Story: Farm mechanisation

Page 1. Reasons for mechanisation

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Farmers have long used many kinds of machines to help grow and harvest produce from plants and animals, because they make the work easier or more efficient. In New Zealand there were a number of reasons for farm mechanisation.

British experience

During the 19th century, agricultural machinery powered by animals or, increasingly, steam was widely used in the UK. When Europeans came to New Zealand, they often brought farming machines with them, or imported machines once they had arrived.

Some settlers, such as James Gray, a Scot, had skills in manufacturing implements and links to overseas manufacturers. He later founded agricultural machinery firm Reid & Gray.

Willingness to invest

Settler farmers with capital invested in machinery and draught animals, often borrowing money to do this, because they wanted their farms to be profitable, rather than just self-sufficient.

Labour shortages

In the early period of European settlement scarcity of labour encouraged the use of machines to help farmers in their work. Many settlers were able to acquire and farm their own land, instead of being employees. Māori had sufficient resources to support themselves, without having to work for settlers.

The availability of workers fluctuated in later years, but it remained an issue. Town employment was often more attractive and, from the 1890s, legislation to protect workers increased labour costs.

Family changes

The trend towards smaller families from the late 19th century meant there was less unpaid farm labour available. From 1877 all children had to attend school, even during busy periods on the farm. Also, it was a mark of status if the farmer’s wife didn’t have to work on the farm.

Wartime influences

Wartime labour shortages encouraged farmers to buy labour-saving devices. Sales of milking machines increased during the First World War; and during the Second World War the government supported the import of tractors from the United States.

Military vehicles and equipment were later converted to peacetime farming uses. For example, De Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft were used for agricultural aviation.

Cost and efficiency

Some farmers – put off by the cost of machinery and fuel, and reluctant to change established practices – continued using outdated technology for some time. But, as the prices of petrol, electricity and the equipment itself decreased, farm machinery became more common.

Electric and motor machines were more efficient than human- or animal-powered machines, and allowed mass production and economies of scale.

Hands on

Some conditions were unsuitable for particular machinery. Cocksfoot grass was threshed by hand on the steep hills of Banks Peninsula long after steam-driven threshing mills had spread throughout the Canterbury Plains.


Because New Zealand weather can change rapidly, speed is an important consideration in farm work. Weather is particularly changeable during the seasons when crops are sown and harvested. Horses pulling ploughs could not work continuously to take advantage of breaks in the weather, but tractors and motorised harvesting machinery could. The rapid adoption of tractors in Canterbury in the early 1920s followed a particularly wet spring.

Agricultural advice

Many settler farmers read local and overseas books, journals and newspaper articles that gave advice on agricultural advances. The Journal of Agriculture, produced by the Department of Agriculture, was very influential. Its articles included information from the United States, where farmers focused on saving labour. Most farm machinery of potential use in New Zealand was invented and manufactured in the US.

Farmers were introduced to new machinery at agricultural and pastoral shows, field days, and demonstrations organised by commercial firms, agricultural colleges and the Department of Agriculture.


Manufacturers’ advertisements encouraged farmers to buy the latest machine, implying that if they didn’t they would be behind the times. Often advertisements claimed that the machinery made farming a ‘one-man operation’. As most New Zealand farmers did farm work themselves, this was a strong selling point, especially as the farmer grew older.

How to cite this page:

James Watson, 'Farm mechanisation - Reasons for mechanisation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by James Watson, published 24 Nov 2008