Letona is another of Australia’s forgotten brands. Despite growing to be one of the largest fruit-canning operations in the country, the company went out of business in the early 1990s. As with many other Australian manufacturing operations, changes in the market and increased competition from overseas products played a role in its demise.
The Letona cannery was in Leeton, New South Wales, in the heart of the region now known as the Riverina. Early explorers including John Oxley and Charles Sturt wrote disparagingly about the area, suggesting it was barren and unsuitable for agriculture. Then, in the early 20th century, Sir Samuel McCaughey constructed an irrigation system on his property, North Yanko station, demonstrating that the land could become productive if a water supply was guaranteed.
In 1906, the state government began the construction of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Project, which included the Burrinjuck Dam near Yass and the Blowering Dam near Tumut. With a reliable water supply, the area began to develop. The town of Leeton, named after the New South Wales Minister for Public Works, Charles Lee, was first settled in 1913. The cannery was part of the irrigation program and opened the following year. It was owned by the New South Wales government and was originally known as the Leeton State Cannery.
The cannery became a significant employer in the region but, by the mid-1920s, labour relations were less than satisfactory. There were strikes, union-bashing and high-handed management decisions. The Truth published an exposé claiming that girls as young as 12 we employed and, leaving their homes, were accommodated in common dormitories. The article went on:
And the ages run up into the sixties and seventies. Women over sixty years of age – grandmothers – work on the canning floor, wet to their waists, laying up a stock of rheumatism to torture them in coming years.
By the end of the decade, there were suggestions that the enterprise should be run by the fruit-growers. In the 1930s, much of the machinery was obsolete and the cannery had further problems, including instability in the market and competition from other organisations. The dissatisfaction of local growers led to the 1935 sale of the cannery to growers’ cooperatives in Leeton, Griffith and Yenda, creating the Leeton Co-operative Cannery Ltd. It was the beginning of the Letona brand. In 1940, Letona canned 419 609 tins of peaches in a single day, for which it claimed a British Empire record.
During World War II, the resources at the Letona Cannery were diverted to produce canned vegetables for military use. ‘Leeton Patriotic Hampers’ were sent to troops serving overseas. However, when the war ended, fruit again became the major focus. Exports were a significant part of the business and were, at that time, facilitated by the Canned Fruit Control Board, an organisation created under the Canned Fruits Export Control Act 1926. The major overseas market was Britain, which imported some 3.2 million cases of Australian canned fruit in 1958.
Through the following decades, Letona expanded its product offering. Although the core of the range remained peaches, apricots and the “far-famed Barlett pears”, in the 1950s the cannery was also handling plums, quinces and green peas, and producing a range of jams, pie fruits, tomato juice and tomato sauce. A range of juices and juice drinks was advertised in 1962. In the 1970s, the product range became even more diverse, including sweet curry sauce and sweet and sour sauce. And liqueur prunes.
Despite these innovations, by the end of the 1970s Letona was in financial difficulty. When the United Kingdom entered the European Union in 1973, the export market for canned fruit declined markedly. Domestic demand also declined as consumers turned towards fresh rather than canned fruit. Not recognising the changed market conditions, the Letona management continued to spend on new equipment. By the early 1990s, the company was on the brink of collapse.
In 1993, there were talks of a merger with the Victorian cannery SPC. However, the proposed merger did not go ahead. At this point, Letona owed its growers $2.4 million for the previous season’s crop. There were hopes of a New South Wales government bailout and 300 people from a community action group demonstrated outside the NSW parliament, saying 208 permanent jobs, 1,000 seasonal jobs and 1,500 fruit-picking jobs were at risk. In addition, 300 growers stood to lose their livelihoods.
Despite a special Act of Parliament supporting aid to the cannery, the government decided against further financial support. Letona ceased operation in July 1994.