Story: Farming in the economy

New Zealand’s economy has long depended on grass – or rather, on the livestock that eat grass. Meat, wool and dairy products have brought in the vast majority of the country’s export earnings – but horticulture and viticulture are growing in importance.

Story by Robert Peden
Main image: Empire Marketing Board poster, 1927

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

Since European settlement in the early 1800s, most of the money New Zealand makes from selling products overseas has come from animals that eat grass. These include meat and wool from sheep, and meat and dairy products from cows.

Beginnings of farming

European settlers began farming soon after they arrived in New Zealand, and Māori adopted some of their crops and farming techniques.

In the South Island, farmers mainly kept sheep for wool. It was harder to start a farm in the North Island because farmers had to clear bush before planting grass. North Island farmers kept sheep and cows.

New technology

After the first export of refrigerated meat to Britain in 1882, farmers were able to sell meat overseas. The meat was mainly from South Island sheep. The new railway lines helped transport the meat to ships.

Farmers developed new breeds of sheep that grew better wool and meat, and introduced new grasses.

Dairying

The North Island was better suited to dairy cows, as it had higher rainfall. Factories that made butter and cheese were set up, many by groups of farmers. Dairy products began to be exported.

Golden years of farming

The 1950s and 1960s were good times for farmers. Researchers had bred better animals and pasture plants, such as grasses and clovers. New fertilisers were spread on the ground to make it more fertile. The prices for meat and dairy products increased.

Farming troubles

Farmers began making less money from farm products in the 1970s, and so the government offered farmers subsidies and loans. After the 1984 election, a new Labour government stopped subsidising the farmers, and many lost money or had to sell their farms.

Farming today

Farmers have adapted, and agriculture is still a strong part of New Zealand’s economy. Dairying has done particularly well.

Some farmers have started farming different animals, such as deer and alpaca. Growing fruit and making wine are both becoming more important.

How to cite this page:

Robert Peden, 'Farming in the economy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/farming-in-the-economy (accessed 20 September 2018)

Story by Robert Peden, published 24 Nov 2008