Tauranga’s first strawberry grower by Deryn Pittar
My mother was the first person to grow strawberries on a commercial basis in the Tauranga District.
The year was 1957 and my parents had bought a small block of 12 acres, up Pukemapu Road, Oropi.
They had worked in Kawerau for several years and a large tax bill arrived for payment the following year. (This was prior to P.A.Y.E.)
Dad went off to work elsewhere to earn bigger money and Mother decided to grow strawberries.
She went to the Department of Ag and Fish, although it could have been called something else then, and they told her she was wasting her time. Strawberries wouldn’t grow in Tauranga. They only grew in Auckland in the clay soil.
Mother, who had grown strawberries in barrels and in every garden we ever had, ignored their advice, muttered about their unhelpfulness and ordered 17,000 plants. Dad rotary-hoed a sloping paddock and when the plants arrived in the May, bundles and bundles of them, with cut-off tops and bare roots, we planted them.
That was the easy part.
Next they had to be weeded. As I had turned fifteen I left school to help her. I had to promise to keep reading before she would agree, but I could see there was no way she could manage this strawberry venture on her own. Things were tight all round.
All through winter we weeded with push-hoes, and by the time we had worked our way to the bottom of the patch it was time to start again at the top. We picked off any flowers that formed until the first of October.
Next we spread the sawdust to protect the forming fruit.
A truckload or two arrived and we pushed wheelbarrow loads at a time along the rows. This took some days. Finally we could take a break from the hoeing.
Meanwhile mother arranged for rich gold strips of paper to be printed with ‘Coronet Strawberries’ in royal blue. Boxes of lightweight wooden punnets arrived. We continued to pull weeds and check the fruit, lifting them off the ground where possible – and snipping off any runners forming.
The fruit began to ripen and away we went again, day after day, picking, packing and taking them to the twice weekly market at Turners and Growers on the corner of Cameron Road and 10th Avenue.
The prices we received were great, despite competing with the strawberries coming down from Auckland. Mother’s strawberries looked wonderful with their gold and blue ribbons under cellophane covers.
The best prices we got were 9s/ 6d a chip on Christmas Eve and 10s/6d a chip on New Year’s Eve. In those days a good weekly way was £14 a week. If you convert this in proportion to day’s weekly wage it was a magnificent price to get for a chip of strawberries.
Towards the end of the season Mother advertised ‘pick your own’ in the local paper. Again this was a first; my mother was a trailblazer. We were inundated with people arriving to pick their own strawberries. Lots were eaten, but we didn’t care. By then we were heartily sick of strawberries but the tax bill had been paid.
I still find strawberries sharp to eat. I ate enough to last a lifetime.
The next year mother planted 11,000 plants in a different paddock closer to the house. She employed women from the Waimapu Pah to help her weed.
Dad had work locally and was able to help as well in between building a huge hen house – the next venture.
I spent the year in Auckland taking a business course, but in the holidays I did my share of hoeing and carting buckets of sawdust. Come the summer break I was busy on the weekends in the strawberry patch. By now I was a fully-fledged shorthand typist and gainfully employed.
I accidentally set fire to the strawberry patch one day, the smouldering sawdust sending up a column of smoke when I returned from lunch. I think we lost about twenty plants.
We used a lot of double-happy fire-crackers to keep the birds away. They sat in the trees, braving any noise we came up with, to eat the red delights. Only at dusk could we go home.
The following year others took up the challenge and began to grow strawberries for the local market. The idea had caught on. Mother had had enough.
This was the same woman who went to the Tauranga Council and asked if she could be connected to the town water supply. The water main supplying the city ran down Oropi Road.
“Of course - if you can get a pipe across the river” was the reply.
It took a lot of mathematics; willing neighbours; the Youngmans across the Oropi river who granted a water easement along their boundary; Dad and Sid Sullivan to get the rope across the river and much pulling by tractor to heave the connected pipes and suspend them high across the river. The pipeline was laid to the house, at least half a mile from the river to our house on Pukemapu Road, then across the road, up 100 yards to the Sullivan’s house.
I believe the same water supply is intact today.
When the dairy farmers down the road heard what the Brittains and the Sullivans had accomplished they applied immediately to do the same thing.
“No way,” said the council. “We don’t supply farmers, only residences.”
My mother: Gertrude Elizabeth Brittain, was a woman before her time.
About the author:
Deryn Pittar (nee Brittain) lives in the Bay of Plenty and now retired she has time to devote to her love of words and how they can be arranged into various forms of poetry, novels, short fiction and historical records. Her work may be viewed at the following sites:
Novels under her pen name: www.virginniadeparte.blogspot.co.nz/
This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/5AJY-YCC2