But this vital sector has bounced back and is today prospering - and is now struggling to find enough workers to harvest its crops.
As part of a Bust to Boom: Kiwifruit's remarkable comeback, Carmen Hall takes a look at a school that is teaching students the skills to enter the industry.
Katikati College has launched a pilot horticulture programme to get students into the kiwifruit industry.
If successful it could be adopted by a sister school in Tonga.
Teacher Hilary Johnson said there were career opportunities across the sector but changing people's perceptions was the biggest hurdle.
Last year Johnson started working on the pilot programme and overhauled the college's horticulture course, centred around gardening, which was in decline.
The new programme had three strands including innovation and creativity, business management and plant science and technology.
Students could go into direct employment, cadetships or university, she said.
''In all cases across