The First World War and the 1920s
New Zealand emerged from the war with the pattern of her economy substantially unchanged. Pastoral production was running at only slightly higher levels, though owing to the rise of prices the value of exports had increased very sharply, from £22.8 million in 1913 to £53.9 million in 1919. Local manufacturers had received a considerable stimulus from the wartime shortage of consumer goods, the number of factory workers having risen from 42,000 in 1910–11 to 63,000 in 1920–21. The most substantial economic legacy of the war was the increase in the National Debt, which rose by more than 70 per cent per head between 1914 and 1919. This burden, which was substantially increased by further borrowing during the 1920s, was to press heavily on the springs of New Zealand's economic life during the depression of the early 1930s; most of the money was borrowed abroad and in 1932 the remittance of interest amounted to 26 per cent of the value of exports. In the immediate post-war years, most of the borrowed money was spent on settling returned ex-servicemen on the farms. This policy, combined with the sharp rise of prices in the early post-war years, drove land values up to extreme heights, and it has been estimated that just on half the occupied land changed hands between 1915 and 1924. When the short post-war boom burst in 1921–22, many newly established farmers therefore found themselves with an almost insupportable deadweight of mortgage commitments.
In such circumstances the farming community looked about for a solution for its ills; and some thought to find it in a modification of the traditional free marketing of the pre-1914 period. During the war bulk purchase schemes had been instituted for all major exports, and this experience had convinced many farmers of the advantages of controlled marketing. When the slump came, marketing boards were set up, in 1922 for meat, and in 1923 for dairy produce as well as for some of the minor products. Their experience varied, the Meat Board playing a modest but useful coordinating role, the Dairy Board attempting more ambitiously to institute complete control of marketing, and failing disastrously. Controlled marketing, in fact, did not really come into its own until a somewhat later date.
Meanwhile, despite an overall feeling of pessimism which recalled the temper of the 1880s, and the reappearance of some unemployment, the development of the country continued. Though the number of sheep continued to rise gradually, the most marked progress was in butter production consequent on the rapid development of the area south of Auckland. In 1905 the Auckland province had accounted for only 83,000 cwt, out of a total production of 463,000. By 1919 the figure was 271,000 out of 509,000; and 10 years later it had shot up to 1,219,000 out of a Dominion total of 1,951,000. Nor was this increase solely the result of geographical expansion. Dairy farming became more efficient: butterfat production per cow had risen from 125 Ib per annum in 1906–7 to 152 Ib in 1919–20; by 1928 it was 211 Ib. In 1929, indeed, butter was on the eve of becoming the country's largest earner of foreign exchange. It was suddenly pushed on to that eminence in 1930 by the collapse of wool prices which heralded the onset of the depression.