Stock and station agencies were first set up in the mid-19th century. They provide a broad range of services for farmers – general merchandising, livestock sales, wool auctions, grain and seed breeding, seed cleaning and exports, seasonal finance, insurance, real estate brokerage, machinery sales, advisory services and more. They also promote the products and services of other firms, such as insurance companies, meat processors and foreign businesses.
Stock and station agencies are unique to Australia and New Zealand – similar businesses elsewhere carry out fewer functions.
Originally, agents were paid commissions related to sales, so higher prices for livestock, wool and real estate meant they earned more. Supplies like fencing materials, chemicals, stock feed and clothing were sold with retail price margins, and interest was charged on loans. More recently, agencies have introduced fixed fees for some services.
The first stock and station agency was founded by Alexander Elder, a Scot, who established a branch of his family’s merchant and shipping business in Adelaide, Australia, in 1839. Elder later returned to Scotland, but his brother Thomas stayed in Australia and formed a partnership called Elder, Smith & Co. with Robert Barr Smith in 1863. Elders was later active in New Zealand, as was Dalgety, which was founded in Melbourne in 1846 as a wool merchant, pastoral supplier and shipping agent and expanded to New Zealand in 1858.
Nathaniel Levin, the son of a London Jewish merchant, arrived in Wellington in 1841, aged 22. He almost immediately founded a general merchandising business for the early settlers, selling food, clothing and household necessities, and then expanded to sell goods and provide services to farmers.
When Charles Clifford and Frederick Weld drove sheep around the coast from Wellington to Wairarapa in 1844 to begin large-scale pastoral farming, they were already customers of Levin’s. In that year he did business as far north as New Plymouth and as far south as Akaroa.
When Charles Tripp arrived in Christchurch from England in 1855, he brought a supply of goods that he traded or sold to George Gould. They included £200 worth of boots and shoes, ploughs, tarpaulins, axes, pickaxes, cement, arsenic, brandy, gin, wine, and 15,000 bricks. Boots worth seven shillings in London retailed at 30 shillings in Christchurch.
George Gould emigrated from England to Canterbury in 1850, when large numbers of Canterbury Association-assisted settlers landed in Lyttelton. He set up in business supplying food, clothing and timber, and was soon a financier and exporter of wool for the province’s large sheep stations. Gould became a large landowner, and his sons Joseph and George followed in the business. In 1919 the company merged with two other partnerships to form Pyne Gould Guinness, which was based in Canterbury.
Ready cash was in short supply in early Canterbury. Like many businesses, the stock and station firm Gould & Miles issued cardboard money tokens, which were redeemable on demand, to help the shortage of currency.
Wrightson began life in 1861 in Dunedin as Wright Robertson & Co., a partnership between John Wright and Robert Robertson. Advertisements from its first decade of business said the firm ‘was prepared to arrange for the sale or purchase of station property; to receive consignments of sheep and cattle for sale; and to make liberal advances when required’.
Robertson left the business in 1868 and was replaced by auctioneer John Stephenson. The company traded as Wright Stephenson for many years, selling supplies and horses to farmers and miners. It was later called Wrightson.
In 2005, Pyne Gould Guinness merged with Wrightson to form PGG Wrightson.
Farmers’ cooperatives, owned by farmers and directed by elected boards, performed the same functions as the commercial stock and station agencies.
The Canterbury Farmers’ Co-operative Association, founded in Timaru in 1880, was the first in New Zealand. Others soon followed. In 1924, nine major regional cooperatives covering much of the country formed the Federation of Co-operatives.
By 1980 amalgamations had reduced this group to seven: Allied Farmers’ Co-operative (Auckland and Waikato); Farmers’ Co-operative Organisation Society (Taranaki); Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Co-operative Association; New Zealand Farmers’ Co-operative Association (Canterbury); Canterbury Farmers’ Co-operative Association (South Canterbury); Reid Farmers Ltd (Dunedin); and Southland Farmers’ Co-operative Association.
Before the days of motorised transport, most stock were sold privately, rather than at auctions. The telephone dominated the lives of stock agents – their days began at 5 a.m. and continued far into the night. One agent recalled that his wife used to cut up his meat and all but feed him his evening meals while he was busy on the phone.
In 2008 Allied Farmers, based in Taranaki and the central North Island, was the only remaining farmers’ cooperative, dealing in merchandise, livestock, wool, real estate and financial services. Incorporated in Taranaki in 1913 as a farmers’ cooperative, it later merged with King Country Farmers, Manawatu Livestock and Waikato Farmers. Allied Farmers provides merchandise, livestock, wool, real estate and financial services over most of the North Island, and has an annual turnover of more than $400 million.
By the start of the 20th century farmers were served by at least 40 regional and national agencies, ranging from one-man bands to companies employing hundreds. The national companies were Wright Stephenson, New Zealand Loan & Mercantile Agency, National Mortgage & Agency Co. of New Zealand (NMA) and Dalgety & Co.
The big agencies faced vigorous competition from smaller regional firms and farmer-owned cooperatives. Companies joined together to build saleyards and wool stores.
After the wool boom of the early 1950s, livestock and wool prices fell. Stock and station agencies’ commissions fell too, and dairy company-owned stores provided competition. The bigger stock and station companies began taking over the smaller ones, to extend their regional coverage and for economies of scale. Businessman Sir Ronald Trotter observed that when he began in the industry in the late 1950s there were 45 companies competing. When he retired as chair of Wrightson in 1998 there were only five – Wrightson, Pyne Gould Guinness, Williams & Kettle, Allied Farmers and Elders New Zealand.
One stock agent claimed that a successful agent ‘must be a Nationalist, a staunch Labour man, a Social Credit disciple, a Catholic, a Protestant, a technician, a politician, a mathematician, an all-round mechanic, and, on occasion, a Communist. He must be an expert driver, talker, traveller, bridge player, golfer, bowler, diplomat, a football maniac, an authority on astrology, dogs, cats, sheep, cattle, horses, all types of leases, water rights and noxious weeds. The person with all these qualifications is truly entitled to the initials C.S.S.A. after his name – Country Stock and Station Agent.’ 1
Seven years after Trotter’s comments, the first three merged as PGG Wrightson. This brought together six big families of companies which began to coalesce in the 1960s. Dalgetys had merged with NZ Loan & Mercantile in 1962, and NMA with Wright Stephenson in 1972. The Crown Group made several consolidations in the 1970s, and merged with Dalgety New Zealand in 1983. Dalgety Crown was bought by Wrightson NMA in 1986.
Wrightson was floated as a public company in 1993, partly taken over by Rural Portfolio Investments in 2004, and acquired Williams & Kettle in 2005. That same year it merged with Pyne Gould Guinness and became PGG Wrightson, which is a listed company traded on the New Zealand stock exchange.
PGG Wrightson (and its predecessors Wright Stephenson and Wrightson) has always been active in Australia, particularly selling pasture seeds. It also sells seeds and develops dairy farms in Uruguay, and had an annual turnover of more than $1 billion in the early 2000s.
Elders Australia was active in New Zealand in the 1980s, buying smaller agencies and attempting to prevent the 1986 merger of Wrightson and Dalgety. However, when its parent company ran into difficulties, Elders retreated across the Tasman. It left behind the finance business and some livestock agents, which formed a private company. In the early 2000s, Elders New Zealand is a privately-owned company which is rebuilding a national network of livestock, wool and real estate agents, along with some merchandise outlets and financial products. It has a joint venture with broker Primary Wool, and buys in products and services from Elders in Australia.
The Allied Farmers group covers most of the North Island with merchandise, livestock, wool, real estate and financial services.
There are also many private livestock agents who operate throughout New Zealand.
In the early 2000s, farmers use many other suppliers. There are cooperative supply stores like RD1, Farmlands and CRT (Combined Rural Traders). Stock and station agencies no longer sell or represent farm machinery, and some fertiliser and chemical companies sell direct to farmers.
Rural finance is now vigorously contested by all major trading banks and some specialised rural lenders. Agencies have only a small portion of total rural lending – around $30 billion, mainly seasonal finance for livestock and crops.
Stock and station agencies played a vital role in rural communities through most of the 20th century. Many small rural towns had one or more agency stores selling an array of goods. For example, in the early 1970s in the South Canterbury town of Fairlie, there were stores belonging to Wrightson, Dalgety, Pyne Gould Guinness and Canterbury Farmers Co-operative Association, selling animal health supplies, animal feed, fencing material, fertiliser, machinery and tools, clothing and groceries.
By 2007 the town had just one stock and station store, run by PGG Wrightson.
Farmers expect their stock agents to perform a range of tasks and services. One agent even acted as a go-between for a client who wanted to get married but was too shy to propose to the woman!
Agents working out of rural towns service the local farming community. Some deal only with livestock, while others specialise in merchandise. In remote areas agents travelling to outlying farms and stations perform a variety of commercial and social functions. They bring in stores, mail and newspapers; keep farmers and their wives up to date with local news and gossip; report on stock, wool and crop prices; and advise on farming matters.
Stock agents provide farmers with a network of contacts through which they can buy and sell stock. Agents sort prime animals for the freezing works, and advise farmers on when and where to sell them. They sort stock into lines for sales – often a top line, a larger main line and a line of inferior animals. Agents also bring private buyers to the farm, and buy animals on behalf of other clients.
One of the largest clearing sales ever held in New Zealand was on Cheviot Hills Station, in Canterbury, which was bought by the government for subdivision into smaller farms. The stock firms Miles & Co., Pyne & Co., and the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Co. ran the sale of the station’s livestock and plant in 1893. It took three days, and 109,000 sheep were sold, as well as cattle and horses.
Stock and station companies organise local stock sales. Larger centres often have nearby commercial saleyards, where weekly sales take place. Smaller rural communities hold a single annual sale at local saleyards, usually in autumn, and this may be the highlight of the business and social calendar. Farmers and their families sometimes treat the event as a picnic day out, and stock firms provide refreshments for clients at the end of the day.
Gore, Ross. Levins, 1841–1941: the history of the first hundred years of Levin and Company Limited. Wellington: Levin & Company Ltd, 1956.
Irving, J. C. A century’s challenge: Wright, Stephenson & Co., Limited, 1861–1961. Wellington: Wright, Stephenson & Co., 1961.
Stringleman, Hugh, and Graeme Hunt. Rural challenge: a history of Wrightson Ltd. Auckland: Reed, 2006.
Ville, Simon. The rural entrepreneurs: a history of the stock and station agent industry in Australia and New Zealand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Williamson, Eulla. Farmers in business, 1880–1980: one hundred years of trading by the Canterbury Farmers’ Co-operative Association Limited, Timaru and branches. Timaru: Canterbury Farmers’ Co-operative Association, 1980.