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Ahuwhenua – Māori land and agriculture

by  Tanira Kingi

Māori quickly adopted the plants and animals Europeans brought to New Zealand, and ran a thriving agricultural trade. But new laws forced Māori into individual land ownership and drastically affected tribes’ ability to farm. Apirana Ngata encouraged tribes to form trusts and incorporations to manage farms. Many owners do not live in their homelands, but are still interested in how they are managed.

Changes to Māori agriculture

Early diet

Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand Māori had a staple diet of seafood and birds for protein, and aruhe (fern root) and cultivated imported crops. These crops, carried across the Pacific by their ancestors, were kūmara (sweet potato), taro, hue (bottle gourd) and uwhi (yam). The knowledge gained by Māori growing and storing these tropical crops in Aotearoa’s cooler climate gave them gardening skills that enabled them to move rapidly from subsistence gardening to commercial agriculture.

Potatoes, pigs and peas

When new domesticated animals, crops and iron tools arrived in New Zealand in the late 18th and early 19th century Māori quickly adopted them, and the shift to intensive horticulture and pastoral agriculture began.

When James Cook arrived in New Zealand in 1769 he gave (or traded) cabbage, turnips and potatoes to Ngāti Porou in Ūawa (Tolaga Bay). In the same year the French explorer Jean François Marie de Surville brought wheat, rice and peas to Doubtless Bay. Four years later, Cook visited Ūawa again and dropped off pigs and potatoes. From 1803, Māori were reported trading in potatoes, pigs, maize and other foodstuffs.

The plough and Christianity

Māori traditionally used kō and timo (digging and grubbing tools) to prepare ground for planting crops. While effective on small garden plots they were labour intensive on large areas of land.

In 1814 the missionary Samuel Marsden introduced horses and cattle. Missionary John Butler introduced the plough in 1820. These new domesticated animals and iron tools eased the workload for land preparation.

Māori who travelled overseas could learn about different farming methods. When Ngāpuhi leader Ruatara returned from overseas he took an active role in the adoption of European farming methods within his tribe.

Wheat growing and shipping

The rise of Māori agriculture was rapid between 1830 and the 1850s. Most of the coastal shipping in the North Island was under Māori ownership, and a large proportion of the food sold locally and exported to Australia was grown by Māori. By the 1850s wheat growing had become widespread throughout the North Island and Māori were building dam- or water-operated flour mills throughout the country. Between 1846 and 1860, 37 flour mills were built for Māori owners in Auckland province alone.

Reliance on Māori

Expanding Māori agriculture in the mid-1800s played its part in the emergence of New Zealand as a leading agricultural nation. New Zealand’s population of European settlers began to increase rapidly during this period. Initially settlers, unfamiliar with local soils and climate, were reliant on Māori for food supplies. In 1842 Bishop G. A. Selwyn noted that Nelson settlers were completely dependent on the local tribe for food. The success of Māori as agriculturalists at this time was noted.

Large-scale operation

William Swainson described Māori farming activity among Te Arawa, Tūwharetoa and Mataatua iwi in 1859. He noted thousands of acres in wheat, potatoes, maize and kūmara (sweet potato); thousands of pigs, and hundreds of horses and cattle, plus flour mills and ‘43 small coastal vessels, averaging nearly 20 tons each, and upwards of 900 canoes’. 1

Success and demise of Māori farming

Within 30 years of the arrival of the plough Māori had moved rapidly from subsistence gardening to highly successful commercial farming. In 1856 the New Zealander described Māori as ‘landlords, farmers, graziers, seamen, ship owners, labourers and artisans’. 2

In the late 1850s most of the North Island was still owned by Māori. But this began to change dramatically as the settler government enforced individualisation of land titles, and large areas of Māori land were confiscated during the 1860s.

    • William Swainson. New Zealand and its colonization. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1997, p. 65 (originally published 1859). › Back
    • Quoted in G. T. Alley and D. O. W. Hall, The farmer in New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1941, p. 22. › Back

Land ownership and Māori agriculture

Land confiscation

The confiscation of Māori land following wars between some Māori tribes and the government targeted prime agricultural lands, particularly in Taranaki, Waikato and Bay of Plenty.


The change in Māori land ownership had a huge influence on Māori agriculture in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Native Lands Act 1862 was passed to individualise and register Māori land in a form that was recognisable under English common law – so that it could be readily traded.

Traditional Māori land tenure was communal, carrying obligations to the wider community that were lost under individualisation.

The establishment of the Native Land Court (now known as the Māori Land Court) in 1865 and many laws enacted over the following 50 years saw vast tracts of Māori land move out of Māori control.


Communal claims to land through ahi kā (continued occupation) were abolished. Individuals or family groups were now named as owners on land titles, and as each new generation inherited the land (whether they lived there or not) the number of owners increased rapidly. The result was title fragmentation. Owners had no practical means to develop lands.

As the loss of land became widespread, Māori looked for ways to retain land, and to develop structures to manage land more effectively. These structures were needed because Māori owners increasingly owned scattered interests in numerous blocks of land.

Smaller and smaller

In 2008 there were 26,480 Māori land certificates of title with an average size of 59 hectares and an average number of owner interests of 73 per title (up to a maximum of 425). Owners can have interests in more than one block of land. In 2008 there were more than two million owner-interests and the number was increasing by 185,000 annually.

Solution to fragmentation

One solution to title fragmentation was bringing together interests under a single administrative structure. While possible as early as 1894, widespread adoption of single organisational structures did not take place until 1929 with the introduction of the Maori Land Development Scheme by Ngāti Porou leader and cabinet minister Sir Apirana Ngata.

This scheme provided government funding to Māori landowners to develop the physical infrastructure of their farms. The potential to develop farms encouraged the amalgamation of land titles into single administrative structures.

In the Maori Affairs Act 1953 the main land management structures established were the section 438 trust and the Māori land incorporation. Under Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993, section 438 trusts became ahuwhenua trusts.

Māori land trusts and incorporations

Around 1.5 million hectares of land in New Zealand is Māori land (around 5% of New Zealand’s total land area). Of this, 750,187 hectares (49.5% of Māori land) is administered by ahuwhenua trusts and 207,157 hectares (13.7% of Māori land) by Māori incorporations. Almost all the incorporations, and a significant proportion of the ahuwhenua trusts, have an interest in agriculture.

Many of the other organisations are involved in horticulture or forestry. In 2007 it was estimated that the asset value of these organisations was around $3.2 billion. This figure does not include the assets of Māori who privately own farms or forests.

Individual farmers

Almost 300,000 hectares (20%) of Māori land is not administered by trusts or incorporations. Landowners who wish to live and work on ancestral land are required under legislation to gain the approval of a majority of the owners. This approval is formalised through the Māori Land Court in the form of a lease. Where the number of owners is small an agreement can be gained relatively easily. However owners can number in the hundreds or thousands, hence the predominance of trusts and incorporations.

Land utilisation

A 1997 survey of 633 Māori incorporations and trusts estimated that 1.21 million hectares of Māori land (80% of the total) was being used for agriculture and 267,000 hectares (18%) was in forestry. The balance of approximately 28,000 hectares was urban property.

Effect on the economy

The Māori contribution to New Zealand’s farming economy is significant. In 2003 it was estimated that the annual agricultural and forestry production from Māori communally owned land assets was approximately $750 million, around 5% of the total. In the early 2000s more than 15% of the country’s sheep and beef exports came from Māori farming interests, and Māori owned around $100 million worth of shares in the huge dairy company Fonterra. Māori were farming 720,000 hectares in 2003 – mainly in sheep, beef and dairy.

Trusts and incorporations

Ahuwhenua trusts and Māori incorporations

The two key structures which have been developed to manage Māori interests in land are ahuwhenua trusts and Māori incorporations. In 2008 the 129 Māori incorporations and 5,201 ahuwhenua trusts together administered around two-thirds of Māori land.

Ahuwhenua trusts are popular because landowners retain their interests as owners. In incorporations, owners become shareholders who receive dividends. Recent legislation allows ahuwhenua trusts to conduct themselves in a more commercial manner if owners wish, and to amend the trust order accordingly.

Corporate farmers

Most Māori land is administered by trustees or management committees, unlike the broader New Zealand agricultural sector, which is dominated by owner-operator family farms. Much Māori agricultural production is carried out by corporate farmers – landowners do not work on farms but employ others to run them.

Māori agriculture has unique problems relating to ownership, governance and access to capital.


The majority of Māori landowners are absentee owners. The physical separation of the owners from their ancestral lands has major consequences for the organisations that administer and control the lands.

Most Māori landowners will never occupy the land they collectively own, nor obtain a livelihood from it. But ownership of Māori land plays a major role in cultural identity. Land provides owners with their tūrangawaewae (their place to stand, or sense of belonging). Because such land is precious, owners are often conservative and risk-averse, particularly when there is a chance that land might be  lost. Landowners believe that organisations should place as much importance on their social and cultural objectives as on maintaining commercial viability.

Governance and decision making

Appointments to boards or committees are primarily from within the landowning groups. Owners elect representatives democratically, and the final makeup of committees often reflects the interests of families keen to maintain control of the organisation. If members lack experience in governance and management, the success of trusts and incorporations may be compromised.

Access to capital

Organisations often struggle to obtain access to capital to develop their landholdings. A conservative, debt-averse approach is often driven by owners’ demands. Because of the complexity of multiple land ownership, lenders are often unwilling to lend with Māori land as security. Managers who do not have extensive business experience are less likely to obtain finance to develop land.

Company solutions

Recently, the Māori Land Court has more actively promoted the use of the company structure, under the Companies Act 1993, as a way to separate land ownership from business activities. A company structure can allow the separation of commercial objectives from social and cultural ones, and provide a mechanism for internal checks on performance. The commercial goals of a company can be clearly laid down and management can be assessed. Electing a board of directors – none of whom need to be owners and who are chosen primarily for their commercial ability – improves lines of accountability.

Incorporations and ahuwhenua

Apirana Ngata’s influence

Apirana Ngata played a vital role in the 20th century in developing a national scheme that amalgamated Māori land and provided funding to farm it. His success was largely due to his experience of farming on the East Coast amongst his Ngāti Porou people, as well as his knowledge of European law.

Ngāti Porou sheep farming

From around 1900, Apirana Ngata became deeply interested in sheep farming on the East Coast, as he took over Ahikōuka station and managed three other stations. Ngāti Porou leaders like Rāpata Wahawaha and Mōkena Kōhere had successfully farmed sheep on open country in the late 19th century, but it became apparent that for sheep farming to be successful a more structured approach would be needed.

At around that time a Union of Ngati Porou Farmers was founded. Ngata capitalised on this, educating Ngāti Porou about contemporary farming methods, including fencing, stock rotation and sowing grass. Ngata’s friend Samuel Williams, founder of Te Aute College, provided finance for Ngāti Porou farmers. Sheep farming underwent a transformation in the Waiapu valley, with Ngata leading the way. Sheep numbers increased from 52,786 in 1900 to 132,356 in 1909 and an estimated 500,000 in 1927.

Ahuwhenua Trophy

Apirana Ngata instigated the Māori Farmer of the Year awards in 1932. The winner of the awards received the Ahuwhenua Trophy, presented in 1932 by the governor-general, Lord Bledisloe. Over time the difficulty in judging both dairying and sheep farming became clear, and in 1954 Lord Bledisloe presented an additional trophy for sheep farming. Māori women won trophies for sheep farming in 1952 and dairy farming in 1954.

Ngāti Porou dairying

In 1923 Ngata began looking for land suitable for dairy farming on the East Coast. Ngāti Porou farmers took some convincing, as they had been sheep farmers for over 30 years. Money was borrowed from the Native Trustee and used to build a dairy factory and milking sheds, buy cows, and launch the Ngāti Porou Dairy Company. The Ruatōria factory produced around 60 tonnes of butter in 1925/26 and almost 460 tonnes in 1931/32. However it did not thrive after the Second World War and closed in 1954.

Large incorporations

Large-scale farming is carried out by a number of big Māori incorporations.

Parininihi Ki Waitōtara Incorporation, based in Taranaki, has 13 dairy farms and milks 8,000 cows on 2,500 hectares of productive farmland. In 2008 the incorporation had a $50 million farming interest in Taranaki, and collected rents from 20,000 hectares of perpetual lease land.

The Ātihau-Whanganui Incorporation was formed in 1970 to manage 40,873 hectares of land. In the early 2000s it managed 10 stations and a dairy farm on behalf of its 7,072 shareholders. Pah Hill, a 1,900-hectare sheep and beef farm, supported 20,800 stock units.

In the early 2000s Wairarapa Moana Incorporation owned assets of almost $90 million, a large part being forestry and farming operations. It managed 4,200 hectares of farmland, comprising 12 dairy units and 1,325 hectares in sheep and beef. The dairy farms employed sharemilkers to milk around 7,200 cows, producing over 2.3 million kilograms of milk solids annually.

The Puketapu 3A Trust owns the 3,877-hectare Moerangi station, 2,150 hectares of which are effective farming land. In 2008 Moerangi carried 13,200 sheep, about 1,200 cattle, nearly 2,000 deer and 500 goats.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Tanira Kingi, 'Ahuwhenua – Māori land and agriculture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 November 2023)

Story by Tanira Kingi, published 24 Nov 2008