Story: Farming and the environment

Page 3. Expansion in the 20th century

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The move to pasture

From the 1890s to 1914, large grain-growing and sheep-raising estates were bought and subdivided by the government into smaller, family-run farms. New Zealand farming became more industrialised, modern and simplified during this period of increasing intensification. For example, mixed farming, which involved rotations of wheat or oats with pasture, was largely replaced by grassland farming.

Experiments continued with fruit growing and horticulture, but sheep and dairy farming became more dominant.

The grasslands revolution

Before the late 1920s there was much experimentation with pasture grass combinations. Agricultural scientists decided to base New Zealand pasture on perennial ryegrasses they helped develop, and white and red clover. Since then, New Zealand's grasslands have been based on a small number of pasture plants.


From the 1920s key agricultural bureaucrats and scientists, such as A. H. Cockayne and Bruce Levy, portrayed the England-like pastures of New Zealand as normal and natural, even though they had been quite deliberately created by massive human effort.

There were a few challenges to this interpretation, by writers such as William Pember Reeves, poet Blanche Baughan and novelist Jane Mander, who lamented the passing of the forest. There were also conservationist groups formed to preserve the remnants of native forest in national parks and reserves.

However, most people celebrated the country’s extraordinary transformation from forests, swamps and tussocklands to farms – especially once New Zealand, as the farm for the British Empire, gained one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Chemical boosts

Farmers have been eager adopters of technologies that promised to improve production. After the Second World War, millions of tonnes of fertilisers, especially superphosphate, and some 245 chemicals – including the later-banned pesticides DDT and 2,4,5-T – were eagerly purchased by farmers to increase productivity on relatively poor soils.

An unnatural farm

In just over 100 years, New Zealand was reinvented as a stock farm. Its emerging national identity was closely linked to pioneering and transforming the land, although its population increasingly lived in cities. Few seemed concerned that the previously diverse range of environments was being reduced to a simplified and highly regulated farm.

How to cite this page:

Julia Haggerty and Hugh Campbell, 'Farming and the environment - Expansion in the 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2022)

Story by Julia Haggerty and Hugh Campbell, published 24 Nov 2008