A slow start
Livestock farming developed in the early 20th century – first to supplement natural resources such as timber and kauri gum, and then to replace them. Although much of the north was not ideal for farming, many areas were gradually brought into use for sheep and cattle. Small dairy factories had been established by 1910. But progress was held back by the region’s remoteness, poor access, infertile soils and the uneconomic size of holdings.
To overcome the many obstacles to farming, the government introduced development schemes for land owned by Māori or the Crown. The Māori schemes began in the 1930s, and were only partially successful. Title and tenure difficulties were only gradually sorted out in the mid-1950s. The farms were generally too small, and many Māori migrated to Auckland in search of work.
The growth of farming
After the Second World War, state subsidies and grasslands research assisted farming. For those farmers who could afford it, aerial topdressing increased productivity from the late 1950s.
Dairying expanded on fertile lowlands, and by 1960 Northland had 22.6% of the country’s dairy cows, making it New Zealand’s second-most important dairying area. Over 30% of the region’s cows were milked in herds of less than 50, on small land blocks known as ‘billycan farms’. Improved roads and new technology in the 1960s led to closure of many smaller dairy factories, leaving two centralised processing plants at Kaitāia and Moerewa.
By the 1960s sheep numbers had increased markedly. A trend towards larger farms, diversification of farm stock, and cattle farming was evident by the 1970s.
In 2012 the region’s farms covered 765,155 hectares, only about 5% of the total area farmed in New Zealand. Beef cattle outnumbered dairy cattle, and sheep predominated, though to a far lesser degree than in previous years. The small dairy farm had long gone. There were major dairy processing plants, including one at Kauri, north of Whāngārei, and one at Maungaturoto.
In 2012, 2,443 hectares were producing horticultural crops. In terms of area farmed, however, Northland was in 2003 a relatively minor horticultural producer.
Horticulture, particularly fruit farming, has always been a distinctive feature of the region. For years before 1900, Whāngārei was one of the country’s most important fruit-growing districts, particularly for citrus fruit. Kerikeri developed as a citrus-producing area from the 1920s and later diversified into tamarillos and kiwifruit. Grapes were grown for wine by Dalmatians as early as 1899, and more vineyards were planted in the later 20th century. Avocados are now an important crop.
One significant crop not indicated by statistics is marijuana, which is cultivated and sold illegally, often by Māori, as part of Northland’s alternative economy.
Early wine production
By 1907 Herekino, about 26 kilometres south of Kaitāia, had around 14 vineyards, all established by Dalmatian settlers. The vineyards together produced about 9,000 litres of wine a year.
By 1900 it was obvious that the indigenous forests were a fast-diminishing resource. The government imposed prohibitions or restrictions on felling in some state-owned forests. Later, it created reserves such as the Waipoua forest sanctuary (1952). In the 1950s most of the milled timber was still taken from indigenous forest, but by 1960 exotic forests were the major source.
Production forests had been planted in the early 1920s. A range of exotic species was trialled before radiata pine became the main crop. Planting increased in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1960s the Forest Service controlled roughly half the total planting. The other half was owned by forest companies, local bodies, government departments and private individuals. Two-thirds of the total area planted was in radiata pine.
In 1987 all state-owned planted production forests came under the management of New Zealand Timberlands, a state-owned enterprise. A number of private forestry interests were then granted Crown forestry licences, giving them a right to harvest.
It was estimated that there were 151,735 hectares of production forest in 2014. Timber and wood products are exported to Japan and elsewhere through Northport, at Whāngārei Harbour.