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Agricultural education

by  Robert Peden

Agriculture is vital to New Zealand’s economy, so it is no wonder there are so many ways of learning how to be a good farmer – from on-the-job training to a university degree.

Early agricultural education

Debates about farm training

Because of the significance of agriculture to New Zealand’s economy, high-quality agricultural training is important.

From the early 1870s there was considerable discussion, in newspapers and elsewhere, about the necessity of scientific and technical education for farmers. There were numerous commissions, reports and intense debates about how to establish a formal system of agricultural education.

To complicate matters, many farming families wanted their children to be taught the traditional subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic at school, rather than farming, which they could teach their children at home.

As recently as 1990 a survey of farmers found that most people entering farming had no formal training in agriculture, and that farmers had little time to spend training off the farm.

Mission stations

The first training in European farming methods in New Zealand probably took place at mission stations in Northland. In 1814 Samuel Marsden, chaplain for New South Wales, set out to convert Māori to Christianity through the process of ‘civilisation’, which included learning the art of agriculture. Marsden imported merino sheep from his Sydney farm, and his missions grew cereal crops, potatoes and fruit.

As mission stations became established in other parts of the country, they spread European agricultural knowledge among Māori. Waikato Māori became such successful farmers that, in the late 1840s and early 1850s, Auckland relied on them for cereals, vegetables and fruit.

Māori entrepreneurs

William Swainson (New Zealand’s second attorney general) wrote that Māori brought agricultural goods to trade with Auckland settlers in a ‘fleet of forty sail of well-mannered war canoes’ 1 . Tāraia and his people from the Hauraki Gulf brought produce to the town once or twice a year, including pigs, potatoes, wheat, maize, melons, grapes, pumpkins, onions, flax, turkeys, geese, ducks, fowls and firewood. With their profits they purchased spades, blankets, ironware and clothing from local merchants.

Farmers’ clubs

Farmers’ clubs were popular in Britain in the early and middle years of the 19th century, when agricultural improvement was fashionable, and British settlers brought the idea to New Zealand. One of the first farmers’ clubs was established in Canterbury in 1858, only eight years after organised settlement began in the region.

The clubs arranged ploughing matches and displays of new machinery. Local and visiting experts gave talks on topics such as livestock breeding, suitable crop varieties for local conditions, the best grasses and legumes for pastures, and techniques for crop cultivation and livestock husbandry. However, support for these clubs was inconsistent.

Agricultural and Pastoral associations

Following the lead of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, settlers in New Zealand formed Agricultural and Pastoral (A & P) associations, which promoted farm improvement and, like farmers’ clubs, ran lectures on sheep breeds, crops and pasture plants, and best farming practice.

A & P associations also established shows to encourage improvement in livestock and farm products, and to display the latest machinery and implements. The first New Zealand show was held in the Bay of Islands in 1838.

From 1877 to 1898 the Canterbury A & P Association published the New Zealand Country Journal to spread farming information.

  1. William Swainson, ‘The city of Auckland’. In Life in a young colony: selections from early New Zealand writing, edited by Cherry A. Hankin. Christchurch: Whitcoulls, 1981, p. 122. › Back

Primary and secondary education

Before 1876 education was spasmodic and mainly private. It focused on the traditional subjects of arithmetic and grammar, leaving little room for practical subjects like agriculture. Central government passed the first Education Act in 1877, but agriculture was still not deemed suitable for inclusion in the school syllabus.

Primary schools

While George Hogben was in charge of the Department of Education (between 1899 and 1915) he widened the curriculum to include practical courses, such as science and agriculture. However, by 1920 the teaching of agriculture had declined in primary schools. To encourage an interest in farming among children, in 1921 boys’ and girls’ agricultural clubs were established in schools and in some areas these were active until the 1950s.

Since Hogben’s time agriculture has not been specifically taught in primary schools, although aspects of it are taught in the broader subjects of nature study and social studies.

Farming in the classroom

A woman who started her teaching career in a sole-charge country school in the early 1930s recalled ‘On the top of one of the cupboards a globe kept company with a Babcock machine for testing the butter-fat content of milk, and a rack of test-tubes for the elementary science that was part of the curriculum’. 1

Secondary schools

Before 1900 few children progressed beyond primary school. In rural areas most were unable to continue their formal education because there were few local secondary schools. The development of district high schools made secondary education more accessible, and the raising of the school leaving age to 15 in 1944 made it more common. In the 1930s, 65% of boys entering farming had left school at the primary level; in 1945, 72% had some secondary education.

The first school in New Zealand to teach practical agriculture was Rangiora High, following their purchase of a school farm in 1920. In 1922 the Department of Education established the Feilding Agricultural High School, which also had a farm attached. By the 1950s a number of secondary schools ran agricultural courses and had farms of varying sizes, but these were a minority.

Farming at Feilding High

In 2007 Feilding High (formerly Feilding Agricultural High School) had two farms: 16 hectares with dairy and pigs, and a sheep–beef–forestry farm of 82 hectares. Half of the pupils in the junior school chose agriculture or horticulture, and some took both. In the senior school, around 20% of pupils studied agriculture, horticulture or forestry.

A 1984 study of the secondary schools in Canterbury, Otago and Southland found that 33 out of 107 taught agriculture or horticulture. These subjects are included in the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), which was phased in between 2002 and 2004 to replace School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and University Entrance qualifications. However, agriculture and horticulture are not included at Scholarship level, which is the highest secondary-school qualification.

  1. Jane Wordsworth, Unwillingly to school. Wellington: Reed, 1976, p. 25. › Back

Lincoln University

The establishment of Lincoln College

In their 1848 association charter Canterbury settlers set aside land for educational endowments. By 1873, 321,761 acres (130,212 hectares) had been set aside specifically for funding university education, about a third of which was earmarked for agricultural education.

However, although a university college was founded in Canterbury in 1873, it did not teach agriculture and there was increasing pressure for a school that did. At the end of 1877 the Canterbury College board bought land near the town of Lincoln for an agricultural college and the following year it appointed W. E. Ivey to oversee its establishment.

In 1880 the Lincoln School of Agriculture opened with 16 students. It was the first agricultural college to be established in the southern hemisphere.

Lincoln University

Although the school had been informally known as Lincoln College for many years, the name was not officially adopted until 1961, when it was made a constituent of the University of Canterbury. This relationship continued until 1990, when the college became Lincoln University, New Zealand’s sixth independent, self-governing university.

Vying for the vet school

Lincoln and Massey competed to be the site for the planned national veterinary school. In 1960, when Governor-General Lord Cobham was invited to open the new library at Lincoln, some students attempted a stunt to get him to lay the ‘foundation’ stone for the new vet school and thereby pre-empt Massey’s claim. They diverted Cobham’s car away from the official opening site, but either Cobham or his driver realised something was amiss and they found their way back to the library opening. Massey got the vet school.

Lincoln’s farms

Under the terms of the original endowment, Lincoln was required to teach practical farming and related sciences. Accordingly, it set up a 163-hectare farm to be used for training and research.

By the mid-1960s the school’s farming area had increased to nearly 900 hectares, on which cropping, dairying and sheep farming were practised. In 2007 the university farms included six properties, five of which were commercial farms totalling 3,462 hectares.

Expanding the range of courses

Initially, the only course that Lincoln offered was a Diploma in Agriculture, and it was slow to develop new programmes. It was not until 1913 that the college produced its first graduate with a degree in agriculture. In 1936 the college had only 33 students studying at diploma level and 14 in the Bachelor of Agricultural Science course, with none at postgraduate level.

After the Second World War the range of courses was broadened and in 1958 Lincoln began teaching full degrees (before this, degree students had to do a preliminary year at another university).

From the mid-1960s there was a marked increase in students attending Lincoln. It was recognised for its courses in sheep and beef farming, and arable farming, whereas Massey tended to specialise in dairying.

In 2007 about 4,500 students were enrolled, many of them in subjects covering land use and resource management.

Massey University

The establishment of Massey Agricultural College

After years of debate over where to site the school, and what its exact purpose should be, Massey was founded near Palmerston North in 1926. Like Lincoln College, Massey struggled in its early years through lack of adequate funding.

Massey becomes a university

From the outset the college council was determined to develop Massey into a full university, although progress was slow. The school remained Massey Agricultural College until 1961, when it became Massey College. In 1963 it achieved university status and was known as the Massey University of Manawatū. Three years later the name was abbreviated to Massey University.

When teaching began at Massey Agricultural College in 1928, there were 85 students, including nine studying for degrees, with the remainder studying for diplomas. In 1960 the student roll was 500, with courses still focused on agricultural subjects. The range of courses expanded with the establishment of the Faculty of Veterinary Science in 1962. The Faculty of Science followed in 1963, and in 1965 the faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences were introduced, although some arts subjects had been taught before this.

In 2007 Massey offered 150 qualifications across sciences, education, business, humanities and social sciences. It has a special role in extramural education, with over 20,000 students taking off-campus courses each year.

Pranks with the PM

The Kareti Club was formed by students in 1930 to act as a guardian of student social life. This apparently involved consuming large quantities of beer and organising stunts. One of their most notorious stunts took place in 1936, when club members transported Prime Minister M. J. Savage around the campus in a wheelbarrow.

Teaching farms

In 1926 the government purchased 330 hectares of land for the college. Additional purchases were made in the following years so that by the mid-1960s the college farms amounted to 1,700 hectares in several sites, including a hill-country block in the southern Hawke’s Bay. In 2007 the university ran 2,200 hectares of farmland for teaching and research.

Training farms

Training farms have given students a practical introduction to farming and experience towards earning a qualification.


The New Zealand government established the first farm school at Ruakura, near Hamilton, on 280 hectares of land. It began as an experimental farm in 1901 and in 1912 took on its first 12 students. By 1935 competition with Flock House training farm and Massey Agricultural College had led to fewer students entering the course, and so it was closed.


Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre, near Masterton, was set up in 1919 to train servicemen returning from the First World War. The 299-hectare property was established with funds donated by the public and a contribution from the government. After the Second World War, Taratahi again trained returned servicemen, this time under the government rehabilitation scheme that required the men to do a farm training course before they were settled on properties of their own. In 1951 Taratahi’s trustees decided to extend and improve the property, and established a farm training scheme for 16–20-year-olds.

In 2007 Taratahi had a 170-hectare dairy unit and 370 hectares used for farming deer, sheep and beef, making silage and hay, and growing green feed-crops. The institution also ran Glenburn Station, a 5,500-hectare farm 65 kilometres south of Masterton.

Taratahi offered a 40-week course towards a Certificate in Agriculture in either dairying or sheep and beef, and short courses in farming skills such as fence-building, shearing and wool handling, electric welding, chainsaw operation and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) handling and safety. Taratahi also gave Ministry of Education Secondary Tertiary Alignment Resource (STAR) courses, three- or four-day courses for senior secondary school students in a range of farming skills.

Flock House

Flock House, near Bulls, was founded in 1924 to train the sons of British seamen who lost their lives in the First World War. By 1937 the original function had run its course and the 3,200-hectare property was sold to the government. The Department of Agriculture, later the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), managed it with the aim of training young people in practical farming.

Flock House farmed sheep, beef and dairy cattle, and pigs. Fifty trainees were taken on each year for a 12-month course. In the 1980s the introduction of full fees led to a dramatic fall in student numbers, and in 1988 MAF closed the programme.

Smedley Station

Smedley Station is a 3,186-hectare property in central Hawke’s Bay that has been run as a training farm for over 60 years. A large commercial farm, it runs a practical course in farming sheep, beef cattle and deer. Eleven trainees are accepted each year for the two-year course, so that there are 22 trainees on the property over the working year. Trainees have to provide their own harness gear and working dogs, but the cost of the course, accommodation and food is covered by the trust that administers the station.

Traditional training at Smedley

Rēnata Apatū from Ngāmatea, one of the biggest sheep stations in the North Island, was a cadet at Smedley in 1987–88. He recalled training under the guidance of manager Graham Lunt: ‘He was a real traditionalist and he showed us how a traditional sheep and beef station should be run. We even learned how to load a packhorse, how to balance loads and tie them all up, the real basics – shear and crutch and run a dog. It was … large station stuff writ small, but it was all there.’ 1


The Telford Farm Training Institute was opened on an 820-hectare farm near Balclutha in 1965. The institute provided a one-year practical course for 80 trainees. As with Flock House, applications to study at Telford fell dramatically in the late 1980s when the institute had to charge full fees. From 2019 the Telford campus of the Southern Institute of Technology, it runs a variety of courses, some by correspondence, including year-long certificates in agriculture, forestry, equine studies and beekeeping, and two-year diplomas in advanced agricultural production. Telford also runs short courses in fence-building, using chainsaws, tractor and ATV handling, and milking.

    • Hazel Riseborough, Ngamatea: the land and the people. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2006, p. 264. › Back

Trade certification

Early certification

There have been several attempts to establish a formal system for training farmers and young people entering the industry. In the early 1940s the New Zealand Technical Correspondence Institute offered a course in farming, and by the early 1970s the Trades Certification Board had developed certificates in farm management.

In 1971 the Agricultural Training Council (ATC) was set up to coordinate farmer training at a national level. It produced guidelines for the various tasks that were deemed necessary for the success of farming operations and established similar guides for a Certificate in Horticultural Practice. In 1985 the government cut funding to the ATC and it was disbanded.

Farm cadets

In 1974 Federated Farmers of New Zealand, the national farmers’ organisation, set up the Farm Cadet Scheme with funding assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture. The ATC appointed training officers to run the scheme, which was a three-year practical course where cadets studied for trade certificates. Practical on-farm training was provided by approved farmers.

In 1976 the scheme was expanded to include the equine and horticultural industries. In 1985 there were 1,600 cadets, but three years later the number had dropped to 1,000, reflecting the depression in agriculture that followed the removal of farm subsidies in 1984.

Industry training organisation

In 1990 the Farm Education and Training Association (FETA) took over the Farm Cadet Scheme from Federated Farmers. In 1993 the organisation trained 1,600 cadets and offered two qualifications: the Trade Certificate in Farming and the Trade Certificate in Farm Business Management.

In 1995 FETA became the Agriculture Industry Training Organisation (ITO) and began to expand its activities. The first modern apprenticeships were launched in the agriculture industry in 2000, and by this time the organisation offered 50 nationally recognised qualifications over farming subjects such as dairying, deer, poultry, fencing, wool harvesting, the stock and station industry, and artificial insemination. In 2003 over 5,800 trainees were enrolled, increasing to 10,271 in 2006, including 481 undertaking modern apprenticeships.

The national certificates developed by the Agriculture ITO are part of the National Qualifications Framework of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).

National Certificate in Agriculture

The NZQA-accredited National Certificate in Agriculture is the foremost national qualification for people making a career in agriculture. Certificates can be attained at different levels, and trainees must pass one level before progressing to the next.

The entry stage, which is at Level 2 of the NZQA framework, is a one-year course with a practical focus. Trainees learn about farm safety, vehicles and machinery, handling livestock and basic fence-building.

At Level 3 trainees can specialise in arable, cattle, dairy, deer or sheep farming. This takes up to 18 months, and covers farm vehicles, farm safety, soils and fertilisers, pastures, animal husbandry and health, handling livestock and animal feeding.

At Level 4 trainees can again specialise, and are introduced to feed budgeting and have to prepare a property report. This takes up to 18 months and is a prerequisite for those wishing to advance to the final level – the one-year National Certificate in Agriculture (Production Management). Students learn management techniques to increase farm productivity and performance, and can specialise in a specific strand of farming.

Accredited training providers

In 2007 there were 77 institutions accredited to award the National Certificate in Agriculture, although many only took trainees through the preliminary levels. They included 12 secondary schools and 19 polytechnics and institutes of technology, with most of the rest being commercial businesses. The largest of these is Agriculture New Zealand, a private training establishment that is part of the PGG Wrightson group, New Zealand’s biggest stock and station company.

NZQA is also responsible for accrediting institutions that provide certificates in other aspects of rural education, which in 2007 included:

  • horticulture (94)
  • pest management (65)
  • rural contracting, including chemical application (16)
  • wool harvesting, including certificates in shearing, wool classing and wool handling (6)
  • equine industry (5)
  • pork production (3)
  • poultry production (2).

Farm advisory services and consultancy

Free farming advice

The Department of Agriculture, formed in 1892, offered free advice to farmers and set up experimental farms and Fields Division to promote the results of farm trials.

After the Second World War the Fields Division was reorganised into the Extension Division. It was renamed the Farm Advisory Division in the early 1960s, when officers had a choice of remaining as farm advisers or transferring to the Research Division. In 1972 it became the Advisory Services Division (ASD) of what was, by this time, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF).

ASD also ran the Flock House (North Island) and Telford (South Island) training institutes for farm cadets, and diagnostic laboratories in Auckland, Levin and Christchurch.

Spreading the word

At its peak in 1986 the Advisory Services Division had an annual budget of $22 million. It employed 670 staff, half of them graduates in agricultural or horticultural science, in 56 locations across the country.

User-pays advice

Most services had been provided free to farmers and orchardists, but in 1985 the Labour government, as part of deregulation of the economy, directed that ASD become fully funded by user fees within five years.

The ASD was merged with the Agricultural Research Division in 1987 to become MAF Technology. In 1990 it was reformed as Agriculture New Zealand, a national consultancy service, which was sold in 1995 to PGG Wrightson.

Though now a private company, Agriculture New Zealand has been contracted by the government to provide technology transfer, farm monitoring, economic surveying and industry training.

Consulting services in the early 21st century

Advisory services are offered to farmers on a fee-paying basis by Agriculture New Zealand and a number of competing organisations. Consultants work alone or join together in partnerships and franchised organisations, such as AgFirst and Agricultural Consulting Services.

Their professional body, the New Zealand Institute of Primary Industry Management, has 700 members in consultancy, agribusiness, rural financing, research and education.

Advisory services are also provided by consultants from industry organisations, which collect levies from farmers. These include Meat & Wool New Zealand, DairyNZ, LIC FarmWise and Fonterra.

Trading banks and fertiliser companies also employ regional representatives trained in agriculture and horticulture to advise their clients, and MAF has regional offices that collect information and statistics for the government, and act as the eyes and ears of MAF in rural areas.

International reputation

New Zealand agriculture is known internationally for disseminating research and technology to farmers, using conferences, field days, local events, discussion groups, focus farms and monitor farms. There are several newspapers, magazines, and radio and television programmes that publicise the results of research work carried out by Crown research institutes AgResearch, HortResearch and Crop & Food Research, and at Massey and Lincoln universities.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Robert Peden, 'Agricultural education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 11 August 2022)

He kōrero nā Robert Peden, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008