Story: Land ownership

Page 7. Land ownership from the 1950s

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The rise in land prices

In the 1950s and 1960s prices for New Zealand’s agricultural exports remained high, and scientific and technological improvements increased productivity. Rural land prices doubled between 1953 and 1972.

Land aggregation

As farming became more specialised and part-time farmers dropped away, very small farms were combined into larger landholdings. In country districts the family farm, rather than the huge estate or the smallholding, became the norm. Between 1946 and 1957:

  • the total area of holdings under 100 acres (40 hectares) fell by some 140,000 acres (57,000 hectares)
  • the total area of holdings between 100 and 1,000 acres (40–404 hectares) increased – within this category, the total area of holdings between 320 and 640 acres (130–259 hectares) increased by more than 100,000 hectares
  • the total area of the largest holdings decreased slightly as cultivation became more intensive and some pastoral lands were retired.


From 1967 sustained inflation, especially in urban land prices, affected farmers producing the traditional staples of wool, meat and dairy products. The farming sector responded to the economic challenge by diversifying into deer, goats, forestry and horticulture. Smaller holdings became more numerous. Between 1972 and 1992 the number of holdings below 40 hectares increased from 15,302 to 35,701, while other categories hardly changed.

Partnerships became increasingly common in farm ownership. In 1975, 64% of farms were the property of individuals and 22.9% were owned by partnerships; in 1990, 47% were individual holdings and 42% partnerships. Higher land values forced some purchasers to pool their resources, but this increase was also because women – previously classed as ‘married’ or ‘farmers’ wives’ – became acknowledged as equal partners in the farming business.

Larger farms and lifestyle blocks

In the 1990s there was a sharp decline in the number of farms – from 83,000 in 1989 to 70,000 in 2002. Partly this was because a number of farms amalgamated as economic pressures made larger farms more cost-effective. The number of very small farms declined the least, as high-value crops (such as grapes, which give a high return for relatively little land) became more important and lifestyle blocks grew in popularity. However, the distinction is unclear between small farms, which were full-time operations and provided a living, and lifestyle blocks, owned by people earning a living in urban occupations.

Traditionally, lifestyle blocks were about 10 acres (4 hectares), and were often owned by people looking for a perhaps idealised quality of rural life. In 2003/4 there were 139,868 lifestyle blocks averaging 5.5 hectares, although many were well under a hectare. The number of lifestyle blocks increased significantly, especially in the vicinity of Whangārei, Auckland, Tauranga, Hamilton and Christchurch. An estimated 6,800 new lifestyle blocks covering over 37,000 hectares were created each year.

Māori as major landowners

Following Treaty of Waitangi settlements, some tribes became major landowners again, either by the direct return of Crown land or, more commonly, because Māori had first right of refusal of surplus Crown land. Ngāi Tahu became the largest landowner in the South Island after the Crown.

How to cite this page:

Jim McAloon, 'Land ownership - Land ownership from the 1950s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 May 2022)

Story by Jim McAloon, published 24 Nov 2008