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Agricultural and horticultural research

by  Ross Galbreath

From the early days of farming in New Zealand, farmers needed to adapt to local conditions. Researchers in government and universities bred new plant and animal varieties, found ways to deal with pests and diseases, and developed innovative new products.

Early days

Scientific research has played an important part in the success of agriculture and horticulture in New Zealand. Farming had to be adapted to local conditions, especially as almost all the plants and animals used are introduced species. Even the kūmara (sweet potato) that early Māori cultivated was a plant they had brought from Polynesia.

Much work has been required to select and breed the best varieties for New Zealand conditions, and to deal with local pests and diseases. Originally, farmers did much of this adaptation work themselves.

Māori adaptation

Māori horticulturalists adapted Polynesian techniques for cultivating and storing kūmara so they could grow it in New Zealand’s cooler climate. They also introduced taro, yam, gourd and paper mulberry. Māori readily adapted to growing European crops, in particular potato, which superseded kūmara because of its higher yields. These crops, and other fruit and vegetables, were also grown for trade with Pākehā.

Sheep breeds

From the 1840s, most sheep on New Zealand farms were the readily available Merinos from Australia. They survived on the sparse native herbage, and produced fine wool, but few lambs. Their susceptibility to footrot also made them difficult to manage on lowland farms. When other breeds such as the Romney and Leicester began to be imported from Britain, farmers soon found that crossing them with Merino produced more useful Halfbred sheep that grew faster and larger, with more wool (although it was coarser) and more lambs.

Don’t fence me in

Cheap fencing was integral to the development of New Zealand farming. Early runholders employed shepherds to keep sheep within properties. By the 1880s fences of imported wire and native timber were common. However by the 1950s the native timbers were running out. Concrete posts were used, and also radiata pine, but it rotted in the ground. A timber preservation technique developed by the Indian Forest Research Institute allowed radiata pine to be universally adopted for fence posts.


When early farmers complained about problems of weeds, pests or diseases, there was no research information to help. The best help came from other farmers who developed their own limited solutions. Governments tried to deal with the problems simply by regulation. From the 1850s on there were numerous Thistle Ordinances, Furze [Gorse] Ordinances, Rabbit Nuisance Acts, Small Birds Nuisance Acts and even, in 1884, a Codlin Moth Act. None had much effect, beyond annoying farmers with compulsory ‘control’ measures and inspections.

Scab success

The one notable success of the regulatory approach was in dealing with scab, a highly contagious sheep disease caused by a tiny mite burrowing under the animal’s skin. Scab was eventually eradicated from New Zealand in the 1890s by a statutory system of inspection and culling or treatment of flocks. However, the system only became effective after cheap iron wire was introduced in the 1860s. It made better farm fences, which could keep clean sheep in and their scabby neighbours out.

Organising agricultural science

Professional scientific research to aid agriculture and horticulture gradually developed – some of it in universities, private organisations or companies, but most in government institutions.

Colonial Laboratory

New Zealand’s first government scientific institutions, in the 1860s, were primarily geological, aimed at finding mineral wealth. The Colonial Laboratory, which normally analysed mineral samples, did a few soil analyses ‘by direction of the Government for the information of practical agriculturalists’ 1 , but there was little other scientific assistance for farmers in the 19th century.

Department of Agriculture

A more scientific approach to helping farmers began when the Department of Agriculture was set up in 1892, amalgamating the stock and agricultural branches of the Department of Crown Lands.

A biologist, Thomas Kirk, was appointed to give advice on insect pests of orchards and crops. He also began efforts in biological control – importing insect predators or parasites to attack pest insects.

An agricultural chemist, Bernard Aston, was employed to analyse soil samples and make recommendations on fertiliser use. Aston worked on identifying the cause of ‘bush sickness,’ a wasting disease that afflicted sheep and cattle in large areas of the central North Island, and also on trials of chemical fertilisers.

Phosphate fertiliser

These trials helped convince New Zealand farmers of the value of phosphate fertiliser. They also convinced the Prime Minister William Massey, a farmer himself. In the negotiations over who would gain control of various German possessions after the First World War, Massey put his main effort into gaining a share of Nauru Island’s phosphate rock for New Zealand. He succeeded, and until Nauru’s independence in the 1960s New Zealand farmers got cheap rock phosphate for making superphosphate.

Universal super

The invention of superphosphate fertiliser in England in 1843, and the establishment of fertiliser manufacturing works in New Zealand, were important steps in the development of agriculture and horticulture. The basic soil fertility developed under tussock and bush was not enough to sustain pasture and crop growth. Superphosphate provided much-needed extra phosphate, and other elements could be added where required.


In 1926, after pressure from scientists – including the celebrated Lord Rutherford – and a recommendation from a visiting British expert, the government established a new Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). It copied the structure and the name of the British DSIR, but whereas in Britain ‘industrial’ meant manufacturing industry, the New Zealand agency was expected to focus on primary industries, especially agriculture.

Research associations and institutes

The DSIR initially coordinated research in existing institutions or in new British-style research associations, partly funded by the industries concerned. The first research associations were a Dairy Research Institute (1927) and a Wheat Research Institute (1928), which soon made important contributions to their industries.

They were later followed by the New Zealand Wool Industries Research Institute (1937), the Tobacco Research Station at Motueka (1938), the New Zealand Fertiliser Manufacturers' Research Association (1947) and the Hop Research Station at Riwaka (1949). The Meat Industry Research Institute was incorporated in 1955

Dairy Research Institute

In the late 1920s and 1930s the Dairy Research Institute investigated problems in cheesemaking and found they were caused by bacteriophages – viruses attacking the bacteria used in cheesemaking. The institute developed clean bacterial cultures which avoided the problem and raised the standard of New Zealand cheeses.

Wheat Research Institute

The Wheat Research Institute bred the new wheat varieties Cross 7 in 1934, and Hilgendorf in 1947, as well as several others. These provided higher yields and better flour. New Zealand does not have a suitable climate for growing really high-quality wheat, so the new varieties greatly improved the standard of New Zealand bread.

  1. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1868 D-14, p. 19. › Back

DSIR research

Plant Research Station

In 1928 the DSIR joined with the Department of Agriculture in establishing a Plant Research Station. It soon produced some important research results, especially on pasture plants. Some vigorous and persistent strains were selected, and seed of certified purity produced. Along with superphosphate fertiliser, this work provided the basis for the ‘grasslands revolution’ in New Zealand.

Tensions between the two departments led to a reorganisation in 1936, and the Plant Research Station was transferred entirely to the DSIR. The DSIR became a scientific research department, doing its own research rather than simply coordinating work in other institutions.

Research divisions

Five separate research divisions were created:

  • Grasslands in Palmerston North
  • Plant Diseases in Auckland
  • Entomology, attached to the Cawthron Institute in Nelson
  • Soil Survey (later Soil Bureau) in Taita
  • Agronomy (later Crop Research Division) in Lincoln.

They had successes in many areas, including breeding plants, classifying soils, identifying trace-element deficiencies, and biological control of some insect pests.

Other new research groups were also established, including the Fruit Research Station in 1948, and a Horticulture and Processing Division, formed in 1980, which found ways to combat orchard pests and diseases, and bred new varieties of apples and other fruit.

In 1962 the Plant Physiology Division was created at Palmerston North, and a number of special ‘climate control’ rooms set up where temperature, day length and humidity could be varied to study the effects on plant growth. In 1970 the Applied Biochemistry Division was set up. It investigated the biochemistry of plant material, in relation to bloat in cattle; plant growth, digestibility and ripening; and milk and meat characteristics.

Department of Agriculture research

Animal research

With the transfer of the Plant Research Station to the DSIR, the Department of Agriculture moved to hold on to animal research. In 1938 there was a serious outbreak of the stock ailment facial eczema, leading to strong political pressure to help farmers.

The Department established an Animal Research Division in 1939, with a station specialising in dairy research at its Ruakura demonstration farm near Hamilton. Trials compared different ways of managing herds, rotational versus set stock grazing systems, milking machinery, bloat, and artificial insemination. Wallaceville Research Station was set up at the same time in Upper Hutt. It focused on diagnostic work and disease-related research, in particular metabolic diseases from nutrient deficiencies, eradication of TB and brucellosis, and animal parasites.

The zinc solution

In 1965 Waikato farmer Gladys Reid discovered that zinc could be used to treat animals with severe facial eczema. But in 1981 this was still not officially accepted. Farmers were told that zinc was toxic to stock, and they should spray affected pasture with fungicide. However, a huge outbreak that year proved spraying ineffective. The following year zinc treatment was officially recommended. Reid, now vindicated, received an OBE in 1983.

Other research

The Fields Division (renamed the Farm Advisory Division in the early 1960s) acquired a network of research stations to investigate regional soil fertility, pasture, and sheep and beef production problems.

A soil fertility research station was set up in 1946 at Rukuhia, west of Hamilton. The Winchmore Research Station in mid-Canterbury was also set up in the late 1940s to investigate the benefits of irrigation for pasture and crop production, and sheep and beef farming. Sheep and beef research developed with the establishment of the Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station, near Hamilton, and the Invermay Research Station, near Mosgiel, in 1949.


In 1964 all of the Department of Agriculture research was grouped into the Research Division, except for the soil conservation staff who were transferred to the Ministry of Works. In 1972, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) was set up.

Through to the 1980s, agricultural and horticultural field research scientists were placed throughout the country, away from the main centres. In addition, 14 field research areas were purchased or leased to research local problems. Ruakura also established seven outstations to investigate animal production problems and test solutions.

Horticulture research was always a minor part of the Department of Agriculture’s research programme. However, research centres to investigate problems of fruit and vegetable production were established at Levin and Pukekohe.


In 1988 MAF was restructured into four businesses. The research and technology transfer business was MAFTech, which was administered by four regions.

University research

Lincoln and Massey universities began life as centres for teaching agriculture. Each developed into universities with research programmes of national and international significance.


Lincoln School of Agriculture, linked to Canterbury College, was established in Lincoln, south of Christchurch, in 1878, with a first student intake in 1880. It became Canterbury Agricultural College in 1896, Lincoln College in 1961, and finally Lincoln University in 1990.

The early research disciplines followed traditional agriculture, with an emphasis on sheep farming and the South Island environment. Soils research investigated nutrient deficiencies in soils of the plains, hill and high country; pasture and crop research was on species that were suited to the dry east coast; and sheep research was on the breeding and management of animals that could produce well in that environment. Subsequently research began on orchard and other horticultural production, as well as agricultural economics.

In the early 2000s much of the research continued into traditional topics, including nutrition and health, soil and physical sciences, biochemistry and cell biology, microbiology, toxicology, agronomy and plant science, food science, horticulture, viticulture and oenology, environmental science, environmental management, tourism, landscape architecture and commerce.

Also at Lincoln were a number of research centres relating to additional topics such as agribusiness, computer model simulation solutions, recreation, soil, and nature conservation. The Isaac Centre for Advanced Bio-Protection Technologies was a collaborative association between Lincoln University, AgResearch, Crop and Food Research and Massey University.


Massey Agricultural College was opened in Palmerston North in March 1928. Full university status was granted in 1963 and the name was abbreviated to Massey University in 1966. Several new departments were added in the 1950s. The faculty of technology was established in 1961 and that of veterinary science in 1962. Following merger with the Palmerston North College of Education in 1996, the university was divided into four Colleges including the College of Sciences.

Early research investigated nutrient deficiencies and the science of North Island soils; nutrient runoff from farmland; soil drainage; pasture species for dairy and sheep farms; seed technology; sheep and beef production; wool production; dairy cow production and management; and dairy product manufacture, which included the building of a model dairy factory.

Around 2,000 hectares of extra land was purchased for research farms around the original property.

With the addition of the veterinary faculty, research expanded to include animal diseases and physiology. In 2007 the Hopkirk Research Institute, an animal diseases research institute in collaboration between Massey and AgResearch, was set up adjacent to the Massey Institute for Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences (IVABS).

The IVABS research programme covered animals and society; food safety and quality; emerging diseases affecting biosecurity, trade and public health; reproductive management and diseases; mycobacterial diseases; and nutritional management of pastoral animal health and production.

The Institute of Natural Resources

The Institute of Natural Resources, also within the Massey College of Sciences, had research programmes on agronomy (pastures and crops); agricultural and horticultural systems and management; horticultural science; natural resource management; ecology; plant protection; and soil and earth sciences. The Institute contained the Fertiliser and Lime Research Centre, formed in 1983, which conducts research on a wide range of soil fertility and associated environmental issues. Also within this Institute is the New Zealand Centre for Precision Agriculture, as well as the Volcanic Risk Solutions Research Centre.


The divide between plant-related research in the DSIR and animal-related research in the Department of Agriculture remained for many years, with scientists competing and collaborating across the divide.

By the late 1980s it was evident that there were many similarities in the research conducted by MAF and the DSIR into soil fertility, pasture productivity, animal production, animal management and horticulture. Between 1981 and 1989 government funding of research fell by 38%. Consequently, research agencies were required to obtain more of their funds from the private sector.

New structures

Partly as a means of increasing total investment in science, especially by the private sector, and partly to improve the efficiency of funding by making it more contestable, the DSIR was disbanded in 1992. All government research departments were formed into 10 Crown research institutes, reduced to nine in 1995, then to eight in 2008. All were required to earn an adequate rate of return on shareholders’ funds.


The New Zealand Pastoral Agriculture Research Institute (AgResearch) is directly involved in research into agriculture or horticulture, and deals with agricultural problems and research products.

AgResearch's Agriculture and Environment Group aims to develop sustainable production systems, strategies for weed and pest control, animal health therapies, and ways to control gaseous emissions and nutrient losses from farm systems. The Applied Biotechnologies Group works on new technologies and products to improve plant and animal reproduction and growth, based on improved understanding of their genes. The Food and Textiles Group deals with dairy science, textile science, and food metabolism and microbiology. AgResearch also runs the Meat Industry Research Institute, and is a partner in the Hopkirk Research Institute at Massey, and in Canensis (formerly WRONZ, the Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand). It has formal research agreements with more than 100 other organisations around the world.

Products developed by AgResearch include:

  • Magnum, which delivers high-dose, slow-release internal parasite control to animals
  • EnCoate, a bio-polymer coating with many uses, from food to seeds to insect control products
  • Farmax, a computerised farm-management tool
  • ContainerScan, a high-speed method for sampling the atmosphere and detecting unwanted chemicals in containers.

Plant & Food Research, Landcare and NIWA

Three more Crown research institutes involved with land-based research are the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research (Plant & Food Research), Landcare Research – Manaaki Whenua, and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

Plant & Food Research

Plant & Food Research was formed on 1 December 2008 from the merger of Crop & Food Research and HortResearch. It focuses on research into horticulture and crop and food science.

Crop & Food Research worked on the sustainable production of new, arable and vegetable crops; the development of pest and disease resistance mechanisms; and the development of new food products, their health benefits and medical properties. It also investigated the food value of seafoods and marine extracts. Products developed include:

  • AspireNZ, a computerised management system for asparagus growers
  • Aphidwatch, which provides aphid flight records, virus forecasts and other information to growers
  • Plant-SyNZ, a new tool for assessing the biodiversity of insect and mite herbivores on native plants.

HortResearch specialised in fruit science, associated product development, and sustainable production systems – especially relating to herbicide and pesticide use, but also to irrigation. Successful products it developed include:

  • Zespri Gold kiwifruit
  • new cultivars of baby kiwifruit
  • a number of blueberry cultivars
  • the ripeSense sensor label, which indicates when packaged fruit has ripened, and was rated by Time magazine as one of the 36 greatest inventions of 2004.

In November 2007 HortResearch announced that it had bred bees that were resistant to the varroa bee mite. This would offer major relief for an industry in real danger from the mite.


Landcare Research focuses on the sustainable management of resources. Most research relevant to agriculture and horticulture is done by the Environment and Society section. This includes research into erosion and sediment processes; hydrology and soil physics; soil biological and chemical interactions; and strategic land use. Research also looks at the impacts of global change on land-based systems (and vice versa) and how New Zealand can reduce greenhouse gas emissions as required by the Kyoto Protocol. Landcare Research has a comprehensive range of geospatial-related services, including soils, vegetation cover, land environments, feral animal populations and satellite imagery.


NIWA aims to provide a scientific basis for the sustainable management and development of New Zealand’s atmospheric, marine and freshwater systems and associated resources. The main issues relating to agriculture and horticulture are water availability and quality, and how this relates to land management.

The National Centre for Water Resources provides public information on rivers, lakes and groundwater, and predictions on their quantity and quality as affected by changes in land use. Advice is provided on minimising nutrient contamination of wetlands and ponds, and a GIS-based model, ROTAN, has been developed to predict nutrient movement into waterways. Another model, SPARROW, simulates sediment loads in rivers and predicts movement downstream. The National Centre for Aquatic Biodiversity and Biosecurity provides advice on aquatic weed management and biodiversity preservation in association with land use options.

Advances in soil and animal science

Major advances in agricultural and horticultural science that contributed to industry development include the following.

Bush sickness

In the late 19th century European settlers, encouraged by the government, began to move into the central North Island to clear the bush for farming. But they found that although the land looked fertile and produced great crops and lush grass, sheep and cattle wasted away and eventually died unless they were moved to another area. The settlers called on the government to cure this ‘bush sickness’.

In 1892 Department of Agriculture veterinarians diagnosed it as a form of anaemia and suggested it was caused by a deficiency in the soil, possibly of iron. The Department’s chemist, Bernard Aston, concluded that it was indeed ‘iron starvation’. He developed a cheap, effective remedy: a salt lick incorporating locally-available limonite iron ore. But Aston’s solution didn’t always work. Similar conditions were found at Morton Mains in Southland and Glenhope in Nelson – and also in Australia.

B12 and bush sickness

Ruminant (cud-chewing) animals need cobalt for the production of vitamin B12 by micro-organisms in the gut. This vitamin is then absorbed and stored in the animal’s liver. Vitamin B12 is needed for energy and protein metabolism – so bush sickness is really due to a vitamin B12 deficiency.

Australian scientists found that Aston’s remedy worked on their version of bush sickness, even when they chemically removed all the iron. In 1935 they isolated the effective component – cobalt, a constituent of vitamin B12 required by all mammals. New Zealand scientists related bush sickness to the pumice soils in the North Island. Farmers were able to correct the problem by mixing cobalt into the superphosphate fertiliser they spread on their pastures.

Stock ailments

Facial eczema was one of the most serious animal diseases in the northern half of the North Island, and attracted the most research. It seemed likely to be caused by a fungal toxin, but it was only in 1958, after 20 years of fruitless research, that an alert technician mowing experimental plots found spores of a previously unknown fungus which proved to be the source of the toxin. Once this was identified, measures were developed to avoid or prevent the disease.

Animal breeding


In 1868 James Little, a farm manager at Corriedale Station in North Otago and later at Allandale in North Canterbury, began a systematic breeding programme to produce a sheep more suited to the pastures of that area. He crossed half-bred sheep and selected and interbred the progeny. His ‘inbred halfbreds’ became known as Corriedales – a very successful multi-purpose breed still used in New Zealand and many other countries.

Three sheep breeds have come from scientific breeding programmes at agricultural colleges. At Massey, Cheviot sheep were crossed with Romneys to produce a breed particularly suited to North Island hill country – the Perendale, named after Geoffrey Peren, professor of agriculture and Massey’s first principal. At Lincoln, Border Leicesters were crossed with Romneys to produce a breed suited to the wetter lowlands and easier hill country – the Coopworth, named after professor of animal husbandry Ian Coop.

The third programme was quite different. Dr F. W. Dry found a genetic factor that produced particularly hairy wool. This was just what carpet manufacturers wanted. It had more spring or resilience than standard wool and would make carpet that didn’t flatten with use. Drysdale sheep now supply speciality carpet wool.

Dairy cattle

The improvement in dairy productivity during the 20th century was largely due to a scheme that recorded the productivity of individual cows so the best could be selected for breeding. This was introduced in 1922 and operated by the Dairy Board Herd Improvement Council. The artificial insemination service that was subsequently developed enabled genetically better bulls to be used as widely as possible across the national herd.

Advances in plant science

Biological control

Biological control is the idea that a pest or weed can be controlled by its ‘natural enemy’. Introductions of such natural enemies have been tried in New Zealand many times, often based on scientific investigation or advice, but sometimes against such advice.

By the 1880s hordes of insect pests were infesting orchards and chewing through crops. Biological control was first tried against a scale insect, Icerya purchasi, which was ravaging citrus trees. An orchardist tried importing parasitic flies to control it, but they did not survive. But in 1888 an Australian ladybird species, which arrived accidentally, proved so effective at hunting down the pest that it has not been a problem since.

Train stoppers

In the 1880s insect pests were devouring apples and other crops. In 1881 an infestation of what is thought to have been cosmopolitan army worm, probably Mythimna separata, made headlines around the world. In Rangitīkei, a huge mass of them moving across a railway track actually brought a train to a standstill, with its wheels spinning on their crushed bodies.

One of the earliest successes, about 1920, was the introduction of a parasitic wasp to control Eriosoma lanigerum, an aphid pest of apple trees. More recently a species of naturally occurring bacteria, Serratia entomophila, has been cultured and can be applied to reduce grass-grub populations in pasture.

Parasitoids have been successfully introduced to control pests such as sitona weevil on lucerne, Argentine stem weevil in ryegrass and clover root weevil. These parasitoids are small braconid wasps (Microctonus spp.) that lay eggs in the adult weevil and render it sterile. M. aethipoides has effectively controlled sitona weevil since it was introduced in 1982 and M. hyperodae has been successful against Argentine stem weevil since 1991.

Biological control agents for ragwort and nodding thistle have reduced but not eliminated these weeds.

Breeding pasture and orchard plants

Pasture plants

Initially British grasses and clovers were planted in New Zealand, but from 1912 varieties were selected and bred specifically for local conditions by staff of the joint Department of Scientific and Industrial Research/Department of Agriculture Plant Research Station. In the early 1930s Grasslands Ruanui ryegrass and Grasslands Huia white clover, which provided more persistent and productive pasture, were selected. Ruanui was later superseded by Nui, another ryegrass with better summer growth, but Huia remained dominant for over 50 years. Although new varieties have since been bred, it remains the baseline standard.

In 1982 it was found that the endophytic fungus that lives within ryegrass plants produces alkaloids which may be deterrent or toxic to insects. A strain of endophyte, AR1 from Europe, which does not cause toxicity to grazing animals but protects the plant against Argentine stem weevil and pasture mealybug, was commercially released in New Zealand.

Fruit breeding

Independent breeders included Hutton Kidd, an orchardist who bred new apple varieties in the 1920s, and Bruno Just and Hayward Wright, nurserymen who selected kiwifruit varieties in the 1930s.

One of the major successes of the DSIR fruit breeding programme was Gala, which became one of the world’s most popular apples. Pacific Rose, from a Gala–Splendour cross, has also been particularly successful. A later breeding programme by HortResearch produced the Jazz variety from a Braeburn–Royal Gala cross.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Ross Galbreath, 'Agricultural and horticultural research', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Ross Galbreath, i tāngia i te 24 o Noema 2008