Breaking up the large estates
The spread of the family farm was hastened by the breaking up of large freehold estates between 1890 and 1914. The Liberal government acquired estates for farm settlements, and some owners subdivided their land privately.
By the time of the First World War, the family farm of between 320 and 640 acres (130 and 260 hectares) was the norm on the plains. After the Second World War, some large properties were cut up by the government for returned servicemen.
Farming in the 20th century
Between the world wars, farm mechanisation, the use of lime, and improved seed, raised farm productivity. There was even greater progress in the 1950s and 1960s. ‘Canterbury lamb’ remained one of the region’s major products.
Sheep on show
Canterbury celebrates its anniversary not on the actual date of its founding (16 December), but on Show Day, held by the Agricultural and Pastoral Association each November. At the Christchurch Showgrounds ‘town and country mingle more freely than in any other metropolitan centre of New Zealand’. 1
In 2012 sheep numbers reached 3,440,983. But this represented only 11% of the national flock, compared with 21.7% in 1885.
The region also remained ‘the granary of New Zealand’. In 2012, excluding Christchurch city, 62.5% of the country’s wheat, 52.6% of the barley and 26% of oats were grown in north and mid-Canterbury. The Ashburton district alone produced 46.6% of the country’s wheat.
Orchards, market gardens and vineyards
Today, on small holdings, especially around Christchurch, farmers grow vegetables and fruit, and raise poultry. Apple and other fruit orchards have been planted in the sun-trap valleys of the Port Hills and at Loburn. Some Ellesmere farmers grow vegetables for freezing in a plant near Hornby.
The region’s first grapevines were planted by Akaroa’s French settlers in the 1840s. After the first large vineyard was planted near Christchurch in the 1970s, grape-growing expanded at Waipara and Burnham, but the region produces far less wine than Marlborough. Only about 4% of the nation's vineyards by area are in Canterbury.
In 2012 north and mid-Canterbury had only 2% of the land used in New Zealand for horticultural crops, but it had about half the land used for growing peas and over one-third of that used for potatoes.
Large-scale irrigation of the Canterbury Plains came only after the Rangitātā diversion race was completed in 1945. This drew water from the Rangitātā River and snaked across the upper plains to the Rakaia River. Three major irrigation schemes are supplied by the race.
Construction of a major irrigation scheme in the Amuri district began in 1977. Water flowed into the main race from the Waiau River in 1980. The smaller Balmoral scheme, with an intake on the Hurunui River, was begun in 1981. Farmers outside the schemes sank bores and used spray equipment.
In 2014 work began on the Central Plains Water Limited’s irrigation scheme, the largest irrigation construction project in the South Island. The scheme will construct a 56-kilometre canal between the Rakaia and Waimakariri rivers to irrigate 60,000 hectares of the central Canterbury Plains and support intensive land uses like dairying. At the same time Hurunui Water Project Limited were developing a scheme to build four water storage dams on the Waitohi River, to irrigate 60,000 hectares of North Canterbury land. In 2012 the 385,271 hectares of irrigated land in the region was 62% of the total area of irrigated land in New Zealand.
The impact of dairying
With irrigation, dairying expanded quickly in the 1990s. North Island dairy farmers were attracted south by cheaper land. Effluent and heavy use of water from aquifers caused environmental problems.
Socially, different work routines disrupted traditional patterns of community life. Long-established families sold up, and share-milking increased the movement of families in and out of districts.
Between 2002 and 2012 the number of dairy cows in Canterbury increased by 115%, from 397,533 to 855,942. The region now accounted for 13.3% of the national dairy herd, up from 7.7% in 2002, and this proportion was set to rise still further. The increase raised concerns about the environmental damage intensive dairying was having on the region’s waterways and led to stricter controls on land use and effluent run-off.
In the 19th century, small townships had developed as rural service centres. Besides shops and stock and station agencies, they had churches, schools and public halls. Even in their heyday, few of these towns had more than 1,000 inhabitants.
After the First World War, country people began driving to Rangiora, Ashburton or Christchurch to shop. Some villages disappeared, leaving only a church or hall. Country schools, hospitals, banks and post offices closed, and hotels became taverns.
A few settlements grew because they were within commuting range of Christchurch. Hanmer and Akaroa became popular for holiday homes and retirement and, like Methven, with tourists.