Tung nut scheme not quite the good oil
August 31, 2023 | Stories

By John O'Hare

A species of tree used to make a plant-based product – possibly decades ahead of its time – helped stimulate investment in the early years of commercial settlement of Kerikeri in the 1930s.


This story features in our Reporter Reads series:

NORTHLAND: The economic potential of the tung tree, whose seeds produce an oil that has been used by the Chinese as a natural varnish for 2,500 years, was identified and promoted in parts of the North Island in the 1930s as a sure-fire investment.  

Its future, however, appears to have been cut short by climate, mismanagement, and the dire impacts of the Great Depression.  

For Kerikeri resident, Jack Kemp, the tung nut collapse in the 1930s is personal. One of his great aunts – Daisy Herd – invested in the fledgling tung oil industry and felt firsthand the ‘tung lashing’ that happened when the whole scheme collapsed. 

“Somewhere I have a solitary nut from one of the tung trees that was growing in the Te Paki area where my aunt was living and working,” says Jack who is a regular volunteer in our Northland Office. 

“It’s really the only tangible product of what was promised would be a highly lucrative industry.”   

Daisy Herd was a teacher based at Te Paki in the Far North, and like many people invested her hard-earned cash into the widely promoted scheme. She lived close to a tung tree plantation that was trumpeted in a bit of advertorial appearing in a 1931 edition of the Northland Age as being, “destined to be in the near future the centre of a great Tung Oil industry that will add greatly to the prosperity of the North.” 

The anonymous copywriter described the hospitality of Mr and Mrs Richardson, whose estate covered 47,000 acres and ran “right across the peninsula.” Here, tung oil trees were being raised from an impressive 147,000 seeds in a nursery that had been established onsite.  

The writer continued: “The soil, a light loamy one, had been ploughed and disced, reduced to a fine tilth, for the reception of seeds [which were] planted in rows about 2ft 3in apart.” 

Clearly everything was all go in the Far North – and Daisy and the Richardsons weren’t the only ones to sign up to the tung oil revolution. In Kerikeri, a scheme like the Alderton Income Homes Schemes which promoted citrus orchard ‘home and income’ packages also operated, promoting the tung nut tree to potential buyers instead.

George Alderton had founded the Northern Advocate in his early twenties and retired from journalism in 1897 at the age of 43. Swopping journalism for real estate, in 1925 he started promoting the idea of settlement in Kerikeri offering the idea of ‘home and income’ citrus groves – similar to schemes he had seen in America – as the ultimate lifestyle block.  

The New Zealand Tung Oil Corporation – one of 11 such companies operating in New Zealand according to local historian Nancy Pickmere in her book Kerikeri: Heritage of Dreams – offered a similar product. Clearly Kerikeri was the new frontier for slightly off-the-wall, almost-too-good-to-be-true settlement schemes.  

“By the early 1930s, soon after its inception, Alderton’s North Auckland Land Development Corporation found itself in serious difficulties,” says Jack.  

“The investors pulled through it, however, and with hard work and grit established what would become a flourishing citrus and horticulture industry in and around Kerikeri. Sadly, the tung oil industry wouldn’t be as fortunate.”

“… pick out an odd corner of your farm, plant tung trees on it and make it lift the mortgage or overdraft in the next few years, while you carry on with your regular farming.”

Though the early 1930s did provide a promising start for the tung tree investors. In Kerikeri alone, the Company purchased and planted about 30 acres of the tree near Waipapa. The virtues of the tree were nothing short of miraculous according to the promotional material – of which there appeared to be quite a bit – all telling the same mellifluous story: 

“No pests, no pruning, no spraying. The crop falls to the ground and is gathered after all others are finished,” read one brochure.  

“… pick out an odd corner of your farm, plant tung trees on it and make it lift the mortgage or overdraft in the next few years, while you carry on with your regular farming.”  

By the fifth year, profits of £10-15 per acre were promised to the enterprising punter; rising to £40 by eight years.  

Sadly, the projections were not grounded in reality, and the dizzying optimism of the tung oil marketing team failed to materialise as pounds, shillings – or even pence.  

It was the December 1938 New Zealand Journal of Agriculture that shed light on the truly disastrous results of the Tung oil investment revolution when it published a summary of an inspection of ten North Auckland plantations totalling 4548 acres. The figures were sobering:  

Apparently satisfactory trees: 55 acres 

Unsatisfactory trees: 733 acres 

Worthless, dead and dying trees: 3760 acres.  

With what appeared to be a cultivation success rate of barely 1 percent, the New Zealand climate and soil wasn’t producing the tung oil El Dorado that had been promised. That, combined with the effects of the Great Depression, meant the jig was well and truly up.  

In June 1936, the Chief Judge in Equity, having heard evidence relating to one company’s financial position, its tung trees and its defaults under its Trust Deed, ordered its liquidation noting that the company had succeeded in losing practically the whole of its paid-up capital. This would become something of a trend.  

Tung-tied investors in the north, desperate to make some money off their nuts, would feel the worst effects of the squeeze. In time acres of tung trees would be ripped out and converted to pasture.  

“Ironically tung oil would appear to be a fantastic product – it’s 100 percent natural, organic, sustainable and can be used for applications when a food grade oil is required,” says Jack.  

“Proponents of the tung oil revolution like my Aunt Daisy were on the right track. It could be that they were just a hundred years before their time.”  

Today, highly sought after Tung Oil can retail for more than $50 a litre.

Tung nut oil
O'Hare, John (author)

John O'Hare | Communications Advisor
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