For a considerable part of the 20th century, tobacco was a key crop in the local horticultural economy. Whalers and sealers had brought the seeds of their habits to New Zealand in the first half of the 19th century, and some took to the crop immediately; the earliest Maori growers were at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, in 1839. Governor Grey evidently saw tobacco’s potential as a source of income, arranging for an instructional manual on growing it to be translated into Maori. There was some talk at the time of importing “coolie” labour to kick-start the industry but the idea was quashed by Julius Vogel, presumably because it would undercut rates for European New Zealanders.
It was in the 1920s that tobacco took hold as a cash crop in the Motueka Valley. Cecil Nash of the National Tobacco Company was an early promoter, although there were many who doubted the crop would be as profitable as he claimed. They were proved wrong. By 1930, 326 hectares were planted out in tobacco in the Nelson region, by then the dominant growing region in the country. Rather than inquire after one another’s health, locals were known to ask “How’s ya baccer?” as a greeting.
It was a labour-intensive crop and at harvest time every able-bodied person in the district would be called on to help out. For air-dried (pipe) tobacco, the process was reasonably straightforward: the plants were dried and the leaves stripped from the plant, which were then hanked into bunches and pressed, usually with a hop press. Flue-cured tobacco (for cigarettes) involved tying the leaves to sticks, which were then loaded into a kiln. This required a deft touch, so the job tended to fall to women. One would pick up the leaves—three small and two large—and another would tie them to a stick. Around 40 of these bunches, called hands, would be tied to each stick. The aim was to fill a kiln with 750 sticks a day.
Locally grown baccy was sold as Riverhead Gold, Navy Cut No. 3, Cut Plug No. 10 and Cavendish Mixture, and in tins decorated with images of fetching women—a stark contrast to the gangrenous feet and rotten teeth plastered on today’s tobacco packaging. The
accompanying message must have been reassuring: “Does not injure heart, lungs or throat” and “Medical authorities recommend it”.