Newspaper Article 1982 – HB’s meat industry over 100 years

The Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune, Saturday, February 13, 1982

HB’s meat industry over 100 years

By Ewan McGregor, provincial president, Hawke’s Bay Federated Farmers

No North Island region was better poised to take advantage of the technological breakthrough of 1882 than Hawke’s Bay.

The successful shipment of frozen mutton aboard the sailing ship Dunedin set the stage for a revolution in the New Zealand pastoral industry

Sheep had been grazed in Hawke’s Bay for three decades, but the industry had been based almost solely on wool production. The only use for sheep too old to produce good wool was to boil them down for tallow – a wasteful process as all meat value was lost.

John Chambers of Te Mata endeavoured to overcome this waste by a method of meat preservation. He did this by boning out the carcase and then corning the meat in a pickle of treacle and salt.

When the meat was removed from the pickle it was rolled up and bound with string and then dried and smoked. It was shipped in boxes and arrived in good condition, but apparently was not sought after (I can believe that!) Chambers discontinued the practice.

Industry’s father

The man who was first to recognise and exploit the new process of shipping frozen meat in Hawke’s Bay was William Nelson, and to him must go the title of the father of Hawke’s Bay meat export industry.

Nelson had arrived as a young man in Hawke’s Bay in 1863 to take up farming. Nelson, however, had a mechanical talent (he established Hawke’s Bay’s first flax dressing mill at Mangateretere) and in 1881 he built a boiling-down works at Tomoana.

In this venture he was in partnership with his brothers Fred, (who later returned to the U.K.) Sir Montague (of England who never came to N.Z.) and with J.N. Williams.

William Nelson was a shrewd man of considerable business enterprise, and the news of the Dunedin’s successful passage quickly inspired him to take advantage of this new trade.

A company, involving local farmers as well as William Nelson, was formed and work begun to convert the Tomoana boiling-down works into a freezing establishment.

Initially the works had a capacity of 400 a day, with provision for an expansion to 800 and early in 1884 the first shipment was made from Napier in the Turakina. It consisted of 9008 carcases of an average weight of 75 1/2 lb.

Rapid growth

The trade developed explosively. By the end of 1885 Nelson Bros. had exported 123,000 carcases.

In 1887 a second works was built on the Western Spit (Westshore) under the ownership of the North British and Hawke’s Bay Freezing Co. Ltd, and managed by W. Kinross-White. (This works continued until 1924 when a lack of expansion space, sea encroachment, and reasons of public health forced its closure.

In 1889 the flourishing Nelson Bros. built a works at Taruheru, Gisborne (closed 1923) and at Waipukurau (closed 1893). In 1891 they built at Woodville (closed 1910). This, like Waipukurau, was a small works and a branch of Tomoana – a trend being re-introduced to the industry today.

Thos. Borthwick & Sons entered the Hawke’s Bay field in 1905 with the construction of a works at Pakipaki. This was destroyed in the 1931 earthquake and was not rebuilt. It later became the basis of a plastics factory.

The first two decades of the 20th century were prosperous years for New Zealand farming and the pastoral industry expanded rapidly. Nowhere did the industry grow more than in Hawke’s Bay, and the meat industry expanded with it.

Farmers, keen to have a stake beyond the farm gate in the industry, got together and formed co-operatives.  Freezing works began to spring up like mushrooms under this form of ownership, many only to fail in the more difficult years that were in store, and bringing down with them scores of farmer shareholders.

There was one notable exception, though, to this run of failures.

In December 1912 the Hawke’s Bay Farmers Meat Co Ltd was formed following a meeting of interested farmers in the Waipukurau Town Hall. This move was largely the result of the initiative of George E. Merrikin, a Hatuma farmer.

Merrikin, who for some time had been using Southdown rams, could not accept that his and other North Island lambs should be discounted on the London Market against “Canterbury” lamb. He had a good relationship with William Nelson and talked Nelson into allowing him to sell on consignment.

The result of this exercise was that Merrikin’s lambs sold for 4 shillings above other North Island lamb and equivalent to “prime Canterbury.” Merrikin enlisted the support of other farmers and this lead to the formation of the new company.

Construction of the works at Whakatu quickly followed, and killing began in 1915.

The practice of those supplying this new works was to sell the meat on “owners account” and this method of selling has characterised the Hawke’s Bay industry to the present time.

In 1932 William Nelson died in his 90th year. He was a wealthy man, having expanded his meat industry considerably, which he disposed of in 1920 to the Vestey group, and accumulating a large number of leading Hawke’s Bay pastoral runs. He left his home Waikoko, to the A. & P. Society.

William Richmond

By that time another entrepreneur had emerged in the local meat trade – like Nelson, a tough and able Scot.

William Richmond arrived in Hawke’s Bay in 1892 and took up employment on Chesterhope. William Nelson soon recognised his abilities and before long the young Richmond was William Nelson’s chief stock buyer, a job he performed with immense energy.

In 1908-09 Richmond talked Nelson into letting him market all Nelson’s second-grade lambs on his own account. The venture was a great success and launched Richmond on a career as a trader in meat that was to end with his death in 1956.

Richmond, and the business that he was to establish, were to experience mixed fortunes (Richmond, like Nelson, accumulated considerable land holdings, but was forced to dispose of them in the 1921 slump to stave off bankruptcy). But the company that bears his name is a powerful force in Hawke’s Bay meat industry today.

1922, following the disastrous year of 1921, saw the formation of the Meat Producers’ Board. This was an important milestone in the industry, as it was to lead immediately to an orderly and co-ordinated approach to the marketing of New Zealand meat.

1934 saw another milestone in the New Zealand meat industry with the introduction, at Tomoana, of the chain system of slaughtering. Whakatu soon followed, and by the end of the season, using unskilled labour, each works was handling between 9000 and 10,000 a day.

Post-war era

The most sustained period of expansion of the meat industry was the 20 years after the Second World War. Closer settlement by returned servicemen, good prices and new technologies such as aerial topdressing, crawler tractors, lead to great increases in stock numbers and better conditioned sheep as English pastures were established on the hills.

The meat processing industry expanded and prospered, too, and the capacity of Whakatu and Tomoana, as always neck and neck, doubled from the pre-war level.

A new addition to the local meat industry was the Pacific Freezing beef plant at Whakatu, opened in 1974. In 1969 both Dawn Meat (NZ) Ltd and W. Richmond Ltd had applied for a licence to build a meat plant, an association seemed logical, and after much negotiation a joint company, Pacific Freezing, was formed with each partner owning 50 per cent of the shares.

But the happy post-war era did not last. Britain’s pending and final entry into the EEC meant new and uncertain markets such as North America and Japan, and later the Middle East and Russia, had to be developed.

High inflation of the 70s meant that farmers’ costs out-paced prices, and the industry was under pressure.

Industry unrest, high wage levels, seemingly unreasonable hygiene regulations, and a sudden swing to and then away from beef products, all led to considerable escalations in killing charges.

Licensing

To farmers it seemed that the freezing industry had not responded to change and had failed to modernise and increase efficiency.

In 1939 as a result of a spate of foreclosures that had hit the industry in Depression years, the industry was licensed and it became difficult for new operators to establish themselves. In the next 40 years only three new works were opened, and about the same number closed down.

To enter the industry an intended operator had to apply for a licence to which likely competitors could object. In the late 70s both the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Meat co. and Pacific Freezing announced that they intended to build a new sheep works in Southern Hawke’s Bay, and hearings were held in 1977.

No meat processing licence had ever been more keenly contested, but the result was that no licence was granted.

It soon became evident, however, that sheep numbers in Hawke’s Bay were rising rapidly (largely at the expense of cattle) and soon both parties re-applied to the Meat Licensing Authority.

New hearings were conducted eighteen months after the first and as a result, a licence was granted to the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Meat Co. to build a three-chain works at Takapau. Work began immediately.

However, many farmers were incensed by this exercise. To them it seemed that the industry was a closed shop lacking competition, and the hearings were a farce. Pressure, through the Federated Farmers, was put on the Government and in December 1980 the economic criteria of the licensing system was abolished. Once again Hawke’s Bay found itself at the forward edge of change in the industry.

Pacific Freezing immediately began constructing a three-chain works at Oringi.

In November 1981, within two weeks, the Prime Minister opened the new works at Takapau and Oringi.

In the post-war era new personalities have emerged who have been part of the Hawke’s Bay meat industry scheme.

Sir John Ormond, Wallingford, who was chairman of the Meat Board from 1951 to 1972; Peter Plummer, active in both political and commercial aspects of the industry; Sir Lewis Harris, a big farmer and trader; Lord Sam Vestey, who has had a special interest in Tomoana (he worked there on the slaughter board in 1961); Graeme Lowe of Dawn Meat.

And there have been many others – farmers who have been involved in company directorships, and administrators who have made Whakatu and Tomoana the leading works in the country over a long period.

Where does the meat industry in New Zealand, and especially in Hawke’s Bay, stand a century after the first frozen meat shipment?

Delicensing has thrown the industry into a new era of change, but the Hawke’s Bay operators, who have always been industrial leaders (and have passed on their advantage to farmers through their killing charges) have already jumped further into the lead.

From Kaiti to Oringi, every plant is substantially modernised or new, with the capital work behind, and is well equipped to serve the region’s farmers in the years ahead.

But the industry must overcome many of the problems that have weakened it in recent years. In much of the rest of the country a painful period of change, modernisation and relocation lies ahead. Wages costs (60 per cent of killing charges) have become excessive and out of balance with the rest of New Zealand industry. Disruptive tactics by certain irresponsible union elements prevent the smooth operation of plants.

But the industry will survive because it must. Meat and its by-products represent one-quarter of New Zealand’s export industry, and its importance is growing. I would expect that in a century from now the New Zealand meat industry will be a vital aspect of New Zealand’s commercial life – much changed, but contributing to the nation’s prosperity. And nowhere will this be more so than Hawke’s Bay.

Photo caption – William Nelson… father of the industry in Hawke’s Bay

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Date published

13 February 1982

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Newspaper article

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Publisher

The Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune

Acknowledgements

Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today

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373984

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