The Apple Industry and the Worm at its Core
Tasmania used to be called the ‘Apple Isle’ – the two largest growing regions being the Tamar Valley in the north and the Huon Valley in the south, but the Tasman Peninsula was another important fruit-growing area. In convict days, fruit trees had been planted at Port Arthur, the Cascades (Koonya) and Impression Bay (Premaydena). Koonya and Premaydena were the first places where commercial orchards were established but orchards eventually spread over nearly all of the Peninsula which was not still forested – other prominent areas were Highcroft and Nubeena.
The relatively poor soils of the cleared Eucalyptus forest and the relative remoteness of the Peninsula in the late 19th century meant that vegetable and grain farming did not become well established. By contrast, the cleared forest-lands proved eminently suitable to the production of apples and, especially, pears. A regular steamer service was established to Nubeena and the settlements on Norfolk Bay by the early 20th century solving the problem of access, and the development of refrigerated cargo ships meant that the fruit had a market in Britain. The steamers initially used the old convict jetties, but new ones were also built.
Orcharding became the dominant commercial farming activity by quite early in the century, and seems to have become profitable quite quickly, for larger growers at least. Some fine Federation houses – small mansions, really - were built here with the profits from apples and pears. Through the 20th century fruit-growing employed a great many people on the Peninsula, and it was said that half the couples on the Peninsula met picking fruit. But employment was not just at harvest-time: the orchards required a lot of maintenance, as did the machinery; apple-cases had to be made from locally cut timber - often quick growing wattle (Acacia) species - and even the vibrant labels on the cases were usually locally designed.
The industry reached its peak after the Second World War – in Hobart, in Autumn, it was quite common to see a dozen ships loading fruit at once, and they were loading at four or five other ports around the island at the same time. There was, however, a fatal flaw to the Tasmanian apple and pear industry – a worm at its core – it relied on one market, Great Britain, where products from the old empire received favoured treatment.
When Britain joined the European Common Market in 1965 this special status was removed, and the Tasmanian apple and pear industry collapsed - more or less overnight. Growers were paid £2 per acre to ‘pull’ (actually bull-doze) their trees by the government, and encouraged to get into cattle. Today there is just one surviving commercial (pear) orchard on the Peninsula. The loss of this large agricultural enterprise has been partially compensated for by the local development of an extensive chicken-meat industry, but the employment opportunities are by no means so great.