Apples of the Huon – Part Two

…continued from Apples of the Huon – Part One


The Apple Calendar
The annual apple calendar was a busy one. Fruit picking, taking the crop for processing, pruning, spraying and watering provided work for the whole family. There were also times when the trees had to be replaced or re-grafted. While it is fair to say that growing apples was a lot of hard work for entire families, there was also a social aspect.

Church parades were held to bless the blossoming apple trees in the spring. For twenty years from 1952 the Cygnet Apple Festival was the biggest event on the Apple Calendar.  There were float parades, balls and other social events. Each year an Apple Queen was crowned. Many competitions at the Apple Festival displayed the skills of the orchardist. Apple packing, case making and wiring, and case milling were but a few examples.

The spring apple blossom drew crowds of sightseers from the city. They traveled by road and by river to look at the blossoms. The scented trees were a sight to be seen on the farms that lined the water way. Orchards could be seen all down the channel coastline as well as up the river.  Visitors also came from Hobart to attend the yachting regattas

The transport of apples to market

As apple orchards expanded in the colony, the owners looked for sources of income. In 1849 the 71 ton schooner John Bull shipped seven casks and fifty three cases of apples to New Zealand from a Sorrell orchard. Huon growers were quick to catch on to the idea of export. The Huon River became their highway.

Apples were initially taken to factories by horse and dray. Later steam tractors provided the pulling power. The Huon River provided a highway for the transport of apples and manufactured product. Many wooden boats were built at Wilson’s yard at Martins Point and Robleys Point in Port Cygnet for this purpose.

Apples were loaded from jetties in many of the small bays along the river coastline. Crooked Tree, Gardeners Bay, Deep Bay, Abels Bay, Gardeners Bay, Herlihys Bay, Petcheys Bay, Wattle Grove, Lymington, Glaziers Bay, and Randalls Bay. Small boats and barges took the apples to Cygnet for processing.

The Cygnet Steamship Company operated steam ships that loaded apples from the deep water wharves along the river. A daily schedule operated between Cygnet and Hobart. Ships called at Woodstock, Cradoc, Cygnet, Garden Island Creek and Woodbridge.

When the apple era was at its peak Port Huon became a very busy port. Thousands of boxes of apples from the upper Huon and the Huon Valley were loaded on to large ocean going vessels. This meant that export apples were handled only once before they reached their destinations in Australia, New Zealand, America, Britain and Europe.

The volume of apples
Mercury reporters regularly visited Cygnet and reported on the fruit production. In  1935 fruit from the Cygnet area included 644,800 bushels of apples, 27,170 bushels of pears, 5470 1bs of gooseberries, 31,890 lbs of black currents, 100,750 lbs of raspberries, 160,880 1bs of strawberries. Fruit and jam from the area helped feed nations. It was also sent to soldiers serving overseas during the World Wars.

From orchards that had just twenty to thirty trees in 1915 the acreage under apples expanded to reach its peak in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962 The Australian Women’s Weekly reported that twenty six thousand acres were in apple production in the Huon and Derwent Valleys. Some of the best known Tasmanian apple varieties of the era were Alfriston, Celopatra, Cox’s Orange, Crofton, Democrat, Delicious, Geeveston Fanny. French Crab, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Jonathan, Scarlet and Sturmer.

In the 1960s Tasmania was exporting over six million boxes of apples out of Tasmania. The United Kingdom, Scandinavia and Europe were the main destinations. Tasmania was known as the ‘Apple Isle.’

The downturn in the apple industry
The Huon apple industry remained competitive for many years through its technology, diversity of product and quality of its pest free fruit. Unfortunately the industry was dependent on international export markets. The down turn started when the British market started to prefer apples imported from Canada and Argentina.

When England joined the common market in 1973 the death knell for the Tasmanian Apple Industry sounded. There was little warning and the export market was stopped in its tracks. Initially the Government encouraged farmers to remove older poorly producing trees and to reconstruct their orchards.

So many growers were in financial difficulties that the Government was forced to sponsor The Tree Pull Scheme. From 1972 until 1975 many Huon farmers took advantage of this scheme. Over a decade almost seven hundred orchard owners left the industry.

The number of commercial apple growers eventually fell to just sixty from more than thirteen hundred. The Cygnet area was severely impacted by these circumstances. Ultimately many farmers subdivided their land into small lifestyle blocks and left the area.

Looking to the future
Apple growers have looked to the Asian markets since the 1980s. Orchards were replanted or re-grafted. Since the millennium the super market requirements of size and colorful display have dictated the apples grown in Tasmania. Pink Lady, Royal Gala and the new variety Jazz, are supermarket favorites.  Another apple called Envy is about to enter this market.

Tasmania currently produces twenty five million apples. This is about sixteen percent of apples grown in Australia. The high Australian dollar and the lack of ships sailing from Hobart to international ports continue to be issues for growers.

There is hope that the export market will increase. New apple varieties have been developed for specific markets. Tiger Fuji is destined for the Chinese market. A rich red colored apple called Ruby Gold will be tried in Hong Kong and other Asian markets.

There are few large orchards left in production in the Huon area. Willie Smiths is a historic organic orchard situated in the Huon Valley. In addition to apples cider is made on site. The orchard hosts a well supported mid-winter festival to celebrate the region’s apple growing.

Older apple varieties can still be purchased from the roadside stalls around Cygnet and at the markets. Cherries, blueberries and strawberries are also available. For those who wish to grow heritage apples in their gardens, heritage apple trees are available from Cradoc and Woodbridge.

Relics of Cygnet’s apple industry
When driving down the Channel Highway it is worthwhile remembering that most of the green fields that you see used to be apple orchards. There was a time when apple orchards were spread from Margate to Cygnet, Cradoc to Huonville, Franklin to Dover and throughout the Huon Valley. While apples and cherries are still grown in the Cygnet area and cider is made here and in the Huon Valley, the large processing factories of the Harvey era have gone.

Relics of the early apple industry can still be seen around the town. If you look closely as you drive you will see packing sheds, old steam engines, apple pickers’ huts, and the original brick apple dehydrating kilns made of brick. The remnants of old wharves are still in many bays. A few very old apple trees can be seen in paddocks or on the roadside.

At Burton’s Reserve in Cygnet remain a few buildings from the apple processing era – the Weighbridge, the Bridge Cottage and a shed that is now used by the Cygnet Scouts. For those who are interested a model of the Harvey and Burton factories that stood on the site is on display. There is also an interesting steam engine. The Cygnet Living History Museum is in the main street of Cygnet. It is worthy of a visit.  Further information about the apple era can be found there.

So as we have traveled through the history of apple growing on the Huon we can see that Cygnet, historical events and the apple industry were closely entwined. Land grants for settlers, Lady Franklin, convicts, probation stations, freemen, retired military men, immigration schemes and boat building were important factors in getting the industry started. The climate and soils were suited to the growth of small fruits and apples.

The largest apple processing and dehydrating factory in the southern hemisphere ensured that every bit of the fruit was used and sent to market. Ships that plied the Huon River transported Cygnet products to the world. Indeed it is fair to say that all these factors were the ingredients of a successful apple export industry that spanned in excess of one hundred years. We can truly call this is Cygnet’s apple pie.