Story: Hawke’s Bay region

Page 7. Pastoral farming

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Early farming

Pastoral farming – sheep and, later, beef cattle – has been a key part of the Hawke’s Bay economy, past and present. Pastoral runholders like John Davies Ormond and Henry Russell were some of the earliest European settlers. They established vast stations which formed the backbone of the regional economy for many years. The first sheep, a flock of 3,000 merinos, were driven into the region in 1849.

Funny-looking horse

Cattle were first brought into Hawke’s Bay to supply households with milk and other dairy products, rather than for meat. In 1844 missionary William Colenso arrived in the region with two heifers, two cows and a bull. Their arrival was of great interest to Māori, who had never seen these animals before, and debated whether they were cows or horses. Life was tough for these animals – most of Colenso’s cattle died early, and his horse, which he acquired in 1846, starved to death while he was away from home.

At first, sheep were mainly farmed for their wool. When refrigeration reached the region in 1884 sheep could be profitably farmed for meat, and difficult hill country became productive. Freezing works opened through the region and became major employers. Hastings and smaller towns that served the rural hinterland grew on the coat-tails of the farming economy.

From the 1950s better pasture plants, the elimination of many sheep diseases, and new technology – particularly aerial fertiliser topdressing – resulted in higher productivity. World prices for New Zealand farm products were high enough to support investment and spending. Hawke’s Bay shared in the good times.

Down times

The sector has seen its share of down times. Pastoral farming was not profitable during the economic depressions of the 1870s and 1880s, and the 1930s. The post-Second World War boom was over by the early 1970s, and the removal of agricultural subsidies and trade tariffs by the Labour government in the 1980s hit hard, as the region was so reliant on the agricultural sector. The closure of the Whakatū and Tōmoana freezing works in 1986 and 1994 respectively resulted in the loss of thousands of permanent and seasonal jobs.

Droughts have often been a problem for agriculture in the region.

Central Hawke’s Bay accent

Members of Central Hawke’s Bay’s pastoral elite evolved a distinctive accent reminiscent of the English upper class. Few of the original runholders came from privileged backgrounds, so the accent must have been adopted over time by second and third generations secure in their status as the region’s leading families. It was not much heard anymore by the early 2000s.

The pastoral elite

In the 19th century owners of pastoral stations, particularly those located in Central Hawke’s Bay and the Heretaunga plains, developed into a local version of the English landed gentry – a social phenomenon also found in Wairarapa and Canterbury. Land ownership on a large scale gave them power locally and nationally. Once pastoral stations (large farms) were established, the wealth generated resulted in a privileged lifestyle. Grand homesteads, the first built in the 1870s, were its most obvious expression.

Some station owners founded townships on their land, such as H. H. Bridge (who founded Ongaonga in 1872) and Sydney Johnston (Takapau in 1876), and acted like lords of the manor. Balls, house parties and hunt meets were regular events on the social calendar well into the 20th century. Stations passed down from father to son over generations.

Shifting social conventions, and the removal of subsidies and other forms of agricultural support in the 1980s, changed this world. Farming alone could no longer maintain a privileged lifestyle. Children were less inclined to continue farming, and changes to matrimonial property laws often meant that properties were subdivided or sold if a couple divorced. Some homesteads, such as Wallingford and Oruawharo (both near Waipukurau) have been converted into luxury lodges or events centres.

Agricultural employment in the 2010s

In the 2010s sheep and beef farming employed the second-largest group of people (behind horticultural farming) in the agricultural sector. Agriculture and the manufacturing sector were the biggest employers in the region. Meat processing employed the largest group of people in the manufacturing sector.

Dairy farming was a relatively small industry and employer in the region as a whole. Dairy factories had been significant in the Wairoa, Hastings and Central Hawke’s Bay districts in the past, and in the 2000s dairying was still important around Dannevirke and Woodville.

Some farmers have diversified into exotic forestry. Most plantation owners in the region are large overseas companies or farmers with small farm forests.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Hawke’s Bay region - Pastoral farming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 13 Aug 2009, updated 1 Jul 2015