Pastoral farming has dominated the economy since the 1840s. It still accounts for 20% of the Wairarapa workforce in the 2010s.
Boom and bust
The reliance on farming has been a mixed blessing. Towns serviced the pastoral economy with saleyards, slaughterhouses, and transport depots. Few had industries independent of agriculture, and Wairarapa’s fortune relied on farming. When farming returns rose, it boomed; when they fell, it slumped.
In the 19th century, farmers employed hundreds of workers. But as agriculture became more mechanised, many people looked for work in towns, such as at Masterton’s Waingawa freezing works. Twentieth-century improvements in roading and transport made it more profitable to centralise rural industries in the bigger centres. While Masterton grew, Eketāhuna shrank.
Even Masterton did not grow enough to attract substantial new investment. With reduced prospects, thousands of young people left the region, never to return. Between 1951 and 2001, New Zealand’s population doubled, but Wairarapa’s increased by just 25%. Since the 1980s the region has lost more people than it has gained.
An unusual player in Wairarapa’s economy is Trust House. This is mainly owned by the Masterton Licensing Trust, formed in 1947 to control the local liquor trade. It owns the ‘Liquor Plus!’ liquor chain, hotels, eateries and supermarkets. Having bought the region’s stock of state houses in the 1990s, it is also the main provider of social housing. Profits go to community groups.
Boosting the economy
In the 1970s the government tried to halt Wairarapa’s decline through regional development. In 1976 it built a (now privatised) government printing office in Masterton, employing some 600. A new tobacco factory also opened. However, the boost from these ventures was short-lived. When trade barriers were lifted in the 1980s, several textile and other manufacturers failed. A further 700 people lost their jobs in 1989 when the Waingawa freezing works closed.
Despite these setbacks, the region’s economy continued to diversify. The agricultural base was broadened into viticulture and forestry. In the 1980s Martinborough became the centre of a thriving wine industry, and in 1992 a Japanese investor opened a large wood-processing plant near Masterton. Sales and service industries employ a growing proportion of workers.
Many professional couples are escaping to a new life in the country. Typically they buy several hectares of farmland and build a new house. Some might run a few sheep or goats and keep working part-time. Others start up cottage industries, such as cheesemaking, or plant vineyards or olive groves. Many work harder than before, but find the lifestyle rewarding.
Tourism is also a growth area. Under the banner ‘New Zealand’s Capital Country’, the region has pitched itself at visitors from Wellington who want a country experience with city comforts. Cafés, restaurants, hotels, homestays, craft and antique shops have mushroomed. Regional festivals, fairs, and race meetings now attract thousands. Lifestyle blocks and weekend holiday homes are now more common, and are keenly sought by Wellingtonians.