William John (John) Walter Wilton Interview

Today is the 8th November 2018. I’m interviewing John Wilton, a horticultural advisor, on his family. John, tell us something about your family, and yourself.

Well, I was brought up on a sheep farm in the Wairarapa at Biddeford, a place that my grandfather cut from the bush.

That’s Falloon country, isn’t it?

Yes. Yes, I went to school with John Falloon and some of the other Falloon family; that was at Biddeford Primary School. And then we moved into town when I was about ten, and I went to Masterton West [School]. I was there for three years, then I did four years in Wairarapa College; then I went down to Lincoln College which at that time was a College in the University of Canterbury, and did a BA Sci.Hort. degree [Bachelor of Horticultural Science] as I was on a Ministry of Agriculture cadetship at the time. I did a year, which was the old Agricultural Intermediate – I think that’s what they used to call it; not the same as a medical intermediate – and then I did twelve months away, working on properties. And at that time I worked on Davis Brothers’ Orchard here in Havelock North; started there at the end of 1958.

And then I went and did some vegetable [?] stuff in Otaki with a chap called Ted Bartosh. Then I got back to Lincoln; came back up here in the next lot of university holidays to work for Anderson’s Nurseries, doing the nursery side of Practical I needed for the degree. [Of] course those days they were in the middle of Napier, which was quite an experience. And then in my final [?] year university holiday break, I went and worked on a stone fruit orchard in Alexandra.

You certainly had a great cross-section of early training, didn’t you?

Well, that was [the] conditions for the degree. You had to do forty-eight months of Practical, and we did considerably more under the Scheme I was on, which meant that we couldn’t really go off and earn big money at the freezing works. But we did get a wee bit more money than the average student, from our bursary.

I used to work for Tremain Real Estate. Kel Tremain went to Lincoln …

He was at Lincoln the same time I was at Lincoln.

Was he? Bill … used to be a valuer for Valuation New Zealand … Bill Hawkins.

Yeah. Yeah, probably – I didn’t know too many of those guys. And I started off training with the Department of Agriculture in the Christchurch office. I was there for about nine months and then I moved up to Motueka. I was in Motueka for about nine years; probably had up ‘til that time I think I probably had the longest tenure with that job in that district.

Those days tobacco was big, and also hops. Hops are much bigger now than they were then, actually. The only thing I ever had to do with the tobacco was issue them with DDT permits. [???] But the tobacco growers have extremely efficient … what I used to call the ‘prevention of [?]’ … there among tobacco growers. In the finish they priced themselves off the market. Too far removed from reality.

It’s interesting the way various industries have progressed; it’s only the big corporates with all the big money that …

Yeah – well, they’re spending other people’s money.

So, when you left Motueka, where did you go?

I did twelve months exchange with the British Ministry of Agriculture at Canterbury in Kent. That was interesting. I was there at a time when they were changing over from … I think it was NAAS [National Agricultural Advisory Service] to ADAS, so the whole place was in a shemozzle.


Turmoil. [Chuckle] But I did manage to see as much as I could while I was over there.

It’s funny how New Zealanders don’t really think of places like England being apple growers …

Not any more. Then I came back from there; I was in Motueka for a little while, then I went to Auckland in charge of advising [?crop?] there. They wanted me to do vegetables; that didn’t sit comfortably with me. And then ‘bout three years later the national specialist position in pip and stone fruit came up, and was quite a [?] position.

So where was that based, John?

That was based in Mt Albert campus of the DSIR, [Department of Scientific and Industrial Research] and it was a scientific liaison type role; staff training …

DSIR’s another name that’s gone. So how long were you with ..?

I was there until the early nineties. I went there in ‘75. Long stint. I managed to dodge transfers to nasty places like Wellington. When they reorganised the division I came down here, because all of our Auckland or local staff sort of disappeared roughly the same time.

When they amalgamated they built the new place in Crosses Road?

No, it was well before that. And then when PGG … or no, it was Wrightsons then … brought out the advisory service division, there were a group of us that didn’t want to work for ‘Randle and Swangle’, as we called them, so we set up AgFirst. We’ve been going now since … I think it was about 1994.

And of course it all disappeared once everyone moved from Goddard’s Lane, ‘cause that was the centre of everything once, wasn’t it?

Yeah – oh, down here it was the Ministry of Agriculture, not DSIR. We had our office down there next to the Police Station.

Were you married when you were in Auckland?

I married when I was in Auckland,

And where did your wife come from?

She was a nurse, and I actually met her through Jaycee[s].

So you came here and you’ve been here ever since?

Pretty much.

And do you specialise still in apples or stone-fruit or everything?

I tend to specialise in crop husbandry, mainly [phone rings] apples, stonefruit in the MAF system.

It was a very good move as far as I was concerned to get into the private sector. We had to completely change the way we worked in that we had to charge fees, which we were already doing in the latter few years in MAF, but we just got smarter at it as time went on. Up until about four years ago I owned half the Hawke’s Bay practice; I sold out about four years ago, and now I just work for them on a sort of private contract basis.

You’ve got control of your life again.

That’s right.

All those organisations … the drainage was driven by no fees; the orchard advice, vineyard advice … it was all done and we took it for granted.

That’s right. Well, Roger Douglas looked at that; saw how much these people were benefitting, so he said, “They can pay for it.” That’s basically the background to it.


Yes, I was pretty pleased the way that he got the income tax rate to thirty-three cents [33c ]. At the time that he did that I had for many years been on the top rate, which I think was not far off seventy cents [70c] in the dollar.

So you over time, have seen some amazing changes; from the old standard plantings to the more intensive. We saw the fruit growing on these Y-frames; we saw them on espalier; we saw them on wires; and now we’re seeing these forests of posts …

Thata’s right. I think you can probably measure the health of the industry by how complex those systems get. I’ve recently crunched some numbers in our own data system – we’re looking at mature orchard yield by planting density, and anyone that plants much more than fifteen hundred to two thousand trees per hectare is wasting money. Some of these are getting up round three and a half, four thousand.

We saw the kiwifruit industry do this, didn’t we?


Until they shed debt and came back?

Anyhow, I sort of looked at mature orchard yield, and [the] highest performing orchards on our database were one particular variety. It’s about fifteen hundred trees to the hectare; in fact our scores were very poor, at about .15, which means that only fifteen percent of the orchard performance is due to tree density. All the other factors are the various management … And it wasn’t a clear claim for the lower density orchards to perform better when mature. And this is one of the major issues, I think, with systems trials that scientists run – they never ever run them long enough.

I grew up amongst orchards; old Percy Mardon, who I’m sure you knew …

[I] didn’t actually know Percy; I knew the two boys.

Percy used to have multi-leader Granny Smiths, and when the single leader came in he said, “I can grow as much fruit on these well-spaced multi-leader trees.” And he was right – he did.

What will kill their big old trees more than anything will be labour. Once you get too many of these intensive orchards it’ll be very hard to get people to go out and work in those. That’s what has killed them elsewhere in the world.

If you’re not going to be able to harvest it, why would you plant it?


Planning my orchard with one of your people, he said, “We’ve got to have a mix of varieties [so] that your labour force can stay with you until the last apple’s picked.” Well then we got to two variety orchards, and they wondered why they could never find anybody.


Now we’ve got all these major corporates; [they’re] so powerful, they ring the changes.

Well, when they make a cock-up, it’s a good one. [Chuckles]

What’ve been the major things? Some marvellous changes …

I’ve seen plenty of changes. When I first started off with the industry you weren’t allowed to export an apple until the trees were five or six years old, in Nelson in particular; I know of orchards down there that were probably eight to ten years old before they actually took a crop off them, but that was because they thought you had to prune the trees into shape. The tree would grow to a metre fifty, [1.5m] and then they’d knock it back to around about twenty-five centimetres, [.25cm] [chuckle] so they were really on a hiding to nothing. So I’ve probably seen about five changes of cultivar in the industry. When I first started off, Sturmers and Jonathan and Ordinary Delicious were the major varieties. I think you would be hard-pressed to find any of those varieties around now. The first time I saw Jonathan was in Australia. [Chuckle]

I had Sturmers; little trees, beautiful apple.

I always thought it was a very good pollinator.

So did you play sport at all when you were ..?

No – I played a bit of golf but I was never any good at it. Exercise; no, I’m not really into sports.

Do you fish?

Not really.

Obviously you have a good work habit?

Yes. Well these days, here in this office in particular, we’ve got a group of very bright young consultants. So most mornings I would have coffee with them, and I’m tending to act as a bit of a mentor for them.

Well, you know, experience is worth so much, isn’t it? ‘Cause …

That’s right.

nothing’s new; it’s all been done before. Basil Morley …

Yeah, I know Basil.

who had the greatest tree-pruning skills at any orchard I’ve ever been in. Artist with trees. You know, he’s known in the orchard now.

No, well he must’ve cleared his money out of the [??] cultivar.

We were encouraged to let the trees grow – get the crop on, and quick pick …

Well, that is still the way to go. It’s better, I think, by today’s standards …

It’s cash flow.

… to be up with it.

And of course the other thing that you would’ve noticed, John, is the change in spraying patterns; the types of sprays …


the indicator traps you had in orchards. It’s become simpler, but it’s more scientific, isn’t it?

That’s right. Although I think some people have gone backwards in their spraying … such as the organic movement. I can’t understand why the Commerce Commission hasn’t had a go at them, for misrepresentation.

Well, you can’t sell sheep that have been grazing copper-sprayed orchards, but you can sell the apples off the trees.


And some of those sprays …

Some of them were pretty lethal. I mean, lime sulphur in particular; I think if it was being introduced today you probably wouldn’t be allowed in the orchard for six months.

At least you could smell them using it.


They used to spray it with a hose and a hand gun.

No – they’d just got past that stage when I joined the industry. The hand-blast sprayers were pretty much … or the early ones were pretty much around, and they were either [a] small, low-powered Canadian one, which … I can’t remember the name of that now … but it used to be powered by a Volkswagen motor. Most of the orchardists used to have large Bean sprayers out of the US. [United States] Most of the big orchardists round here had Bean sprayers. Most of the Nelson orchardists actually had these small … I can’t think, was it Speedy Arrow or something?

Yes, they were built by Federation, weren’t they?

Yes, but they were a Canadian design. [The] small one had a Volkswagen motor, and there was a bigger one that sprayed both sides, and it had a Fordson motor[?].

Now, varieties. Gone are the days of Rome Beauties and Jonathans, Gravensteins – we’ve got all this beautiful looking fruit that …

After they saw the new apples, we had the varieties of the Golden Delicious and Granny Smiths; and another one which was quite high-paying there for a while – probably made the orchardists who had it more money than the other varieties – was one called Red Dogherty. God knows what they did with it, or the consumer did with it. [Chuckle] I think they were used largely for toffee apples. I also heard that a major market for them was Scotland, so I figured they might just use them as ornaments. We sort of had the Reds and Grannys and they were sort of thick during the sixties and seventies, through eighties.

And at one time Granny Smith was fifty percent of the industry, and Red Delicious was over twenty percent.

You can’t find a Delicious now.

Yeah, there’s still a few around. There’s a certain Dutchman down in Central Otago who’s making a pile out of them. [Chuckle]

Because they still have some flavour – they taste like delicious apples! You know, Jazz is a lovely apple but it’s tough.

Yeah, it’s not bad. I eat Jazz every morning if I can get it.

You’ve probably got tree-ripened ones.

No. But then after the Red Delicious we had the Royal Gala, and Braeburn came up. Braeburn was a chance seedling in the Motueka area. They were well-established on quite a few orchards … [phone rings, recording paused; resumes on another topic]

So you travel a lot less around New Zealand ..? [Coughing]

Did a lot of overseas, particularly during the nineties and early 2000s; I’ve been to South America more times than I can count. [Chuckle]

It’s cheaper to fly to Auckland and fly from Auckland to Nelson, than to fly from here. [Chuckle]

Yeah, I’ve had that experience too. I’ve also been to Melbourne and back cheaper than I’ve flown to Nelson and back.

So what’s going to happen when you retire? You haven’t written any manuals?

No. Well, things move so fast that [they] come out of date very rapidly.

I got involved in doing these interviews. It’s wonderful, because I have total control. The information that we’re getting – it’s huge.

I’ve done a [?Huddlesford?] consultancy, mainly in Chile, Argentina, little bit in Brazil, South Africa. As a company we’ve done a lot of work in Australia which gets up the nose of our Apple & Pear people here – they seem to think that we might give New Zealand’s secrets away. What a load of nonsense! We haven’t got any secrets to give away, anyway. I remember saying that 98.5 percent of world research into our crops occurs offshore, and I can’t quite figure out what we might give away.

But there’s a certain professional jealousy, isn’t there?

Yes. I’ve also done a wee bit of work in the UK. That was interesting; I was in Argentina having breakfast, and a very lonely looking fellow on the next table seemed to be speaking English, so I got talking to him. And when we got downstairs to be picked up, my client was picking him up, too. And he was a buyer for an English food importing firm. He saw what I was doing there, and he said, “Well, we’re just starting to grow Royal Gala in England; would you like to come and tell us how to do it?” So I got two trips over there on that one. [Chuckle]

Wonderful. That experience is worth so much, isn’t it?


Is there anything else you can think about, John?

Oh, there’s a lot more. [Chuckle] Yeah, I was given a fellowship in [the]New Zealand Society of Horticultural Science; oh, that was a long time ago now. I’ve won one or two other awards with them. ‘Bout three years ago, I think … could’ve been four … I was awarded the Bledisloe Cup in Horticulture, which is the top award. There were two Bledisloe Cup[s] living next door to one another now.

Who’s the other one?

John Paynter – he’s my next-door neighbour.

So you’ve got a nurseryman very close to you, haven’t you?

Next door.

Isn’t he a great flower grower?

Yeah, yeah. I’m not going to try and compete with him.

Well you’re in a very interesting little … the back row; dress circle.

Yes. [Chuckle] I do … sort of entertainment wise … I do a lot of overseas travel myself. I tend to go overseas at least once a year on a holiday. [My] preference in the last few years has been Europe. I like Europe – there’s plenty to see, and I’ve got a travel company that I travel with almost exclusively; they’re sort top end of the market, so you don’t have to put up with any riff-raff, and they look after you very well. Done three small boat cruises with them on the sea; I did from Leith across, in Scotland, across [to] the Norwegian fjords, then up [to] Tromsø. The following year I did one with them around the Baltic. I’ve done several of the river ones with them.

Norway was an interesting one – I did the boat trip, and then I came back and did a bus tour; you really need to do both. There was [were] only two places where I think we crossed over on that trip. One was Bergen – the first day I was there it was raining cats and dogs; the next day I was there it was just like this.

And the other place which I went [and] we did twice, was the Flåm Railway. The Baltic one I flew into Stockholm with Singapore Airlines, and their route came in through Moscow, which was quite interesting. I’ve never seen so many derelict aircraft on an airport before. [Laughter] The décor of the terminal was probably something which Kruschev would’ve seen.

Earlier this year I did a small boat trip in Japan, with half a dozen ports [on the] west coast; across to a couple in Korea, and then back into the Sea of Japan; I think it’smore of an inland sea. I don’t like the big cruise boats; I call them floating shopping malls. [The] boats I’ve been on have about a hundred passengers.

Next year I’m going back to Europe. I’ve always wanted to see the Danube. I did the Danube from Budapest and Amsterdam a few years back; I want to do the other way. So we start off in Bucharest, then on to Vienna, with a few days in the Carpathians. So we’re starting to now do short trips, where I used to go away for five or six weeks; the insurance and things like that sort of kills you on that. I‘ve been using Bankcard; or this current trip I’m using American Express – they’ll take you through to eighty.

Yes. Where did your folks come from to New Zealand?

The Wilton family arrived in Wellington either the end 1841 or 1842. My maternal great-grandmother on my father’s side, his maternal grandmother, was the first white girl born in Masterton. And I think the [?Peter?] family came out on the same boat.

Yeah, I’ve got several books on the Wilton family, and it’s supposed to be the largest family in New Zealand descended from a single immigrant family. And my mother’s side – she was Scots-Irish – and [to the] best of my knowledge they would have come out very early too, to Canterbury.

All right, well I think we’ve probably just about got everything, haven’t we?

Yep. Well, I’m still working, and got no intention of retiring just yet. [Chuckle]

John, thank you for allowing me to interview you, and thank you very much for your contribution to our horticultural industry. Thank you, John.

Yep, good.

Original digital file


Additional information

Interviewer:  Frank Cooper


  • William John Walter Wilton

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