Wake, Colin Armstrong Interview

Today is the 21st of June 2018. I’m interviewing Colin Wake. Colin is going to give us some history of his family and his parents and so forth, on their fruit growing etcetera in Hawke’s Bay. Colin, would you like to tell us about the life and times of your family? Thank you.

Well to start, the Wake family became established in Hawke’s Bay when my father Archie’s parents moved the family from Clandeboye, which is out towards the coast from Temuka in South Canterbury, and they came to a property on the corner of Norton and Algernon Roads in Hastings. They settled there in 1913, but I’ve no idea how long they farmed that property before moving to a slightly bigger farm at Pukahu, and that’s on the southern outskirts of Hastings. Dad’s mother, Annie Isabella, died in 1926 – she was only fifty-seven, and his father died as a result of a heart attack in 1931 aged sixty-seven, so both my paternal grandparents had died several years before I came along.

Dad was one of a family of eight – there were three girls and five boys and Dad was the third eldest. Norman, the second eldest, and Archie both served overseas during World War 1, and on their return they drew a farm under a resettlement scheme at Raupare, on the outskirts of Hastings. This farm backed on to the Ngaruroro River, and after two disastrous floods they were forced to leave it – they just walked off.

Archie was awarded the Military Medal for bravery while at the War and on his return, after the farming partnership with Norman, they moved into Hastings where he set up a milk delivery business. He married Doris Stairmand in 1924.

Archie and his brother Charlie, purchased sixteen acres of bare land in St Georges Road South, which they halved, and each one established an orchard there and built a house. And in both cases they built a packing shed on the property, and in Archie’s case, the milk run was providing an income as the orchard was being developed. Another twenty-eight acres, also on St Georges Road a little bit further down, was later added and cropped with tomatoes for Wattie’s before also being planted in apples, peaches and nectarines there.

The final development that Dad carried out was to purchase sixteen acres on Norton Road. This was planted up with five acres of Golden Queen peaches, six acres of William Bon Chretien pears, and they were all for Wattie’s, the peaches and the pears, and the rest of the block was planted up in Granny Smith apples. The accumulated area of Granny Smiths on the three blocks meant that Dad was probably the largest grower of Granny Smith in Hawke’s Bay at that point. The Norton Road block backed onto the twenty-eight acre block, which gave access from one road to the other, a facility that a lot of people soon heard about and made good use of.

The Wake family started to increase with the arrival of Graeme in 1933, then Elaine, my sister, 1935 and then myself in 1937. We all attended Havelock North Primary School and then Hastings High School. The high school at that point was still co-ed, and then later became the Hastings Boys’ High when the new Girls’ High was opened.  Graeme left school at only fifteen years of age and joined Dad on the orchard, and eventually Hillview Orchards was formed – Hillview Orchards Limited.

l was fortunate in having an uncle by the name of Sid Morrison. During his youth he had been a successful motorcycle grass track racer before establishing a motor mower manufacturing business, and this would have been I think, probably during the 1930s. In fact, the factory switched over to the production of armaments for the war effort for a period before resuming mower production.

The Morrison mower became very popular. Sid sold the business in 1950 and built an engineering workshop across the road from the mower factory, on the corner of Karamu Road and Wolseley Street. During the next few years while I was attending high school, Sid supplied me with a motorbike which I rode to his workshop each morning, and then cycled to school and then back again to the workshop after school, and spent the rest of the day just doing general duties in the workshop, and also learning a few engineering methods and skills, and then I’d ride the motorbike home in the evening. He took on the agency of several makes of motorcycles including the German Victoria and the English Norton, AJS and the Francis Barnett, and he also had the CZ, which was a Czechoslovakian bike. And I used to assemble these things ready for delivery, so this gave me a pretty good start in general engineering principles, and maintenance too, and led on to buying the first of several motorbikes, and also it helped me to decide on what career I wanted to follow. l was fortunate – very fortunate really, in having this association with my uncle Sid, and he had a big influence on me at that time.

Then I left Hastings Boys’ High at the end of 1954 – did four years there – took me four years to get my School Certificate. And then I commenced an apprenticeship with Baillie Motors which was a General Motors dealer, with the aim of becoming a fully trained A-Grade mechanic, which I eventually managed to do.

Betty and l married in 1960; and then at the end of 1961 I finished at Balllies and joined Dad and Graeme on the orchard – working, but not joining the partnership.

In 1963 the Queen and Prince Philip were touring the country. They’d requested a visit to an orchard while they were in Hawke’s Bay. There were several properties in the running for the honour, but we were chosen, partly I think because of the large packing shed, and the packing equipment was pretty modern and up to date. Both my parents were on an overseas sea voyage when the decision was announced and without the modern methods of communication, they didn’t hear about the visit of the Queen and the Duke that was coming up – not until they arrived home – that was in November 1962. And the Queen and the Duke were due in February, and I can remember a big tidy up being carried out, and I personally repainted the whole packhouse in preparation for the visit. The occasion was certainly a highlight and a very proud time for my parents, who had achieved a great deal during their lives by taking a few risks and working hard, building a business they could be justifiably proud of.

In about 1965 Archie decided, aged sixty-nine, it was time to retire. Graeme continued with the Hillview Orchards Ltd company and the twenty-eight acres that were planted in apples and peaches. A house had been built on the property during the 1960s … early 1960s … in which Graeme and his wife, Judith, and the family were already living. And in time he built a large shed which Graeme eventually set up as a packhouse after transferring the equipment from the packhouse on the home block on St Georges Road.

And then Betty and l formed a company, C A Wake Ltd – we bought the sixteen acres on Norton Road, and then leased the original eight acres on St Georges Road, the old home block. We purchased a Cutler fruit grader from Slaters, a produce auctioneering company in Hastings, moved it to the now vacant building on the home property along with enough ancillary equipment to get us underway, packing. Our first year of trading on our own account was 1966. And then in 1971 we purchased twenty acres on Riverslea Road South – the property where we’re sitting right now – and that was part of a larger operation growing a range of produce for canning, as well as the fresh market. That operation was called Claremont Farms Limited.

And then during January Archie suffered a heart attack and he never really recovered from that, and he eventually passed away from a further attack during May of that same year. So that was in 1973.

I’ve mentioned that this Riverslea Road block was part of Claremont Farms … talked about that. Their business eventually … well, as well as having the property here, they had land across the other side of Railway Road, and they had a shop on that piece of land. But their Claremont Farms business eventually folded and the property was carved up and sold off.

So our block that we’d bought on Riverslea Road here was planted half in apples and half in asparagus. And the apples consisted of a wide range of varieties – it was a real fruit salad in fact – planted to give the shop’s customers the best possible selection of apple varieties that they could. Over time we eventually replanted all the apples. Part of the block was planted partly in varieties on very dwarf rootstock, and they weren’t successful – a lot of them had broken off, so they were replanted first. And we cropped the asparagus for two or three seasons, and eventually changed over to apples in that part too, so the whole twenty acres before long became fully replanted in apples.

Then during the 1970s it became apparent that the gentlest method of getting apples from the bin into which they’d been picked to the grading and sizing equipment, was to float them out using water. Now the bulk handling methods which had been acceptable until then – they were becoming obsolete through damage occurring, and – it was almost because of the grading standards tightening up – it would be very difficult to handle fruit that way without damaging it.

At that time other growers were experimenting with various sizes and shapes of bins, and Dad settled on building trailers. He built a fleet of fifteen trailers, and each one was capable of carrying approximately seventy carton equivalents – about thirteen hundred kilos of apples. And the trailers were riding on balloon tyres that had come off World War 2 aircraft to give the softest possible ride, and it was very successful … a bit demoralising for pickers starting at the beginning of the day with an empty trailer, because it took them all day to fill it. In fact eventually Dad put a partition down the centre so he could have a picker on either side of the trailer, which lifted spirits a little bit.

Because we wanted to get into the water dumping system, the packhouse at St Georges Road just didn’t lend itself – we had no way of being able to drain the water and get rid of it whenever we wanted to clean the water dump out, so we decided to build a packhouse on the Riverslea Road block – the twenty acres – which we did during 1978. But we still used a dry dump system for about three years, and then we eventually changed over to water and installed a system to do that.

And then on the same block we built a new home in 1981, and then in 1982 we purchased twelve acres in Norton Road which was at that stage planted in lucerne, not doing very well. But we had that removed and planted apples in there. We entered into a share cropping venture on five acres adjoining, which we planted up and eventually bought. This property was converted to organics during the 1990s, but after going through the conversion process and one full season as a fully certified organic operation, it was fairly apparent that it didn’t fit well with conventional methods of fruit growing due to the lack of suitable methods of weed and pest control, which meant that it was very hard to keep the blocks tidy, which we liked to do. So the … at about this point, the lease on the original home block in St Georges Road was relinquished and that was eventually sold off.

Now, in the late 1990s we were faced with the decision of upgrading the packing equipment, or packing through a larger operation off site. The trend appeared to be heading towards consolidation of post harvest handling of apples using sophisticated electronic equipment, and we felt that the size of our operation probably didn’t warrant the cost of what we would need, coupled with the fact that we were approached at around this time with an offer to become a partner in a company being formed to handle fruit through a site already operating in what was formerly Birds Eye food processing plant. Our company was one of three in a new company setup named United Fruit Packers Limited, and we traded as Unipac. And the site being adjacent to the New Zealand Apple and Pear Board’s Williams Street operation meant that the finished product on pallets could be moved across to their cool stores by forklift, which removed the need for trucking. Now we also had a close collaboration with ENZA … ENZA of course being the trading name of the Apple and Pear Board … they were in control of the marketing, so while we were at Unipac our packhouse was leased to an organic apple packing operation for two seasons, after which we … well, during the second season they suddenly told us that they were pulling out and setting up site elsewhere. So we actually started packing again ourselves, packing organic fruit for a [an] exporter who had approached us to see if we could get up and running again.

But while we were still doing that, the powers that be at ENZA decided seeing we were running again there was a conflict of interest. So to avoid jeopardising Unipac’s relationship with ENZA we withdrew from the company and started packing our own fruit again which we had decided was still feasible to do because the threat of everything becoming too controlled by electronics hadn’t really materialised.

So around this time we replaced the McDonalds four lane fruit sizer that we had with a more modern machine which meant that we could incorporate electronic colour sorting, and we upgraded other parts of the equipment at the same time. As I said, the perceived threat of needing the facilities of one of the large packing houses hadn’t really materialised, and we felt that we could run a more efficient business with more control over the end product. For a few years we also packed apples for a few other growers, and also some peaches and plums for a time.

Now if we start looking at the actual growing of apple trees, and the styles, you have to go right back to the type of tree that was grown back, say, from the 1930s right through ‘til the 1960s, that style of tree was classed as multi-leader with at least four main leaders, and in the early years even more, sometimes six or even up to eight. And the choice of rootstock available was pretty limited, usually Northern Spy in those early years, which was a vigorous stock and it produced a big tree necessitating a pretty wide planting space – usually about twenty by twenty feet which is a little bit over six by six metres, and sometimes even wider than that, out to … well, in Imperial … about twenty-two by twenty-two feet. The introduction of alternative rootstocks during the 1960s paved the way for experimentation in the way that trees were grown and the tree spacings, and the growth habit of the trees, and also the shape, to try and maximise the light getting into the tree to get a better fruit size and colour.

Doctor Don McKenzie, who was working at the DSlR Research Station in Havelock, began experimenting with various imported rootstocks and different tree shapes in an effort to find the most suitable tree for New Zealand conditions, bearing in mind that we have some very fertile soils and a climate that produces a pretty strong tree anyway. Now he eventually settled on a stock known as MM106, and it was developed at a research station in East Malling in the United Kingdom, which gave a tree classed as semi-dwarf in size. This stock was not suitable in a replant situation as it struggled to grow to a decent size, and an alternative stock settled on for this situation was M793, which had also come from the some research station. The size of the MM106 tree meant that trees could be planted closer with row spacings also closer. Overall yield increased and the general quality of the fruit improved also.

One of the disadvantages of the newer rootstocks was the need to provide support with posts and wires, as the smaller root system didn’t provide enough strength to stop trees with a full crop being blown over in a storm. But then also, closer rows necessitated narrower equipment, and after much experimenting with various sizes of bins over the years previously, the 1.2 x 1.2 metre bin evolved, and that’s still in use, even ’til today.

Now, spraying – if we go back to the very early days of spraying, there were some pretty crude pieces of apparatus used, even to the extent of having permanent pipes buried through the orchard and pressurized at the spray sheds. There were various points to tap into and with the aid of a long hose and a spraying wand the grower systematically sprayed each and every tree from the ground. This led on to self-propelled machines being developed by growers, usually a small converted truck chassis with two gearboxes to get the speed low enough, with a wooden vat over the rear wheels and a platform behind that held two people, and they could stand and spray each individual tree as they crawled past, once again using hand-held wands. This led on to the development of the air blast sprayer and after various iterations has resulted in the sprayers being used today, still using the same principle. Other systems have been tried, some successfully, but by far the most common is still the tractor driven air blast sprayer. lt’s inefficient, as a lot of the spray is wasted, but the system that targets only the tree has not yet been invented – or not successfully – they have tried, but growers seem to still go back to the air blast sprayer.

Now the spray materials, they thankfully have improved dramatically over time. Arsenate of lead and lime sulphur were two of the basics. Lime sulphur’s still being used by organic growers as a fungicide, but has a terrible corrosive effect on spraying equipment, and it’s hard on some varieties of apples, too … on the [?chaseup?] and the foliage on the trees. Unfortunately arsenate of lead is still being detected in soil even now.

Sprays are – they’re a lot more user friendly and they have a different mode of action these days. The organo-phosphate sprays were successful in that they killed everything, but unfortunately took out predators and other beneficial insects as well. Sprays used to be applied on a fourteen day basis, but now the harmful pests are monitored closely and are targeted specifically only when the need arises. Resistance to materials used for fungus disease control has meant a lot of development has taken place over the years to enable growers to keep on top of this problem.

Now just a word on apple varieties – if we go back far enough, a lot of the apple varieties that were grown here originated in England, but then locally bred apple varieties started to creep in. Some of the early pioneer growers became breeders, and one who comes to mind was a Mr Kidd from Greytown, who gave us the Kidds Orange Red. And he also developed an apple which was originally called the Kidds D8, and that was later renamed the Gala, and it was very popular because of its sweet flavour and the pinkish-red stripe. And this variety used to produce some pretty naturally occurring red sports. [Stripes?] And one that was developed or discovered was on an orchard in Matamata owned by a Mr Bill Ten Hove. This was eventually named Royal Gala, and it went on to become the world’s most popular apple for a time.

Delicious was an early variety, and later became the Red Delicious with numerous improved strains continually being introduced from nurseries in America, and it’s still a popular variety over there, but here in New Zealand many far superior varieties have been created. The DSIR Research orchard at Havelock North bred many varieties, including the Pacific series, and the Pacific Rose was one of those. It was a dog of an apple really, right from the start. It had many faults, but growers persisted with it, but it’s now disappearing rapidly as much … far superior varieties are on the market.  Pacific Queen was another one of that series, but it can be pretty prone to russet. There’s a large area of that planted up now, that are cropping.

And Granny Smith, which originated in a backyard in Sydney many years ago – that one’s still around although in reduced numbers, but it’s still popular. Other varieties such as Sturmer, Jonathon, Statesman, Dougherty and Cox’s Orange Pippin have long gone, with the exception of Cox’s which is still grown in limited numbers. Ballarat was another one – a good cooking apple. It was also very popular, but it’s all but disappeared. And Braeburn and Fuji are two that have been around for years, and higher coloured strains have helped to maintain their popularity. And we’ve got Jazz and Eve – they’re two New Zealand bred apples, but they’re commercially owned and now they’re grown in many countries.

Just been thinking about some of the equipment that’s been used over the years – one of the better pieces … a very popular piece of equipment that’s been developed over the years, and made here locally in Hastings, the Hydralada. It’s a mobile elevating platform which has revolutionised a lot of the tasks involved with tree work such as pruning, thinning, and there’s a host of other activities that normally involve the use of ladders where the Hydralada can be used in place of the ladders. These machines also have a place in picking when used by a skilled operator who can avoid damaging fruit while still maximising the advantage of machine harvesting as opposed to using a ladder.

As mentioned earlier, closer rows necessitated narrower machinery, and until the advent of specialised narrow orchard tractors being imported from European manufacturers, a lot of local growers either took it upon themselves or used the services of a tractor agency to modify existing tractors and try and narrow them down and lower them.

Now, just a comment made that since Dad first started planting in the 1930s ‘til now, that means that we’ve been going for about eighty-five years as a family, and yeah – that’s right, I suppose – I hadn’t stopped to think about that. And there’s not many families left still growing fruit in Hawke’s Bay. In our case Gary, our son – he came along after completing his apprenticeship in the motor trade and eventually took over running the business, which meant we didn’t have to go through the exercise of planning succession, it just happened. So with Gary carrying on the tradition, and carrying on – and he also has built the business substantially since he came in. But who knows how many more years our family will have connections with the fruit industry.

At present we’re running close to three hundred acres, or a hundred and twenty hectares, and of that we own about a third and the rest is leased. As well as that we take a limited amount of fruit from others to be packed in our packhouse, but apart from that all the fruit that we pack is our own.

When I came into fruit growing the usual procedure if you wanted to get involved was to get elected on to the Fruitgrowers’ Association Social Committee, and this provided a great opportunity to meet other younger growers, and to provide social activities for members of the Association. To name one or two of the activities, we used to run the annual picnic for growers and growers’ staff. The Fruit Growers’ Ball – that was always a sellout success, and very popular for a few years. That was just to name a couple.

And we also used to provide supper at fruitgrower meetings, and they were held reasonably frequently in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was a good opportunity to learn about what was going on in the industry, both locally and nationally. So from there, if you were sufficiently enthused, you sought election onto the Executive Committee of the Association.

Now as well there … running at the same time … the Fruit Growers’ Federation Advisory Committee, and that dealt more with the political aspect of fruit growing on a national scale. And that committee was always chaired by the local director of the Fruitgrowers’ Federation.

I worked my way through all the committee positions, becoming chairman of the social committee for a couple of years, and then after several years on the Executive, becoming President, a position I held for four years. At the end of that term I was awarded with a life membership of the Fruit Growers’ Association.

And I also attended the annual Fruit Growers’ Federation conferences as a Hawke’s Bay delegate for several years. This was an opportunity for representatives from all the regions to debate industry matters, including Apple and Pear Board operations.

And the only other activity I’ve had was as a Director of the Hastings Building Society – that lasted for twenty-one years. I’m still a member of the Rotary Club of Havelock North which gives me a lot of pleasure, and one way of being able to put a little bit back into the community.

And we’ve also owned a bach at Taupo for thirty-six years, so hop up there whenever we can to try and catch a few fish.

We named one of our blocks after Toorak in Australia, and that came about because we’d just returned from a trip to Aussie, and we’d been to Melbourne. And we had to think of a name for a property we’d just bought. We’d been quite impressed with the suburb of Toorak … suburb of Melbourne … and as we couldn’t think of a better name, created Toorak Orchards Limited.

We’ve done a little bit of travel besides that – Betty and l have travelled to England and Europe a couple of times, and also Australia, and we’ve had an opportunity to have agood look around our own country. But Taupo, being so accessible, it’s still a favourite.

During the late 1980s the Apple and Pear Board organised tours to British Columbia and parts of California, and also a tour to England and parts of Europe, and I went on both these trips. We were visiting grower operations, research stations, packing operations, and other things generally of interest, as well as sightseeing. And they were both very good trips – very informative.

Now the question’s been asked about Nancy Wake. A lot of people will have heard about Nancy Wake – Nancy was my father’s cousin. Nancy’s father and my father’s father were brothers, and Nancy’s father moved to Australia. And then while Nancy was still very young, moved the rest of the family over there. Nancy’s life and her war-time antics have been well documented. She died in 2012 in her ninety-ninth year, and she was living in England at that point. But she had been living in France with her French husband at the start of World War 2, and she became so incensed with what she could see Hitler and his henchmen were getting up to that she became a resistance fighter. And she spent the rest of the war years trying to undermine the German war effort, resulting in many awards for bravery being bestowed upon her.

Thank you, Colin. Thank you very much for that.

Did it turn out all right?

That’s great.

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Interviewer : Frank Cooper

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