Development of Farming
The 1870s were years of spectacular change on the Canterbury Plains. The introduction of the double-furrow steel plough speeded up the conversion of the tussock into paddocks of grain, root crops, and English grasses. The construction of water races allowed cultivation and settlement to spread on to higher and drier parts of the gravel plains, while reaping machines and steam threshing machines made possible the large-scale cropping of wheat for export. Much of the Central Government's public works programme was directed to the building of some 400 miles of railway in Canterbury. Settlement spread quickly into the plains land between the Rakaia and Rangitata Rivers. Land sales increased rapidly as runholders, readily supported by banks and credit agencies, purchased the remaining leasehold portions of their runs.
Between 1871 and 1881 the area in cultivation increased from 300,000 acres to 1,307,000 acres and the area in wheat rose from 46,000 acres in 1871 to 249,000 acres in 1883. Between 1870 and 1879 Canterbury received 25,700 assisted immigrants, or 28 per cent of those who came to New Zealand under the scheme initiated by the Vogel Government. Many of these immigrants formed roving labour gangs of navvies, teamsters, and ploughmen; some were established as semi-subsistence farmers on small “village settlement” blocks of two to 10 acres and many others were absorbed into expanding factory industries in the towns. During the seventies a number of farmers, including John Grigg of Longbeach, were building up flocks of specialised mutton breeds of sheep – Shropshires, Leicesters, Lincolns, and Romneys – and Canterbury farming was thus able to take ready advantage of the new markets opened up by the frozen meat trade in the 1880s.
The early settled parts of Canterbury, including Banks Peninsula and the plains area between the Waimakariri and Waipara Rivers, attained their maximum rural population as early as 1886–that is, within one generation of initial settlement. In mid-and South Canterbury, and especially on the downlands, the subdivision of the great estates between 1896 and 1911 caused a later infilling of the settlement pattern. Government purchase of estates under the Lands for Settlement Act was confined mainly to the area south of the Rangitata River, where 348,000 acres were resumed and settled by 1914. The largest purchase was Allan McLean's Waikakahi estate near Waimate, where 48,000 acres were bought in 1899 and subdivided into 162 farms and small grazing runs. In mid-Canterbury, where estate owners saw the logic of rising land values and increasing taxation on large properties, there were many private subdivisions in the first decade of the century, the most notable, perhaps, being the sale of Sir John Hall's Terrace estate at Hororata in 1907 and Duncan Cameron's Springfield estate near Methven in 1909. Cameron had been a pioneer in water-race construction and Hall in the planting of windbreaks – two practices which have been vital to the success of close settlement and mixed farming in Canterbury.