Fruit Industry

Apple case label (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

Tasmania is an island distinguished by environmental conditions suitable for the production of northern hemisphere fruits of many varieties. While this natural advantage was recognised as early as 1788, when William Bligh planted three 'fine young apple trees' at Bruny Island, it was not truly developed or exploited on a commercial basis until the later nineteenth century. From the 1860s, for almost a century, fruit production evolved to occupy a key role in the economic and cultural life of the state.

Commercial fruit production in Tasmania developed as a sideline to established farming activities in rural and suburban areas before 1830. As settlement expanded it was utilised as an alternative agricultural strategy in more marginal regions, such as the Huon Valley, where sheep and wheat farming were not viable. Early plantings were often small, extended garden orchards, with minimal cultivation, inputs (fertilisers etc) or improvement. Surplus fruit was processed, mainly to become cider, or sold on the local market. From the 1840s, however, a viable interstate export market developed and by the mid-1850s shipments had been made to Victoria, New South Wales, New Zealand and India.

Between the 1860s and 1900s technological and cultural improvements coupled with rising demand from a burgeoning interstate and overseas urban middle class led to a rapid expansion in the Tasmanian fruit market. New technologies and cultural techniques such as steam shipping, refrigeration, fertilisers, chemical spraying and pruning allowed growers to expand both sales and production. Fruit overtook potatoes and timber as the staple source of income in high rainfall areas and began to occupy a more significant role in the activities of the established mixed farmer. After tariffs were imposed by mainland colonies in the 1880s enterprising growers such as WD Peacock and Louis Shoobridge, from the Derwent Valley, sought new markets and a regular steam trade with London commenced. This export trade was to support the Tasmanian fruit industry well into the twentieth century.

Almost as significant as the fresh fruit export market were the jam and fruit processing companies established from the 1850s in Hobart and the Huon. Jam factories stimulated plantings of small-fruits such as raspberries and blackcurrants on steep land. Demand increased when in 1891 Henry Jones took over George Peacock's jam factory and soon afterwards established IXL. Jones' company grew to become the major supplier and processor of fruit in the southern hemisphere. By 1909 more than 1000 cases of jam per week were produced at his Hobart factory, which employed 1300 people in season. The business benefited from large-scale local production of jam fruits and 4,630,591 lbs of small-fruits were produced in the Huon and Derwent valleys in 1935.

In the early twentieth century plantings of fruit continued to proceed rapidly, particularly in the north and north-east, where entirely new orchard regions were created. Foreign investment enlarged the capital basis of the industry and fruit growing emerged as 'the predominant form of intensive land use on farms in Tasmania' with certain districts, such as the Huon Valley, beginning to evidence a form of regional specialisation. The state Department of Agriculture took a leading role in advising and encouraging growers and in 1934 the state Fruit Board was created to co-ordinate industrial activity.

With government support and a growing scientific establishment, statewide yields and yields per acre rose to a peak in the mid-1960s. By this time fruit growing had evolved to become a specialised, mechanised profession with a strong export focus. It represented the primary source of income in many regions of Tasmania. However, from the late 1950s growers began to experience difficulties and throughout the 1960s foreign competition, rising production costs, labour shortages, shipping problems and the cost of replanting forced many growers out of the industry. Finally, in the early 1970s, Britain's entry into the European Economic Community led to the decline of Tasmania's major export market and the state government instituted the Fruit Growers Reconstruction Scheme to help growers leave the industry.

For almost a century, between 1860 and 1960, fruit production occupied a key role in the Tasmanian economy. As an agricultural strategy, it enabled the use of land considered unfit for conventional activities. As a form of intensive land use with associated secondary industries, fruit production supported large populations on small areas of land. It also provided much direct and indirect employment, especially on a seasonal basis, to both rural and metropolitan workers. More broadly, the state's fruit industry helped to establish a popular, picturesque image of Tasmania, both interstate and overseas, which persists to this day.

In 1951 the Department of Agriculture established the Grove Research Station, to assist growers. Many varieties of fruit, especially apples, were planted for propagation, research and evaluation, and research topics included better dealing with orchard pests, thinning strategies and introducing new varieties, for example the Fuji apple. In recent years the Research Station has concentrated on sustainable production techniques.

Further reading: A McConnell, The history and heritage of the Tasmanian apple industry, Launceston, 1999 (two vols); W Goodhand, 'Pome fruit orcharding in Tasmania ', MA Thesis, UT, 1961; F Strahan (ed), The core of the apple, Melbourne, 1982.

Will Mooney