Story: Farm families

Page 5. A new world, 1970 onwards

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Economic pressures

The 1970s and 1980s brought challenges to rural families. Farming became less prosperous as the terms of trade, globally and nationally, moved against rural New Zealand. The United Kingdom, a major market, entered the European Economic Community. Costs rose, returns fell, and yet land prices remained high. From 1984 there was a national economic policy committed to a deregulated market approach, with a floating exchange rate and the removal of subsidies. Many farming families felt the pinch.

Tough times

The economic pressures of the 1980s were as tough on women as on men – if not tougher. One woman said, ‘I felt I was carrying myself and him.’ Another said, ‘You’re just as stressed as they are – they get the impression you’re not stressed, yet underneath you’re in tears yourself … [so] you talk about a neutral subject like cricket.’ 1

Women working

Farming’s response to changed circumstances affected the family. There were greater pressures for women to go into paid employment to help supplement the farm income. This was more common when the farm was close to larger centres where jobs were available. By 1991 57% of all country women above the age of 15 were in paid work, and almost half of farms were supplementing their income with off-farm work.

Other women became more actively involved in farm work. A wife’s labour might replace the work of a farm hand. On some farms the woman became the farmer herself, and farm partnerships in which husband and wife shared ownership increased.

By 1994 of the 44,600 farms with working owners, half had at least one female working owner, and 30% of all farmers were women. In the whole rural workforce the proportion of women rose from 28% in 1976 to 40% in 1991. One woman said, ‘Farmers’ wives are making as much contribution as farmers these days – running the business side of the farm, working off the farm to support the finances, labouring on the farm to replace the married couple.’ 2 Economic pressures and the influence of feminism had both worked to increase country women’s desire to earn money.

Not quite perfect

In 2006 an entrant in the Perfect Woman competition, Nadia Fearnley of Ranfurly, missed the prize presentation and discovered later that she had won. The competition recognised women’s greater role in farming. Contestants had to back a trailer, bang in a 4-inch nail, tip a ram, blow a dog whistle and dig a fence-post hole.

Children move to the city

Parents and children realised that staying on the land was not necessarily the best future option for children. There was a greater incentive for children to get an education that might suit them for better-paying urban employment. Young people moved to find work.

Increasingly there was an expectation that all children would inherit equitably. ‘The days are well over when the son inherited the farm and the daughters got the second best dinner service, the piano and grandmother’s portrait.’ 3 But this was difficult to reconcile with the older hope of passing the farm on to one son. In some cases the issue became fraught and the farm was sold; in others the land was put into a family trust for the daughters as well as the sons.


Economic pressures also encouraged diversification. Women got involved in activities such as grape growing and horticulture. Others took up small businesses such as hand weaving, plant shops, nut growing, making jams and chutneys, or rural tourism. Some rural families began to participate in local farmers’ markets, or made products such as organic apple juice or beauty products to increase their income. From the 1980s increasing numbers of city people moved to the country for lifestyle reasons.

Spending time with the family

As ‘mum’ went out to work, ‘dad’ became more involved in child-rearing – so a father might take a toddler out on the farm with him while he worked. New farming techniques such as once-a-day milking meant that farm families could spend more time together. Activities ranged from family holidays away to supporting children at school events.

But the image of the farm as a ‘man’s world’ remained strong in New Zealand culture in the early 2000s. ‘Partners’ was not a common term for married couples. Wives on the farm were often still seen as ‘helping’. And although women were expected to do more around the farm or in outside jobs, they still carried out many of the domestic responsibilities. However economic change and the desire of both women and children for greater independence worked to make the meaning of ‘family farm’ rather different in the 2000s from the 1970s.

Acknowledgements to Kate Hunter

  1. Quoted in Marg Gilling, ‘Farm families and sustainability in the mid Rangitikei’ Ministry of Agriculture, (last accessed 26 August 2008) › Back
  2. ‘Farm families and sustainability in the mid Rangitikei’ › Back
  3. Heather McCrostie Little and Nick Taylor, ‘Issues of New Zealand farm succession’ Ministry of Agriculture (last accessed 26 August 2008) › Back
How to cite this page:

Emma Dewson and Jock Phillips, 'Farm families - A new world, 1970 onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 February 2023)

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