Tobacco – the Golden Weed

19 February 2009

Motueka District Museum

The first known commercial tobacco planting in the Motueka area was on Horatio Everett’s property in Brooklyn from 1888 to 1890. No further growing is recorded until 1916 when Charles Lowe trialled tobacco. Cecil Nash, of Brightwater, also began growing tobacco (1918) and at his instigation many farmers in Riwaka and the Motueka Valley also started.

Tobacco would become a major crop in the Motueka district (many locals saying that the town grew up on the tobacco crop) involving almost every able bodied person, including children, in the area either in growing or harvesting the golden weed. It was a labour intensive industry from sowing the minute seeds through to grading. Many ingenious implements were devised to ease the work load, one of them being the “holy man” (image above) which created evenly spaced holes for planting the seedlings into prepared beds.

The plants would grow to an average height of 182cm (6ft) before being harvested. Leaves were picked from the bottom up: base leaves were lugs; centre leaves were cutters; top leaves were tips and were the last pick. This was all manual work until mechanisation came in the late 1960s.

The leaves were then tied into small ‘hands’ (2 large, 3 small) which were then tied onto sticks ready for drying in the kiln. The art of tying was a specialised job, performed almost entirely by women – the tyer deftly wove each ‘hand’ of leaves onto the stick. Completed sticks held 36-40 hands. The usual aim was to fill a kiln (approximately 750 sticks) in a day. Drying leaves was either in a kiln or air dried (Burley).

The final commercial tobacco harvest in Motueka was 1995.

Image: The holy man

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