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Farm families

by  Emma Dewson and Jock Phillips

Early European settlers in New Zealand often lived in great isolation in the countryside. Men outnumbered women at first but slowly rural families became the norm. People living away from towns had to be strongly self-reliant, and women and children played an important part in the day-to-day running of farms. Improved economic circumstances have changed the way rural families live.

The colonial family – new conditions

Māori and intermarriage

The first rural families in New Zealand were Māori. As Māori remained a largely rural people long after the arrival of Europeans, they play a significant part in this story. There was some intermarriage between Europeans who took up farming and Māori women, especially in the early 19th century and later in specific areas such as Northland and the East Coast. Occasionally this led to Europeans acquiring Māori land. Families headed by Māori women tended to retain strong Māori family traditions. In the 20th century as Māori entered the rural workforce their family life was shaped by some of the same forces which affected Pākehā rural families.

Isolated nuclear families

Colonial conditions in rural areas put strains on the family. Many migrants had left behind parents and siblings in the old world. Husband, wife and children were thrown together on the voyage out, and the nuclear family (just father, mother and children) was likely to become even more isolated once they found themselves on a backblocks farm. Louisa Rose wrote to her sister in 1852, ‘It is indeed a miserable thing to be so completely cut off from all relations as we are here.’ 1

In a few cases rural settlers were able to attract siblings or friends from home who would come out in a chain migration. In South Canterbury the extended Brosnahan family came out from County Kerry in southern Ireland and settled on land near Kerrytown. But this was unusual. More often settlers found solace from loneliness in the nuclear family. The family became, as Charles Hursthouse said, a man’s ‘nearest and dearest friends.’ 2 Family pursuits – cards, reading aloud, singing around the piano – were important leisure activities on the farm.

As siblings grew up they often remained close, as a comfort against the loneliness of rural life. Kate Squires of Woodend in Southland actively encouraged visits from her sisters Bella, Emily and Mary after she was married, and they usually stayed for long periods. Often the visits coincided with the pregnancy and confinement of one of the women. Kate’s sisters were her primary leisure companions.

Too many men

There was a gender imbalance in rural areas. There were always more Pākehā men than women in 19th-century New Zealand, but the imbalance was greater in rural areas. In 1874 outside cities and towns there were twice as many non-Māori men as women (68,568 men aged 20 or over; 33,043 women). In some places such as Marlborough and South Canterbury there were even fewer women.

Run, boy, run

When a woman arrived at the new settlement of Āpiti in the Manawatū in the 1880s, a group of bush-fellers were hard at work. One man rushed up to his employer, saying, ‘Boss, I’m finishing, I want my pay.’ The boss asked what was wrong. ‘Look,’ said the man, ‘there’s a woman coming, I’m going further back.’ 3

On the east coast of both islands where there were large sheep-farming runs many single men were employed as shepherds, or in short-term or seasonal jobs as shearers or harvesters. They often lived in ‘men’s quarters’. A few single women may have been found in the larger homesteads as domestic servants, and perhaps there was an occasional married couple. But there were few families and the institutions of male culture such as hotels and drinking places were strong.

The respectable classes became fearful of dissolute habits such as drinking, swearing, gambling and fighting. Women were seen as having a particularly moral role in improving behaviour. Charlotte Godley suggested to two bachelors on a backblocks station that they set up a carefully draped dummy of a lady to restrain them from ‘semi-barbarous’ behaviour. 4

  1. Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds., My hand will write what my heart dictates. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996, p. 88. › Back
  2. Charles Hursthouse, New Zealand the ‘Britain of the South’. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1997, p. 403 (originally published 1861). › Back
  3. A. E. Woodhouse, ed., Tales of pioneer women. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1940, p. 130. › Back
  4. Charlotte Godley, Letters from early New Zealand. Christchurch: Kiwi, 2000, p. 269 (originally published 1936). › Back

The colonial family and the household economy

The British family

In the years 1840 to 1915, when the mass European settlement of New Zealand occurred, the family in Britain and to some extent Ireland was undergoing major change. Most immigrants came from rural areas where the household had long been the major productive unit. Men, women and children had distinct roles, but were all expected to contribute economically.

As cities grew work became separated from home, and paid work became identified with men. The ideal middle-class home was seen as a private and sentimental sanctuary which was the realm of women. Such ideas began to affect rural areas as well. For example there was a growing resistance to employing women outside in the fields. In rural New Zealand the traditional importance of the family as a productive economic unit was restored for a time.

Colonial family farming

Outside the large pastoral runs, on smaller east-coast holdings or in bush areas of the North Island, the family became the crucial unit of farming life in New Zealand. Even where a settler worked for wages on farms, a wife was valuable. James Adam, an immigration publicist, wrote in 1876 that if a young man married ‘a girl who knows something about dairy or household work, and is willing to assist in the house’, then the farmer would pay much higher wages. 1

Farm band

One family in Stratford, Taranaki, advertised in 1894 for a position on a farm as a family unit: ‘WANTED – situation by a married man, with grown up family, on farm or station. All can milk; a general farm band.’ 2


For settlers attempting to establish themselves on their own land, survival required the involvement of the whole family. To make ends meet men were often absent working to make roads or labouring for wages on larger properties at jobs such as shearing or harvesting, leaving women and children to run the farm.

Families on farms were a long way from shops and specialised craft workers, so they had to be very self-reliant. If they needed help, they often had to walk long distances. There was a chronic shortage of servants, and those available often left to get married. Lizzie Heath wrote to her sister in 1868 that ‘housekeeping here is very different to at home’ because without shops nearby one had ‘to make things to do other things’, such as preparing the yeast to make bread, or drying and baking feathers for mattresses, or washing and drying hops for beer. 3

Women and children became essential to a farm’s success. Charles Hursthouse, writing for immigrants, said that a wife ‘was far prettier and more fruitful than patent plough, thrashing mill or thorough-bred,’ 4while I. Rhodes Cooper advised settlers that ‘[t]he only men who can farm with success on a small capital, are married men, with three or four sons to assist them in fencing, ploughing, planting, etc.’ 5

Colonial know-how

Jessie Campbell, farming in Whanganui in 1843, wrote to her sister, ‘It is quite amusing how ignorant some of the ladies here are of the knowledge most necessary for settlers’ wives. A lady told me the other day that she could not make butter, the cream she kept for it always became so sour! She could hardly be persuaded that my butter was made from sour cream.’ 6

Women’s role

Women did not do everything around the farm. Unless the family was very poor, wives were excused from heavy labour such as harvesting or ploughing, and did work close to the home which could be combined with looking after children. They carried out the cleaning, washing, mending, knitting and sewing, and of course the cooking – sometimes taking out scones or sandwiches to the men in the fields at harvest or shearing time. Women also gardened, preserved fruit and vegetables and made soap – activities which saved money. Around the house, gardening, feeding the chickens, calves and pigs, and milking cows were seen as acceptable extensions of women’s roles. Women also churned the butter. Bessie Royds, wife of a crop farmer, described herself as ‘our own dairy maid, baker, washerwoman and house maid’. 7

Family labour

Jack Jewitt, his wife Sarah and their seven children migrated in 1874 and within a year they were hard at work. They had a small plot of land with fowls, pigs and hens. Jack was away for a month at a time working on the railway. His wife was a charwoman for 7s. a day; and also earned 2s. 6d. for knitting a pair of socks. Three children were in domestic service: Ellen, aged 15, earning 10s. a week, 13-year-old Tom earning 8s., and Sarah, nine, who was earning 2s. 6d. looking after a baby.

Children’s role

Perhaps women’s most significant role economically was to bear and care for children. Until the end of the 19th century the birth rate was high – about six or seven children per adult woman. Women married younger on average than in Britain and so child-rearing began early. Children became invaluable to the farm economy. From the age of four or five they would begin to help in the vegetable garden or feed the animals. As they grew stronger they would go hunting and fishing to help supply food to the household. Before long they would be assisting around the farm – boys would take part in heavy activities like harvesting, and the girls might help with the baking. Later the boys would take over running the farm and support their parents in sickness and old age.

  1. James Adam, Twenty-five years of emigrant life in the south of New Zealand. Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1874, p. 33. › Back
  2. Taranaki Herald, 31 August 1894, p. 3. › Back
  3. Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds., My hand will write what my heart dictates. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996, p. 172. › Back
  4. Charles Hursthouse, New Zealand the ‘Britain of the South’. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1997, p. 397 (originally published 1861). › Back
  5. I. Rhodes Cooper, The New Zealand settlers’ guide. London: E. Stanford, 1857, pp. 5–6. › Back
  6. My hand will write what my heart dictates, p. 156. › Back
  7. My hand will write what my heart dictates, p. 256. › Back

The rise of the family farm, 1880–1970

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.

Women in the rural family, 1880–1970

Women in the home

As the family farm became more dominant, women’s role on the farm grew more focused on the household. ‘Family and home life take pride and pleasure,’ 1 one woman said in the early 1970s.

But women were still doing tasks helpful to the farm. Most women cooked and did the laundry for farm employees as well as their families. They delivered scones down at the yards for ‘smoko’. They often continued to look after the hens. They also did a lot of preserving and baking, and gardened around the house. Women’s skills were showcased at the exhibits at local farming fairs like the A & P (Agricultural and Pastoral) shows.

Farm work

Family farm employment did not entirely cease. As late as the 1920s over 60% of farms relied solely on family members for labour. Some women continued to help with the milking. In the 1970s almost a quarter of farm women were working more than 10 hours a week on the farm.

Women worked when their husbands were sick, during calving and lambing, or when there were other seasonal pressures. Dairying remained most dependent on family labour and in 1970 unpaid family labour contributed about a third of a Standard Labour Unit to the average dairy farm, allowing more cows to be milked.

Following the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1884 some women had gained property rights, and by the 1970s a fifth of wives had joint ownership of the farm with their husbands.

Yet the domestic role remained the centre of farm women’s lives. By comparison with married urban women, rural women were much less likely to be in outside paid employment. In 1975 only 8% were working full-time whereas 28% of urban women were doing so. As one woman commented, ‘Farm women are far too busy to work!’ 2

Women’s interests outside the home

Farm women’s outside interests tended to revolve around their domestic role. From the 1920s car transport and better roads allowed rural women to meet one another in country towns. Women’s organisations flourished, such as the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, the Country Women’s Institutes and the Red Cross. In 1975 half of rural women were active in voluntary community work, by comparison with only a third in the city.

Family fun

As cars made their appearance and roading improved, the whole family went into town for recreation. The local hall was often the location for family fun such as dances or Friday night movies – the ‘flicks’. Many families attended church on Sundays and met their neighbours and relatives afterwards for tea and a gossip.

Tea time

In the 1930s morning and afternoon teas continued to be a major ritual of farm families: ‘[they] go into their homes and tea appears as if by magic. But the morning and afternoon tea habit is not by any means an adornment of the day. It grew out of pioneering times when to offer refreshment was to be a real friend.’ 3

Nuclear families

In most farming families the farm was handed on to one of the sons when the parents reached their 50s or 60s. The parents would then retire and move close to a town. The other children might receive some financial help on marriage or when starting a business. The effect of this was that country areas were dominated by married couples and young children. The retired and the unmarried, especially the girls, had gone to town.

However many, especially the men, lived in one area for much of their lives. They often spoke of others in relation to their family of origin. And by comparison with city people, rural families had greater contact with their extended kin. They saw grandparents, grown-up children and siblings regularly. But households were largely nuclear. It was rare for them to include grandparents or unmarried aunts.

  1. Quoted in Tiiti Gill, and others, The rural women of New Zealand – a national survey (1975). Christchurch: University of Canterbury, 1976, p. 77. › Back
  2. Quoted in The rural women of New Zealand – a national survey, p. 6. › Back
  3. H. C. D. Somerset, Littledene: patterns of change. Wellington: NZCER, 1974, p. 25. › Back

A new world, 1970 onwards

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

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Emma Dewson and Jock Phillips, 'Farm families', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

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