John is a senior reporter at the Bay of Plenty Times

Walter Bayliss - a grower who pioneered the kiwifruit industry

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Pioneer kiwifruit grower Walter Bayliss under the canopy of his former orchard in No4 Rd, Te Puke.
Pioneer kiwifruit grower Walter Bayliss under the canopy of his former orchard in No4 Rd, Te Puke.

The last of Te Puke's pioneering kiwifruit growers Walter Bayliss has died at the age of 90, bringing the curtain down on an era that laid the foundation for New Zealand's billion-dollar export crop.

The little, hairy, brown fruit were still called Chinese gooseberries when Mr Bayliss and his two brothers Jim and Graham joined forces with Jim MacLoughlin to form the vanguard of a fledgling export drive.

Mr Bayliss, who died at his Welcome Bay home on June 18, had a lifelong passion for kiwifruit. In a 2006 interview, he remembered his father Vic "taking a bit of a punt" and buying six plants from a man hawking a new type of fruit.

They grew vigorously on the family orchard on No3 Rd. But it was the next generation, the three brothers, who reaped the rewards of the early gamble.

When Mr Bayliss was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2005 for his services to the industry, he had been the only person to grow and export fruit continuously for nearly 50 years.

He and wife Fay moved from their No3 Rd orchard in 1980 to a much smaller block on No4 Rd where he grew the once highly-prized Hort16A gold variety that bore the brunt of the vine-killing disease Psa.

Mr Bayliss ripped out his vines and sold the block before the couple shifted to Greenwood Park retirement village in Welcome Bay a year ago.

Mrs Bayliss said they never dreamed the industry that the family helped pioneer back in 1950s would grow into today's worldwide success.

"Walter and his brothers made their pocket money as young boys selling Chinese gooseberries grown from a vine their father bought out of curiosity from a hawker at a stock sale."

She said the brothers later shared their ideas with neighbour Jim MacLoughlin and the export began. Mr MacLoughlin exported the original 75kg 10-case consignment to London's Covent Garden in 1952, which was so successful that the Bayliss brothers supplied subsequent shipments, with Walter's first export consignment in 1956.

"Many were the frustrations and triumphs over the coming decades with new ideas and skills shared between growers to create a lifestyle and industry employing thousands."

Mrs Bayliss said the family tradition was carried on by their son, the late Rod Bayliss and his wife Anne.

"Now all the original vines have passed on to new growers and newer ideas, and the Bayliss family has gracefully moved on."

Each of the three brothers contributed to the growth of the industry, Mr Bayliss becoming a foundation director of the New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Licensing Authority - serving as a grower representative on the inaugural board for four years.

It was the precursor to global success story Zespri.

He told the Bay of Plenty Times in 2006 that he was never tempted to give up on kiwifruit, even in less buoyant times.

"You could call me a dedicated grower who has stuck with it because I have faith in it. I do it still because I like growing plants, trees and shrubs."

He is survived by wife Fay, daughter Helen, five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Walter Francis Bayliss 1926-2016

- Bay of Plenty Times

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