Story: Farming in the economy

Page 5. The closing of the farming frontier, 1900s to 1920

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South Island farming

South Island hill and high country farmers ran Merino, halfbred and Corriedale sheep for wool, and sold surplus animals to farmers on better land, who fattened them for export.

On the plains and downlands, farmers grew a rotation of cereals and other crops, and fattened stock for export. Wheat remained the most important cereal crop, but by 1915 it was all used locally and New Zealand began importing it. Oats were the next most important cereal crop. They were grown to feed stock, horses in particular.

North Island farming

In the North Island, most attempts to turn bush into pasture had been completed by 1920.

Dairying was well established on the warmer, wetter and easier country. Co-operatively owned milk factories collected cream from farms to turn into butter or cheese.

In the hill country, Romney had become the main sheep breed, but cattle were needed to help control weeds and rank pasture. Wool was the main source of income for hill farmers, but fattening sheep and cattle for the export market was vital to their profitability.

State involvement in farming

From the beginning of settlement, provincial governments played an active role in the development of farming; particularly in controlling animal diseases, weeds and pests. After the abolition of provincial government in 1876, central government took over this role.

The state became increasingly involved after the establishment of the Department of Agriculture in 1892. It ensured the quality of export products, administered the control of weeds and pests, and conducted research on state-owned research farms.

By 1920 the country’s pastures produced 91% of New Zealand’s total exports by value.

Environmental damage

New Zealand had made tremendous progress in developing its grasslands. However, by the 1920s declining productivity and depleted soil fertility was becoming obvious in some regions.

As early as the 1880s, writers in the farming press were alarmed about the declining fertility of the lighter lands on the Canterbury Plains. The decline in productivity of the rabbit-ravaged, semi-arid high country of the South Island from the 1890s led to a Parliamentary commission of enquiry in 1920.

In the North Island, it was soon apparent that pasture production declined within a few years of clearing the bush. Soil loss, caused by erosion, in the steeper hill country was also becoming obvious.

Farm leaders, commentators and politicians looked to science to provide the solution to these and other emerging problems. At this time most people saw the problems in terms of lost production, rather than conserving natural resources for their own sake. Critics of land management practices, like ecologist Leonard Cockayne, wanted to use science to improve farming methods, rather than take land out of production for environmental reasons.

In the following decades the divide between proponents of production and conservation became increasingly wide.

How to cite this page:

Robert Peden, 'Farming in the economy - The closing of the farming frontier, 1900s to 1920', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/farming-in-the-economy/page-5 (accessed 13 December 2018)

Story by Robert Peden, published 24 Nov 2008