Story: Agricultural and horticultural research
Page 1 – Early days
Scientific research has played an important part in the success of agriculture and horticulture in New Zealand. Farming had to be adapted to local conditions, especially as almost all the plants and animals used are introduced species. Even the kūmara (sweet potato) that early Māori cultivated was a plant they had brought from Polynesia.
Much work has been required to select and breed the best varieties for New Zealand conditions, and to deal with local pests and diseases. Originally, farmers did much of this adaptation work themselves.
Māori horticulturalists adapted Polynesian techniques for cultivating and storing kūmara so they could grow it in New Zealand’s cooler climate. They also introduced taro, yam, gourd and paper mulberry. Māori readily adapted to growing European crops, in particular potato, which superseded kūmara because of its higher yields. These crops, and other fruit and vegetables, were also grown for trade with Pākehā.
From the 1840s, most sheep on New Zealand farms were the readily available Merinos from Australia. They survived on the sparse native herbage, and produced fine wool, but few lambs. Their susceptibility to footrot also made them difficult to manage on lowland farms. When other breeds such as the Romney and Leicester began to be imported from Britain, farmers soon found that crossing them with Merino produced more useful Halfbred sheep that grew faster and larger, with more wool (although it was coarser) and more lambs.
Don’t fence me in
Cheap fencing was integral to the development of New Zealand farming. Early runholders employed shepherds to keep sheep within properties. By the 1880s fences of imported wire and native timber were common. However by the 1950s the native timbers were running out. Concrete posts were used, and also radiata pine, but it rotted in the ground. A timber preservation technique developed by the Indian Forest Research Institute allowed radiata pine to be universally adopted for fence posts.
When early farmers complained about problems of weeds, pests or diseases, there was no research information to help. The best help came from other farmers who developed their own limited solutions. Governments tried to deal with the problems simply by regulation. From the 1850s on there were numerous Thistle Ordinances, Furze [Gorse] Ordinances, Rabbit Nuisance Acts, Small Birds Nuisance Acts and even, in 1884, a Codlin Moth Act. None had much effect, beyond annoying farmers with compulsory ‘control’ measures and inspections.
The one notable success of the regulatory approach was in dealing with scab, a highly contagious sheep disease caused by a tiny mite burrowing under the animal’s skin. Scab was eventually eradicated from New Zealand in the 1890s by a statutory system of inspection and culling or treatment of flocks. However, the system only became effective after cheap iron wire was introduced in the 1860s. It made better farm fences, which could keep clean sheep in and their scabby neighbours out.