Story: Rural workers

Page 3. Grain and crops

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Importance of horses

Large lowland estates grew grain and crops, and needed horses to plough the land. They bred their own, and could have around 100 working horses, requiring a full-time blacksmith and assistant, and a saddler to repair harnesses and collars. Blacksmiths made horseshoes and tools, and repaired ploughs.

Many other rural jobs involved horses – there were horse breakers and castrators, and rural towns had livery stables where horses could be kept and fed for a charge. The work of farriers (who shod horses) and wheelwrights (who made wheels) also depended upon horses.

In 1918 there were 351,544 horses in New Zealand, but this had dropped to 319,034 in 1921. They were slowly being replaced by machines.


Until the 1870s, ploughing was done with bullocks and a single-furrow plough. Then Clydesdale horses replaced the bullocks, and double- and three-furrow ploughs were introduced. Ploughmen were often called teamsters, because of their teams of horses. They contracted themselves and their horses out to farmers. Ploughing competitions were popular from the 1860s. Two-furrowed ploughs with three wheels, pulled by four Clydesdale horses, were ideally suited to ploughing the tussock-covered plains and downs of Canterbury.

Much ploughing was done by contractors, who were paid 10 shillings ($64 in 2008 terms) an acre (0.4 hectares) in 1877.


As wheat and other grain crops were grown on the lowlands from the 1870s, demand grew for gangs to operate threshing mills. On big estates such as Te Waimate in South Canterbury, around 300 men were taken on at harvest time. Early threshing mills were worked by horses – in the 1880s these were replaced by portable steam threshing mills, which were used for the next 50 years.

Men were usually employed on a contract basis. They were paid per bushel of grain, and often worked from six in the morning till 10 at night. The threshing mill was portable and towed a cookhouse and bunkhouse. It was often moved at night – workers had to try and sleep, and the cook prepare food, while they bumped along the metal road to the next farm.


Before small huts and men’s quarters were built, many farm workers were housed in stables and sheds. There was little to protect rural workers from exploitation. There was an oversupply of labour for unskilled work – those who didn’t like a job could leave and the farmer could easily fill their boots. Skilled workers had more bargaining power – so did shearers, threshing gang workers and harvesters, whose labour was critical at certain times.

Shearers exercised their power by striking, and many shearers’ unions were set up in the eastern South Island in the 1870s. Unions representing rural workers advocated for better working conditions, hours and pay. Membership grew steadily until the depression of the 1930s. It leapt in 1936 when the Labour government introduced compulsory unionism.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Rural workers - Grain and crops', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 24 Nov 2008