Story: Farming in the economy

Page 1 – Early farming and the great pastoral era

New Zealand’s economic backbone

New Zealand’s agricultural production since the beginning of European settlement has been different from that of most other developed countries because:

  • agricultural production was aimed at an export market
  • agricultural products have always been New Zealand’s main source of income, apart from a period in the 1860s when gold was the leading earner
  • since the 1850s, agricultural production in New Zealand has been dependent on pasture rather than crops.

New Zealand’s economic backbone has long been products grown on the country’s pastures, in particular wool, meat and dairy products. Even in 2000, after nearly 20 years of agricultural diversification, less than 0.5 million hectares were in horticultural production, compared with over 15.5 million hectares of pasture.

The beginnings of agriculture

Before organised European settlement of New Zealand began in 1840, venture capitalists were involved in sealing, whaling, timber extraction and flax processing. In the South Island, shore whalers spread their investments and began agricultural and pastoral enterprises on land leased or bought from Māori.

From whaler to farmer

Johnny Jones owned a string of whaling stations along the Southland and Otago coasts in the late 1830s. In 1837 he bought a whaling station at the mouth of the Waikouaiti River, and over the next two years purchased the surrounding land from Ngāi Tahu leader Tūhawaiki. By 1848 Jones’s Matanaka property had 800 acres (324 hectares) of cultivated land, 2,000 ewes and 200 cows.

In parts of the North Island, Māori learned European farming techniques at mission stations. Māori also adopted European crops, and in the 1850s and early 1860s they exported grain and potatoes to the Australian colonies, where food prices surged during the gold rushes.

Early European settlements struggled at first, as Māori owned the best land and many of the original sites selected had poor soil fertility. Auckland relied on produce grown by Māori to survive. Settlers in New Plymouth, Whanganui, Wellington and Nelson also had difficulty establishing themselves. The latter settlements were founded on Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s theories of colonisation, which envisioned that these isolated agrarian communities could survive and even prosper, despite having no access to a major market for their crops.

The first ploughman

The Reverend John Gare Butler was the first person to use a plough in New Zealand. He had arrived in 1819 as a missionary for the Church Missionary Society, and established a mission at Kerikeri. On 3 May 1820 he recorded that ‘the agricultural plough was for the first time put into the land of New Zealand at Kideekidee, and I felt much pleasure in holding it after a team of six bullocks brought down by the Dromedary. I trust that this day will be remembered with gratitude, and its anniversary kept by ages yet unborn. Each heart rejoiced in this auspicious day, and said, “May God speed the plough”.’ 1

Pastoralism in the South Island

From the mid-1840s the expansion of sheep farming changed the economic base of New Zealand. The open country of the South Island was ideally suited to running fine-woolled sheep. By the time the first Canterbury Association settlers arrived, in December 1850, the industry was well established in the Nelson–Marlborough region. By 1865 it took in all the suitable country east of the Southern Alps.

Wool was an ideal commodity for a frontier society far from the main centres of the northern hemisphere. It could easily be stored and shipped, and there was a strong demand for it in the expanding textile industries of Britain, Europe and North America. In 1856 wool grown on the South Island grasslands became the country’s most valuable export.

Stagnation in the North Island

The economy of the South Island boomed in the 1860s and 1870s with the income from wool and the gold rush in Otago and Westland. During the same period, the expansion of farming in the west and north of the North Island was hampered because much of the land remained in Māori ownership, and turning the heavy bush country into farmland was expensive and time consuming.

Crop farming rather than pastoral production was the focus for many of these settlements. This was because fine-woolled sheep, which were so profitable in the South Island, did not thrive in the wetter climate of the North Island. Only small areas could be cleared for ploughing at any one time, as the trees had to be felled and burned, and the unburned logs and stumps removed. Consequently, the North Island had only 24% of the country’s sheep in 1861. That dropped to 20% in 1871; although by 1881 its share had increased to 32%.

Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa

The development of Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa was more like that of the eastern districts of the South Island, with which they shared the dry climate and open vegetation that suited sheep farming. Extensive pastoralism began in the Wairarapa in 1843 and had spread north to Hawke’s Bay by 1850.

The Crown purchased land in both of these regions relatively early in the settlement phase. The first Wairarapa purchase was in 1853, and 2 million acres (809,371 hectares) of Hawke’s Bay (two-thirds of its total land area) were bought between 1851 and 1864. By 1882 Hawke’s Bay had 2 million sheep and Wairarapa 750,000, compared with 3.5 million in Canterbury and the same number in Otago and Southland.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in A. H. McLintock, ed, An encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printer, 1966, http://www.teara.govt.nz/1966/B/ButlerJohnGare/ButlerJohnGare/en. Back
How to cite this page:

Robert Peden. 'Farming in the economy - Early farming and the great pastoral era', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/farming-in-the-economy/page-1