production methods at this time have been documented for Hawkes Bay (June 1951) and for Nelson (Brown 1958).

In Hawkes Bay (and Gisborne and Auckland), bush varieties from Australia predominated. The sequence of varieties from the late 40's to the early 70's being Adelaide, Tatura, Tatinter and Scoresby Dwarf. Over this period, production methods did not change appreciably. Plants were raised in boxes in greenhouses, hardened off, and planted in the field as soon as frost risks had passed (about late October). Rows were 1½–2 m apart, and the plant population ranged from 6–12,000 plants/ha. Weed control was by mechanical cultivation, fertilizer applications low, irrigation not used, and the crop was harvested weekly by hand into 25 kg wooden cases for about 2–2½ months, commencing late January. Average yields for the early 1950's are cited at 33 t/ha.

In Nelson staked varieties predominated in the 50's. The variety Halls Stake (similar to Stonor varieties) was grown because its high quality made it suitable for whole canned, for fresh market as well as for paste. Apart from the higher plant population (up to 20 000 plants/ha) and the additional expence of stakes and training the production methods (and yields) did not differ appreciably from elsewhere in New Zealand.

Over the years, process tomato production has become restricted to two districts, Hawkes Bay and Gisborne. Efforts to establish an industry in Canterbury (Christchurch) in the early 70's by Crowder (1970) foundered due to poor weather conditions, and rationalisation resulted in the closure of factories in both Auckland and Nelson. Small process factories do exist throughout the country, but J. Wattie Canneries who began processing tomatoes in Hawkes Bay in 1945 are now the only company capable of large scale paste production.

The first evaporator was not commissioned until 1961, and currently Watties have 2 in Hawkes Bay and 1 in Gisborne, each capable of concentrating 500 t of tomatoes per day to a 28–32% paste.

Undoubtedly the most important change that has occurred in recent years was the arrival in the 1972-3 season of the FMC mechanical harvester machine. This posed a completely new set of problems including scheduling of plantings, choice of variety and crop establishment methods. The 9 month visit to New Zealand of Dr. Bill Sims as a Fulbright Scholar during the 1974–75 season was invaluable. His unique experience with tomatoes and his total production system is considered to have saved at least 3 years at this critical development phase.

Commercial crops in excess of 100 t/ha have been produced using Californian techniques of growing the crop and application of ethephon appropriate for New Zealand conditions. Much of the credit for the good mechanically harvested yields now being obtained must go to the work of Sims (1975); but other contributions have come on plant spacing from Bussell et al. (1975) and Crowder (1970) and no the use of ethephon from Bussell (1971, 1973) and Bussel and Dallenger (1972).

Until recently VF 145-B7879 has been the most widely grown variety for mechanical harvesting, but it is gradually being superceded by Castlong. The harder fruited Castlong has improved handling characteristics and is able to withstand without cracking wet weather when the fruit is ripe. Currently Castlong is being successfully grown for both whole canning and paste production.

About 1/3 of New Zealands process tomatoes are harvested mechanically. The number of harvesting machines in the country limits the tonnage harvested this way to 8–9 000 t/year.

Nichols, M.A. and Bussel, W.T. (1980). THE HISTORY OF PROCESS TOMATO PRODUCTION IN NEW ZEALAND. Acta Hortic. 100, 71-74
DOI: 10.17660/ActaHortic.1980.100.9
https://doi.org/10.17660/ActaHortic.1980.100.9

Acta Horticulturae