First Commerical Kiwifruit Grower and Explorer
No.3 Road, MacLoughlin, Te Puke, kiwifruit: mention those four short phrases and you have the genesis of the industry that is now a mega-million-dollar business for New Zealand.
EJM (Jim) MacLoughlin created a legacy that has earned him the honorary title “Father of the Industry.” He was also awarded the MBE for his services to the industry and pioneering of exports.
Born in Rotorua, Jim was the son of Dr Thomas and Clara MacLoughlin. He was educated at King’s College and Sacred Heart College in Auckland. Following his marriage to Mary (Molly) Elworth in 1930, he settled in Auckland, where he worked as a shipping clerk for the Union Steam Ship Company.
During the Depression Jim had a fateful visit with an aunt, Mrs Arthur Baker in Te Puke. That visit was supposed to last just a few weeks, but Jim and his wife were offered a job. Eighteen months later, they bought a seven-acre piece of land from Frank Cockerell on No. 3 Road – complete with a 70-year-old house, where their son John lived until 1994. It was the beginning of a lifetime association with orchard work.
Jim found his income from growing lemons and passion fruit disappointing. So, when he heard that Vic Bayliss had made five pounds from selling the fruit on his four or five Chinese gooseberry plants, Jim bought two plants from a nursery in Te Kuiti and also some seedlings from Auckland. The kiwifruit vines were just a novelty at first but, once they started producing and he found that people actually liked the fruit, Jim decided to plant half the area known as the “horse paddock” in Chinese gooseberries.
The year was 1937, and this small beginning was considered the first commercial planting of Chinese gooseberries. The vines grew well and fruited well on a six-foot wire fence, literally taking care of themselves. Orchard management consisted of giving the Chinese gooseberries about one ton of orchard mix per acre, just as he’d done with his lemons.
By 1940, Jim’s 7 acres were entirely planted in Chinese gooseberries, and he purchased more land in No. 2 Road. However, the outbreak of war saw his orchard truck commandeered for army use and, with no vehicle, Jim was forced to sell his property; although he did enter into a sharecropping arrangement with Ernie Baker. In 1955, Ernie Baker sold out, and Jim MacLoughlin purchased his land back, along with 38 acres of Ernie’s property. Jim planted it all in Chinese gooseberries.
In due course, the 38 acres passed on to Jim’s eldest son Peter. John, the younger MacLoughlin son, moved to the original 7 acres (complete with the historic 1937 vines) along with an additional block, further up No. 3 Road.
During the war years, between 500 and 600 half-cases were being marketed each season. American servicemen who were in New Zealand liked the fruit. As more vines were planted, and the fruit volumes increased, Jim realized that the obvious way for him to extend the market for his kiwifruit was to export. Until then, marketing had consisted of sending half-bushel cases of fruit with the stalks still attached, mainly to Wellington and Christchurch.
In 1952, Jim approached Stan Conway of the New Zealand Fruit Federation, who agreed to handle the shipping and marketing of the fruit offshore for local growers. At the same time a UK produce broker, TJ Poupart Limited, had also approached Stan to source the fruit, and the first export consignment of Chinese gooseberries from New Zealand was on its way.
Jim MacLoughlin gave himself “the sack” early in 1974, passing the baton and the legacy of the industry that he had started 30 years earlier to sons Peter and John – both no-nonsense supporters of free enterprise and competition under the multiple exporter system. Father Jim died in July 1985 at the age of 84.