Story: Farm families

Early European settlers in New Zealand often lived in great isolation in the countryside. Men outnumbered women at first but slowly rural families became the norm. People living away from towns had to be strongly self-reliant, and women and children played an important part in the day-to-day running of farms. Improved economic circumstances have changed the way rural families live.

Full story by Emma Dewson and Jock Phillips
Main image: Waikato farmer Grant Vercoe and his three-year-old son Grant

The Short Story

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European emigrants to New Zealand often left their families behind for good, and their first settlements could be isolated and harsh. At first there were more men than women settlers, and some married into Māori tribes. On the large sheep farms on the eastern coasts farming families were rare – most farm workers were single men.

From 1840

Most Europeans arrived after 1840. Many bought land, cleared forests and established farms. The work was hard and people had to do everything themselves.

Families on farms

Men, women and children all worked raising farm animals and planting and harvesting food. Even little children had their farm tasks like feeding hens or picking vegetables. Men did the hard farm labour like ploughing. Men also had to work off the farm to bring in income. In the 19th century families often had six or more children and mothers worked hard to feed and clothe them.

The family farm

At first most people farmed sheep for wool and cattle for milk. When refrigerated ships were invented at the end of the 19th century farmers could sell meat and dairy products (like butter) overseas. Farming families began to make more money. Machines like tractors also changed family life. Work was not so hard and people had time to go to local dances or play sports.

Women

As farms got richer, women began to do less farm work and focused on the home. They sewed and knitted clothes, washed linen, and cleaned and cooked for the family. They tended flower and vegetable gardens and often kept chickens.

Children

Once schools were built and buses were introduced, children attended school away from the farm. Some went to boarding schools and lived away from home during the term.

Changes to farms

Until the 1960s farm exports went to the UK, but when Britain joined the European Community farmers had to find new markets and new products. Women’s rights also changed rural life. Women began to co-own farms and work outside the home. Farms used to be left to the oldest son, but nowadays all the children can inherit a family farm.

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How to cite this page:

Emma Dewson and Jock Phillips. 'Farm families', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9-Nov-12
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/farm-families