Story: Arable farming

Large-scale arable farming has been made possible by new technology. In the late 19th century it took hundreds of workers to harvest a large wheat crop, but today it can be done by just one person driving a combine harvester.

Story by Sue Zydenbos
Main image: Wheat harvest, Canterbury

Story summary

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What is arable farming?

Arable farming is growing crops in fields, which have usually been ploughed before planting.

Arable crops

Some of the main crops grown in New Zealand are:

  • wheat
  • maize (corn)
  • barley
  • oats
  • peas.

The grains of all of these are made into food for people and animals.

Other crops grown are vegetables such as potatoes and carrots, and plants that can be pressed into oil.

Certain crops grow better in different regions, depending on the temperature and rainfall.


When people first began growing arable crops in New Zealand, it was hard work to prepare land for planting. Usually bush or tussock had to be cut or burnt, and the stumps removed. The land was very hard when it was first ploughed.

Ploughing breaks up the soil so it is ready for further cultivation and planting. Teams of bullocks or horses used to pull the ploughs, but these days they are towed behind tractors.

Planting and growing

Seeds are planted in the soil by a machine with a drill, usually in autumn or spring.

Fertiliser is added to help the plants grow. In drier areas, the crops need to be watered.

Pests and diseases are sometimes controlled by spraying with chemicals, and some plants have been bred to be resistant to diseases.


Crops are usually harvested in late summer or autumn. It used to take hundreds of people to harvest a grain crop, like wheat or barley. Now only one person is needed to drive a combine harvester, which cuts the crop and separates the grain from the straw. The grain is loaded into trucks and taken away to be stored or processed.

How to cite this page:

Sue Zydenbos, 'Arable farming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 October 2021)

Story by Sue Zydenbos, published 24 Nov 2008