Although the first shipment to Britain of frozen meat was in 1882 it took almost two decades for meat to become an important export. Farmers experimented with better sheep breeds for meat such as the Corriedale and the New Zealand Romney. They replaced native tussocks with imported grasses and developed new pasture-management techniques to maximise their returns.
Farming sheep for wool usually involved land-extensive farming – one sheep to 2 acres (0.8 hectares) was common. Farming for meat as well as wool was more land-intensive, and sheep stations were subdivided. This ‘bursting’ (an 1890s expression) is often portrayed as the government imposing on the farmers, but many farmers were pleased to have public funding to unlock the productive potential of their land. Smaller farms were less self-sufficient than the great sheep stations, and rural servicing towns flourished.
Dairy farming proved especially viable in lands which had not been found suitable for sheep, particularly in Northland, the Waikato and Taranaki. This was a major factor in relocating economic activity north from its South Island base of the 19th century. Keeping cows had initially been only for town milk supply, but refrigeration made the export of butter and cheese a thriving industry.
Because refrigerated products require post-farm-gate processing, dairy factories sprang up near farms and freezing works near ports. As transport became cheaper, the factories were consolidated to benefit from economies of scale, and freezing works moved out of the cities to be nearer farms. There was some post-farm-gate processing of wool, including scouring and the manufacture of woollen garments (which began in the 1870s), but not much.
Taranaki wool to Taranaki butter
The first person to install a freezing machine in a butter factory was the Eltham entrepreneur Chew Chong. Born in Canton, he had established his name exporting Jew’s ear fungus (Auricularia cornea), known as ‘Taranaki wool’, in the 1870s and 1880s. In the late 1880s he owned several butter factories, and four creameries, and won the prize for the best half-ton of export butter at the 1889–90 Dunedin exhibition. He flew the Chinese flag over the exhibit.
The North Atlantic economies moved out of depression in the mid-1890s. Refrigerated exports became significant as the British seized on the new high-quality foods New Zealand farmers produced. Under a Liberal government New Zealand went into a boom which lasted until about 1920. As hard-rock gold, native timber and kauri gum became depleted, pastoral-farming products became an even larger share of exports – over 90% in the mid-20th century.
Just as Māori had found it difficult to get into sheep farming, they also faced obstacles entering capital-intensive dairy farming, because of their lack of access to commercial capital, together with the alienation of much Māori land.