Story: Canterbury region

Page 7. Agriculture before 1900

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Māori and early European farming

Banks Peninsula was close to the southern limit for growing kūmara (sweet potatoes), and gardening was never as important in the Māori economy of Canterbury as it was further north. The introduction of potatoes extended the range of cultivated crops.

European farming began when cattle were landed near Akaroa in 1839. By 1850, the Deans family had established a successful farm at Riccarton and other Europeans were farming on Banks Peninsula and at Motunau in North Canterbury.

A piece of paradise

In 1844 John Deans wrote to his father about his land at Riccarton: ‘This is certainly by far the best place I have seen in New Zealand, and for squatters like ourselves no place could be better, as there is plenty of level land with good pasture for cattle of all descriptions … there is a wood about 200 acres … and a river of water clearer than crystal (indeed the finest water I ever saw) running close past the front.’ 1


Three years after the arrival of the Canterbury Association settlers in 1850, Canterbury Province was established. To support the development of the region, it began recruiting more immigrants from the United Kingdom, offering assisted passages to labourers and skilled workers in particular.

Between 1854 and 1870, 56% of migrants came from England, 22% from Ireland and 20% from Scotland. Scottish shepherds were encouraged to emigrate to work on back-country runs.

Sheep farming

Unexpectedly, sheep farming gave Canterbury its economic start, and no other region is more closely associated with it. Sheep were turned out on ‘native’ pastures to produce wool, which was in demand in Europe. By 1860, most of the region was divided up into large leasehold runs, and many of the runholders were to become extremely wealthy. Sheep numbers reached 3,152,525 in 1885 – 21.7% of the national flock. The top breed was merino. Besides wool, skins and hides, tallow and potted and salted meat were produced.

High-country sheep runs

On the plains, leasehold sheep runs gave way to freehold estates and family farms in the 1870s and 1880s. But in the high country, grazing sheep on leased land remained the norm. The laconic shepherd with his dogs and the autumn muster became key elements of the image of Canterbury.


Steel ploughs and reaping and threshing machines made wheat-growing easier and more profitable.

In the 1870s and early 1880s Canterbury enjoyed a wheat boom. Between 1870 and 1913, it had more than half the total area of New Zealand’s wheat land. Large flour mills were built in Christchurch and Ashburton. But by 1900 the boom was over. It had speeded up the change from large sheep runs to mixed farming on smaller properties.

Canterbury cocksfoot

For a few years Banks Peninsula farmers earned good money from an unusual crop: the seed of cocksfoot grass. This plant flourished on the volcanic hills, which the settlers had cleared by burning. The seed was in demand for pastures in the North Island, and in 1905 the peninsula grew 83% of New Zealand’s supply.

The family farm

Some small landowners in the 1850s were little more than subsistence farmers, but a ‘middle rung’ of farmers was already producing wool, meat, milk and wheat for markets.

More intensive farming on the plains was possible once a railway network had been built and shelter belts planted. New crop options – peas, potatoes and fodder crops – made small farming more profitable. Large areas of the plains were without surface water, and the first water races were built in the 1870s, bringing water to stock between the Waimakariri and Rakaia rivers. Stock races were built in mid-Canterbury and on the Waiau Plains in North Canterbury in the 1880s.

Refrigeration helped make smaller farms viable. The Canterbury Frozen Meat Company was formed in December 1881 and slaughtering and freezing began at Belfast, on the northern outskirts of Christchurch, in February 1883. Cross-bred sheep, for both meat and wool production, were developed as the family farm emerged. But the depression of the 1880s limited opportunities to get into farming in Canterbury, and in the 1890s many farmers moved to the North Island to try their luck there.

  1. Quoted in Gordon Ogilvie, Pioneers of the plains: the Deans of Canterbury. Christchurch: Shoal Bay, 1996, p. 41. › Back
How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Canterbury region - Agriculture before 1900', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 14 Sep 2006, reviewed & revised 6 Jul 2015