At first, Māori resisted growing wheat because it required processing, and was very different from their traditional vegetable crops. The northern chief Ruatara, keen to take advantage of the demand for wheat in Sydney, sowed and harvested the first crop in New Zealand in 1813. Others doubted its usefulness, which was not apparent until Ruatara was able to grind the wheat. His successor, Hongi Hika, showed his wheat plantation to Samuel Marsden less than two years later.
Wheat proved a reliable food crop that could be stored for consumption or export.
In the 1840s, the settler population was increasing, and Māori wheat-growing expanded to feed settlers and supply Australia. Growers began to find their hand-operated flour mills inefficient, and from the mid-1840s, tribal groups in the Waikato, Wellington, Taranaki and Whanganui areas began to invest in water-powered mills. Before roads and railways were built, communities inland and on the west coast found it very difficult to transport their produce. Milling the wheat reduced its bulk and weight and made it easier to access the main markets such as Auckland.
Māori farming and Pākehā settlement
Missionaries and other Pākehā promoted wheat-growing among Māori, even in unsuitable locations, for reasons which were symbolic as well as practical. Western ideas linked land rights to its use, and the Bible included references to wheat and metaphors associating ploughs with civilisation. Pākehā also believed that more intensive land use would encourage Māori to establish fixed places of residence and free up more land for settlement by immigrants.
Tribal groups who took up wheat farming or built water-powered flour mills received considerable support. Governor George Grey was keen to help these developments, and provided loans for many North Island hapū (subtribes) to construct mills – usually conditional on their making land available for Pākehā settlement.
Māori recognised that growing wheat and milling flour symbolised peaceful intentions, so many groups who hoped to cement the 1840 alliance with the British Crown were keen to grow wheat. Unfortunately, in 1856 prices for farm produce slumped dramatically, leaving many communities with debts for mills that had lost their value.