The government ‘opened’ land for farming settlements from the early 1890s. Much of this land was initially leased rather than sold. Māori also developed farms. Returned servicemen were settled on farms after the first and second world wars.
Pastoral farming was the main form of agriculture. Sheep predominated, followed by dairy cows and beef cattle. Dairy farms were established wherever the land was flat enough, and sheep and cattle were farmed on hillier country.
Dairy factories opened in the King Country from the early 1900s. The smaller factories closed as road transport improved in the 1920s and 1930s – milk could be taken to larger, more advanced factories further afield. After the Second World War processing was concentrated in these larger factories, and eventually moved out of the region altogether. In 2011 the closest factories were in Taranaki and Waikato. Freezing works were located in Te Kūiti and Benneydale.
Forests were burned by early settlers to create farmland. The ash added fertility to the soil but this did not last. Poor soil fertility, the departure of farmers for the battlefields of the First World War, a slump in the local economy in the early 1920s and the depression of the 1930s led to the widespread reversion of farmland to scrub and bush.
Bush sickness had a number of local names. The King Country’s version – Mairoa dopiness or disease – referred to the settlement of Mairoa, south-west of Te Kūiti, where the problem was particularly bad. It was also known as Morton Mains disease in Southland and the Glenhope ailment in Nelson.
Another problem was ‘bush sickness’. Animals grazed on the volcanic pumice soils common in the region wasted away and died unless they were removed to pasture growing on different soil. The cause – cobalt deficiency – was discovered in 1935.
Māori farming schemes
From the late 1920s the government provided Māori land owners with funds to develop their holdings into farms. Such assistance had previously been available to European farmers, but not Māori. At Waimiha, north-east of Taumarunui, for example, dairy farms of around 150 hectares were established in the 1930s. Some of the farms were later sold and others consolidated into larger holdings.
By the Second World War, superphosphate fertiliser (with cobalt added) was widely applied to farmland, which resolved soil fertility and mineral-deficiency problems. The Land Development Branch of the Department of Lands and Survey brought reverted farmland back into production. After the Second World War returned servicemen were settled on the farms. From the 1950s aerial fertiliser topdressing significantly increased farm productivity.
Kahikatea (white pine) was exported from Kāwhia from the 1840s. The Kāwhia timber trade ended when the region was closed to Europeans in the 1860s.
Commercial sawmilling operations were established after the main trunk line reached Ōtorohanga in 1887. Most were small operations serving the local market. However, one of the largest sawmilling businesses in New Zealand, Ellis and Burnand, operated in the King Country.
Taumarunui became the regional sawmilling centre after the railway reached the town in 1903 and the industry developed further once the entire line was completed in 1908.
Mill townships such as Mangapēhi and Ōngarue were bustling places when the mills were operating. Sawmilling provided a livelihood for many King Country residents and the sounds and smells of the mills were a distinctive part of everyday life.
Milling of indigenous timber peaked in the 1950s. In the later 20th century timber supplies were much diminished, and small mills, which had characterised the industry, closed. In the late 1970s state-owned forests such as Pureora were protected for scientific and environmental reasons. Logging in Pureora ceased permanently in 1982.
Exotic forests (mainly radiata pine) were established by the government Forest Service at Erua in 1930 and Pureora in 1949. By the 1970s large stands of exotic trees had been established in the vicinity of Pureora. In the 2000s most of the exotic forests were in the east of the region around Pureora and Benneydale.
Ernst Dieffenbach, the naturalist for the New Zealand Company, was probably the first European to note the existence of coal at Mōkau. Dieffenbach travelled to Mōkau in 1840 during a trip along the west coast of the North Island and into the volcanic region of the island’s interior.
Coal deposits were noted in the sedimentary rocks around Mōkau in 1840. Extraction began in the 1880s and continued around Ōhura until 1990, when the last mine of the Waitewhena coalfield closed. Further north, coal was mined at Āria and Benneydale. The Benneydale mine was worked from 1931 to 1962, and a new part of the seam was mined on a smaller scale between 1978 and 1998.
Ironsand has been mined at Taharoa, near Kāwhia, from 1972.
High-grade limestone deposits are located in the northern King Country. The first limestone quarry was opened near Te Kūiti in 1898. Lime was used for agricultural purposes and demand grew with European settlement, leading to more quarries opening in the district.
In the 2000s there were two major limestone processing plants near Te Kūiti and Ōtorohanga. Limestone was also removed from the Te Kumi quarry near Te Kūiti. A limestone and serpentine quarry was located at Āria.