Rod Fry was barely 15 years old when he decided to skip school to become a tobacco farmer.
“I’d show up at school on Fridays though, because that was sports day and I played for the 1st IV rugby team,” he grins, recalling his big plans in the 1960s to make his fortune in horticulture.
Spending more days of the week growing tobacco, than he was in the classroom at Motueka High School, it was not long before Rod was summoned to headmaster Mac Miller’s office to explain his continual absences. But rather than threatening expulsion or insisting Rod markedly improve his attendance in class, the school’s first headmaster instead asked him how much money he was making.
“I told him I just wanted to be a farmer, so he said we could have a little competition to see who made the most money,” Rod remembers. “Well, by the end of the financial year he had earned £1000, and I’d made £1050.”
Growing tobacco continued to be a lucrative endeavour for many farmers in the Tasman region, who grew their crops alongside generations-old hop gardens.
In 1972, Rod and his wife Dee expanded their farming business with the purchase of the family’s current Swamp Road farm. Overnight, they too became hop farmers.
“The Askew family had been growing hops and tobacco here for many years. When the tobacco industry died, we developed the property into kiwifruit, apple and pear orchards, but we stuck with growing and harvesting the hops, too.”
Eventually, though, the farm’s vintage hop-picking and processing plant became too old to do a reliable job and, at the time, the financial returns for hops were steadily declining.
The Frys were forced to make the sensible, commercial decision to switch off the troublesome machinery for the last time. But Rod and his son Jared were reluctant to give up on producing hops all together.
“We’ve always enjoyed growing hops,” says Jared. “They’re an easy crop to grow and manage – and there’s nothing like that smell of freshly harvested hops.”
Every harvest for the past 15 years, the six hop varieties grown by Frys on their Swamp Road farm have been cut down, loaded onto trailers and transported to The Pines – a nearby hop farm with a fully renovated and modernised plant.
Nowadays, at 77, Rod is supposedly retired - though he can usually be found at the farm or at his second property on Peach Island, where he still grows kiwifruit and farms dry-stock.
The Swamp Road hop-picking machinery has long been dismantled; the shed re-purposed for storage, but Jared says the family horticultural business is still very much a part of the hop-growing industry.
Having lived on the farm his entire life, until recently, he has fond memories of ‘rounding up the sheep which were on weed-control duty in the hop gardens; locals coming to the farm to buy fresh green hops and dried hops to go into their home brews; the towering hop bines, their aroma and the noise and heat in the old hop shed.
“I also remember playing hide-and-seek with my sisters in the huge piles of dried hops – not an activity farm kids would get away with nowadays.
“It’s great to still be growing hops, especially in recent times when new hop varieties are being developed and the hop industry is going so well,” Jared says.
“I think there’s a great ‘feel-good’ factor, too, when you produce a crop that goes into a product you can then enjoy drinking. That’s always a satisfying feeling.”
Victoria Clark - 2021