A tightly controlled market has always been like a red tag to a bull for some buyers and sellers. And so it was when the Apple and Pear Board was created in 1917 with a complete monopoly over the buying and selling of apples.
The surreptitious – and highly illegal – challenging of the Board’s monopoly has provided the fruit and vegetable industry with some of its most colourful stories.
Retired Turners & Growers auctioneer John Watson says that “truckloads and truckloads” of black market apples used to be transported at the dead of night from orchard to retailer.
“I can remember fruit coming from Te Kauwhata in the early hours of the morning, being followed by an Apple and Pear Board inspector who was taking flash photos…
“They used to have inspectors going into the shops and saying, ‘How come you’ve got that variety, we haven’t released them yet’. Then they’d take them to court, there would be arguments, they’d get fined.
“I was in Wanganui once, and there was a fellow bringing in big truckloads from Hawkes Bay. He used to keep them in sacks in the old Wanganui brewery. No-one twigged, until one day the inspector must have got a whisper from somebody. He went down to the brewery, opened the sacks and they were full of apples.”
Former Ponsonby fruiterer Alec Wong says he used to he offered not only black market apples but pears, New Zealand oranges and grapes as well.
“Certain growers would offer you whatever amount you could handle at the price they nominated and it was a cash deal, no receipt, no nothing. It was a tax dodge, and the market didn’t care very much either. But it was the Apple and Pear Board and the tax department that hated it.
“There were three or four growers I used to deal with. They would come to the market and we’d be sitting around having morning tea (so much business was done in the market tearooms – almost as much as on the floor of the auction!) They’d say, I’ve got some galas ready to pick. I want so much a bushel, cash.’ And say they were $10 a bushel through the Apple and Pear Board, they’d give it to you for $6, but you had to go to Oratia to pick them up.
“Risky? Ooh, they had their inspectors out, but they’d have to be very conscientious men because we’d generally go when we closed at midday on Saturday, and they’d be watching cricket, not watching Alec Wong at Oratia orchards.
“During the fruit-picking season they’re vigilant, but after about 7.00pm they’d rather be home.”
“I think everyone does black market apples,” says Herne Bay fruiterer Rama Kesha. “if half-price apples you can sell them cheaper than the supermarkets. If you’ve got you’ve got to take the chance. But you don’t want to get caught!”
He himself took some Ilicit apples about four years ago after a friend had about 10 cases left after making a delivery
“He came around, and I thought ‘Oh well, it is cheaper, just a about half price.
“I used to get inspected twice a year. They can tell. When you get black market apples they’ve never been graded, and the ones in the market are all cleaned and graded.
“It’s scary. If you don’t have black market apples you never have to be nervous – it doesn’t matter who comes into the shop.”
He says he often gets asked to buy the illegal fruit by growers looking for cash money, but in general he says he likes the Apple and Pear Board and the job they have done in keeping a continuous supply of apples throughout the year.
Keith Pilkington became an Apple and Pear Board inspector after years as a fruiterer. He admits there’s a quick buck in black market apples, but says “a lot depends on how the Board is performing its own function. If the Board is doing work the necessity isn’t there. Over the years the Board has done a better job, and the incidents fell off through the 80’s.
“Mind you,” he comments, “that could have been because I was keeping an eye on things. I was like the trade cop. Some of the guys I could talk to like a father: smack them on the hand and give them a stern word and a friendly warning, and it’s all over and done with.
“Others aren’t so easy, and you have to take them all the way. But the fines are paltry: $50, and by the time they’ve done it for three years, $200. There’s a hard core of offenders who will keep on doing it -not so much the genuine retailers but the flea market men and the barrows. They reckon that the fines are a good license fee.”