The days when produce was grown on Dunedin's doorstep

The days when produce was grown on Dunedin's doorstep

New Zealand produces enough food to feed 40 million but might not grow enough vegetables for its own population. The Otago Daily Times’ Bruce Munro looks back on a time when 24 Chinese market gardens flourished on the fertile Taieri plains.

Almost a century ago, Chinese market gardeners began reaping from the Taieri Plain a bounty of leafy, nutritious, soil-grown produce.

Renting and then buying land, particularly around Outram and Momona, they worked long and hard to grow vegetable crops for Southern urbanites and a better future for themselves and their families.

None more so than the family of Graeme Young.

Young, who was born in 1956 and retired recently, says his father Kum Leen Young worked and saved hard almost his whole life after coming to New Zealand with next to nothing.

“It was all head down, butt up. Work, work, work,” Young recalls.

It was not an unusual story across the Taieri which, at its peak in the late-1960s, supported two dozen Chinese market gardens.

The Otago Witness records the earliest Chinese market in Dunedin was set up by five men, in Great King St, in 1867.

Gardening grew rapidly. By the early 1900s, at least 159 Chinese men were working in gardens centred on Forbury and Kaikorai but scattered from Sawyers Bay to Normanby and St Clair.

During the 1920s and 1930s, market gardening shifted beyond the city’s main urban areas and, following World War 2, intensified around Outram and Momona, records Sons of the Soil, a comprehensive history of Chinese market gardens in New Zealand, published in 2012.

Young’s grandfather Young Chor was one of the first to go market gardening in the Outram area, in the early 1930s.

He worked with two relatives until 1944. By then his son, Young’s father, who was born in China, had travelled to New Zealand.

Young remembers following his father along the rows of vegetables from an early age.

After high school, he started working in the garden full-time – the only one of his siblings to do so.

It was the mid-1970s.

There used to be a lot of socialising within the Chinese community in those days.

“Among what I call local Chinese,” Young said.

There was the annual China Ball, Double 10 Sports Tournaments, parties and other social occasions.

Not that Young took much part in it.

“I was too busy on the garden.”

In fact, his father’s work ethic was such that there was barely a day off, ever.

The days when produce was grown on Dunedin's doorstep

Crates of produce loaded on to a truck at an Outram market garden, in the early 1960s. Photo / Charlie Ding

Despite that, Young found time to meet and court his future wife, Sandra, who worked at the well-known “drive-in” fruit shop in Howe St, North Dunedin.

“Well, you just had to make yourself take time off. In those days, we started work early in the morning and didn’t finish until late at night. I wanted a more balanced life, I guess.”

The Youngs’ market garden was typical for that era, growing staples such as cabbages, cauliflower and lettuce.

“Back in the ’70s there was no such thing as broccoli. It was relatively unheard of. Whereas now, it’s one of the main crops.”

With such a concentration of cultivation, the Chinese market gardens also became part of the lives of many European young people growing up in the area.

People such as Rob Fowler.

Last month, Fowler was the auctioneer helping Young sell his tractors and other farm equipment as he wound up an almost five-decade market gardening career.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, a teenage Fowler worked on market gardens most days of the week.

“I was often there before and after school and then during the holidays,” Fowler says.

“It was good work. It toughened the boys up.”

It was during the last two decades of the millennium that the produce auction system came to an end and supermarket chains increasingly called the shots.

For Young, what had been twice-weekly trips to town with produce became an almost daily chore.

The number of market gardens on the Taieri halved and then continued to decline.

“The peak for our market garden was in the 1990s, because most of the other growers had left.

The days when produce was grown on Dunedin's doorstep

A Chinese market gardener works a water wheel on his plot of rented land on the site of what is now Kings High School, in the early 1920s. Photo / ODT Files

“We ramped things up to take up the slack. It ended up being more a business than a lifestyle.”

Young’s was the last garden left. When he finished up, it brought to an end nine decades of Chinese market gardens on the Taieri and more than 150 years of the same in Dunedin.

“I’m retired, and loving it,” said Young, whose three children and two grandchildren live in Dunedin.

“Not having to break your back every day. Not having to worry about the weather.”

It is a job well done for him and Sandra.

It points to a bigger question for New Zealand.

On the Taieri, dairying and sheep farming now dominate. Residential sprawl has also eaten productive land.

Around the country, there is a similar picture.

The result is that New Zealand produces enough food to feed eight times its population but might not be growing enough greens for New Zealanders to have a healthy diet.

Most of New Zealand’s primary produce is exported, including $16 billion worth of dairy, $3.9 billion of sheep and $3.7 billion of beef each year.

The country exports lots of high-nutrient foods and imports nutritionally dubious foods high in carbohydrates and sugars.

In July, that picture prompted Auckland University of Technology emeritus professor of nutrition Elaine Rush to call for New Zealand to “feed its own first”.

The food production sector needed to be “reorientated”, Rush was reported saying.

She questioned whether New Zealand was producing enough vegetables to provide five servings a day for five million people.

“We’re fat, famished or starved in a land of plenty,” Rush said.

“A country that can produce more than enough high-quality food should feed its own first.”

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