Story: Farm families

Page 3. The rise of the family farm, 1880–1970

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From the 1890s social and economic changes made the family farm the dominant economic unit throughout New Zealand, while changing the role that women and children played on the farm.

Growth in family farms

The Liberal government of the 1890s broke up the great pastoral estates and purchased Māori land. Both were sold off for family farms. The rise of refrigerated shipping made smaller pastoral holdings producing sheep meat and beef viable. Refrigeration established a flourishing export trade in butter and cheese, and made small dairy farms successful units. The number of individual farms more than doubled from 38,038 in 1891 to 77,229 in 1918.

Nuclear families

Increasingly those living on the land were nuclear families, and the gender ratio evened up with fewer single males working on large estates. Even those hired for work on sheep stations tended to be married couples. During the course of the 20th century there was a move away from the employment of single women as domestic servants, and unmarried girls on farms tended to go off to the city for work, or to get married locally. By 1950 farming areas had a much lower proportion of unmarried women than urban areas, and had a very young average age of marriage of about 21.

School days

When education became compulsory in 1877 children were expected to be at school rather than labouring in the fields. It took some time for this expectation to become a full reality, but it did so as more local schools were set up and school bus services became established. Some children of richer farmers were sent away to boarding school – by the post-war years almost a fifth of secondary pupils were living away from home during term time.

Families shrink

While the nuclear family became dominant, women and children contributed less to the direct work of the farm. Because family farms were now economically viable, fathers no longer had to spend much time away working on others’ properties. The rise of farm machinery – such as tractors in the interwar years – progressively made family labour less necessary.

There were fewer children available as New Zealand’s birth rate declined from about six or seven per family in the 1880s to just over three in 1913 and then closer to two in the 1930s. In the 1920s and 1930s the number of children was higher in rural areas than in the city, but there was still a major reduction.

How to cite this page:

Emma Dewson and Jock Phillips, 'Farm families - The rise of the family farm, 1880–1970', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 March 2023)

Story by Emma Dewson and Jock Phillips, published 24 Nov 2008