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Agricultural processing industries

by Jane Tolerton

Much of New Zealand’s wealth has come from sheep and cows. Processing agricultural produce such as dairy products, wool, meat and grain has been a major part of New Zealand’s economy, and employed many people.

Dairy processing in the 19th century

Dairy factories were built from the late 19th century to process milk. Dairy products – butter, cheese and milk powder – would become New Zealand’s most valuable exports from the 1930s.

Early dairy processing

Before dairy factories, butter was made on the farm. It was used by the family or exchanged in the local general store for other goods. Until refrigeration was introduced, butter could not easily be sent out of the local area. People tried tinning it or packing it in kegs, adding a lot of salt – but the result was often a greasy mess.

First dairy-processing operation

In 1871 John Mathieson and neighbouring farmers at Springfield formed the Otago Peninsula Co-operative Cheese Factory Company. After a move to Highcliff in 1875, they had the first factory-style dairy processing operation in New Zealand, supplying Dunedin and exporting to Australia.

Edendale dairy factory

The first purpose-built dairy factory was erected on the New Zealand and Australia Land Company’s Edendale estate near Invercargill. Many early New Zealand dairy factories were built on the same lines as this, a two-storey wooden building with insulated walls. It was based on a factory company general manager William Davidson had seen in Canada.

Edendale produced its first cheese in January 1882, and the following year won a £500 bonus offered by the government for the first export of 50 tons of cheese from a commercial operation in New Zealand.

Refrigerated shipping

The advent of refrigerated shipping meant New Zealand could develop a dairy export industry. William Davidson was the promoter of the first refrigerated ship’s voyage to London in 1882. The cargo was mainly sheep meat, but he also sent a small amount of Edendale butter – although the factory did not produce butter commercially until about 10 years later.

Dairy factories multiply

By the end of 1882 New Zealand’s second dairy factory had opened at Flemington, near Ashburton, and its third, at Te Awamutu. Nine factories started in 1883, seven in the North Island. The first factory that made only butter began at Kārere, near Palmerston North, in 1884, but most dairy factories were soon converted to make both butter and cheese. In 1886 there were 36 dairy factories; 10 years later there were 170.

Dairy factory entrepreneurs

Most early dairy factories were started by entrepreneurs.

  • Chinese migrant and storeowner Chew Chong set up the Jubilee Dairy Factory at Eltham in 1887 and other factories in Taranaki.
  • Farmer Henry Reynolds set up a factory at Pukekura, near Cambridge, in 1886, and others in Waikato. He built a cool store in London and sold direct to shops there, also exporting to Australia and Asia.
  • Manager Wesley Spragg started the New Zealand Dairy Association by converting a cheese and bacon factory at Pukekohe into a butter factory.
  • Joseph Nathan, who had an import/export business in Wellington, became a major owner of Manawatū dairy factories and an exporter of butter and cheese.

Anchored to the butter brand


Henry Reynolds chose Anchor as his butter’s brand name – because he saw a tattoo of one on a sailor’s arm, some sources say. When his Waikato factories were bought by Wesley Spragg’s New Zealand Dairy Association, the Anchor brand went too. It continued to be used through more mergers – to become one of Fonterra’s brands in the early 2000s.


Farmers deliver their milk

Farmers delivered their milk to factories. Cheese factories used whole milk, but butter factories only wanted the cream, so they separated the milk and sent the skim milk home with the farmer to be fed to the pigs. Farmers were paid for the volume of milk they took to the factory. However, from the early 1890s, after Babcock testers replaced early lactometers to measure the quality of the milk, farmers were paid by the butterfat content of their milk.

Creameries and skimming stations

Creameries made butter. They were set up in the 1890s along with skimming stations, which took the cream off the milk. Skimming stations were simple buildings with scales, measuring and storage tanks, and mechanical separators powered by steam engines or water turbines.

How butter and cheese are made


Butter is made from cream, which is revolved in churns. When blobs of partly-made butter appear, the buttermilk is drained. The remaining butter is washed and salt is added. It is then churned into a mass, cut into blocks and wrapped.

Cheese is made from whole milk. It is poured into a vat and a ‘starter’, with milk-souring bacteria, is added to ripen the milk, which gradually separates into curds and whey. The whey is drained off. The curds are cooked (if making a hard cheese), cut, dried out and pressed to squeeze out moisture, and usually left to mature.


Having local creameries and skimming stations meant farmers did not have to take their milk so far, and factories could extend their collection area. The Taieri and Peninsula Milk Supply Company had about 40 skimming stations spanning about 200 kilometres around Dunedin.

Farmer cooperatives develop

In the 1890s farmers formed cooperative dairy companies. This was partly because developing technology cost more than individual proprietors could invest, but also because farmers, who supplied the milk, wanted a share in the profits of production. Farmers gained shares in cooperative companies for a nominal capital contribution. The farmers guaranteed milk supply and received earnings in proportion to the amount they supplied.

Government involvement

In 1889 the government appointed the first dairy instructor to help factories become more efficient. From 1894 dairy factories had to be registered and were inspected.

Dairy factories in the 20th and 21st centuries

Dairy products

In the 20th and 21st centuries New Zealand dairy factories have turned milk into four groups of products:

  • milk powders, including whole-milk, skim-milk and buttermilk powder
  • cream products, including butter, milk fat and ghee
  • cheese – mainly cheddar, but an increasing volume of specialist cheeses
  • protein products such as casein and caseinates.

More dairy factories and new products

At the beginning of the 20th century dairy factories produced only butter and cheese. Between 1901 and 1911 the number of dairy factories rose from 248 to 338, and the value of dairy exports tripled. While the number of butter factories fell from 1900 to 1920, cheese factories increased four-fold, with most growth in Taranaki. Joseph Nathan and Company started making canned dried milk in 1904 at Bunnythorpe, near Palmerston North, later adopting the brand name Glaxo. The company also pioneered casein production in Whanganui in 1911.

Home separators

From about 1900, when home separators became available, farmers separated out cream from skim milk on the farm. Taking only the cream meant farmers had to transport only about one-tenth the previous volume to the butter factory.

Cooperatives take over

Farmer cooperatives dominated dairy factory ownership in the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1900 farmer cooperatives owned about 30% of dairy factories; by 1917 they owned 80%.

The New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company

Hardware store owner William Goodfellow set up the Waikato Co-operative Dairy Company in 1909, after he was left with equipment a customer had ordered but could not pay for. The following year he turned his company into a cooperative. His butter and cheese operations merged with the New Zealand Dairy Association in 1919 to form the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company – the first to have an on-site laboratory and a farm instruction service to help farmers. By 1920 it was the largest cooperative.

Radio Dairy

William Goodfellow, managing director of the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company from 1919 to 1932, saw communication as the key to cooperative members producing more and better milk. He set up a radio station to keep in touch with the company’s isolated farmer suppliers. This developed into the Radio Broadcasting Company of New Zealand, which operated a national broadcasting system under contract to the government from 1925 to 1931.

Fewer factories, more production

The number of dairy factories fell through the 20th century – from 564 in 1918 to just 43 in 1990. However, because of economies of scale and improved transport systems, output increased. For example, from 1960 to 1990, the number of employees rose from 4,586 to 6,334, and output per worker increased from 0.27 to 1.86 tonnes.

Milk tankers lead to bigger factories

Dairy factories began to pick up milk from farms, and from the early 1950s milk tankers were used. By 1961, 58 of the 138 dairy companies had started using tankers, and by 1966, 764 tankers were in regular operation. Drivers recorded how much milk they had picked up from each farm by reading an indicator tube on the tanker.

Tankers collected whole milk, not just cream. This resulted in multi-plant dairy factories, where all the components of the milk were used to make a variety of products, including milk powders, protein products such as caseinates and whey products.

The cost of collecting milk fell as tankers got bigger. Computerisation meant companies could work out the best routes for collecting milk – changing week by week as production varied. Refrigerated storage facilities on farms from the mid-1950s meant milk did not have to be collected every day.

Farmers control dairy industry

Through their cooperatives, farmers controlled dairy production, processing and marketing. The New Zealand Dairy Board, which was jointly owned by the cooperatives, operated as their marketing arm. By law, dairy products could only be exported through the board.

Cooperatives merge

In 1983 there were 30 cooperatives. After the dairy industry was deregulated in 2001 there were only three – Fonterra Co-operative Group (formed by the merger of the two biggest dairy companies and the abolition of the Dairy Board), Westland Milk Products and Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company. In 2007 Fonterra processed about 95% of New Zealand’s milk. Its Whareroa plant, near Hāwera in Taranaki, is the largest single dairy processing site in the world.

Champion’s cheese confiscated

In 1986 Mercer cheesemaker Albert Alferink had his cheese confiscated by the South Auckland medical officer of health – accompanied by police – because the Dutch immigrant was using unpasteurised milk in his cheese. The judge threw the case out, saying he bought the cheese every week. After this, Alferink got a pasteuriser and heat-treated the milk to the required standard. In 2009 he won Champion Cheesemaker at the Cuisine New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards.

The Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand, formed in 2003, took over the dairy board’s role of representing the interests of dairy companies.

Independent and boutique cheesemakers

The early 2000s have seen the growth of small independent cheesemakers, including organic producers. In 2007 there were more than 30 boutique cheesemakers in New Zealand.

Wool processing in the 19th century

19th-century woollen mills

Wool processing was an obvious industry for New Zealand, with its huge flock of sheep and booming wool exports in the late 19th century. A letter in the Timaru Herald in 1870 asked ‘Why not use our own wool ... instead of sending it to England merely to be operated upon and returned to us enhanced in price?’1

New Zealand’s first woollen mills were built in 1871 in the South Island – at Mosgiel and Kaikorai in Otago. These were followed by mills in Kaiapoi (1879), Roslyn (1879), Ōamaru (1881) and Ashburton (1885). The North Island followed with mills in Onehunga, Napier, WhanganuiWanganui and Petone.

British machinery, managers and staff

Woollen mills usually bought British machinery – often in job lots, including everything from boilers to finishing machines – and recruited British staff.

Before setting up the Mosgiel Woollen Company, New Zealand’s first woollen mill, Arthur Burns went to Britain to buy machinery. The mill had coal-fired boilers, carding machines and spinning mules with 650 spindles, four blanket and tweed looms and machinery for finishing, washing and milling. Burns also hired a Scottish manager and mill hands.

Bonus spurs Burns’ mill


Arthur Burns was determined to win the £1,500 ‘bonus’ being offered by the Otago Provincial Council to the first company to produce 5,000 yards (4,572 metres) of woollen fabric. The first wool was put through the teasers at his Mosgiel Woollen Company on 20 September 1871 – and the first piece, which was tweed fabric, was finished on 23 October. ‘And Mr Burns, by way of setting a good example, had 2½ yards [2.3 metres] cut from it, out of which he had a pair of trousers made.’2 He won the bonus.


Wool products

New Zealand woollen mills produced blankets, fabrics such as tweeds, flannels, serges and worsteds (fine fabric used for men’s suits), and knitting yarn. Fabrics were mainly used in New Zealand rather than exported. When Bendix Hallenstein started the New Zealand Clothing Factory in Dunedin in 1873, he used material from the Roslyn and Mosgiel mills to make sturdy clothing for men.

Mill employees

Woollen mills were large employers. By 1881 New Zealand’s first four woollen mills had an average of 104 employees, and 10 years later its eight mills employed an average of 147 people. By 1900, 500 people were employed in the Roslyn mill. In 1968 woollen mills employed 4,500 people, but many had subsidiaries employing thousands of knitters and machinists.

Young women workers

Most woollen mill employees were young women, who were working between leaving school and getting married. They were paid much less than men. They were often employed on piece-work (‘by the piece’) rates, rather than by the hour, and some took work home at night. In the early 1880s some regularly worked 57 hours a week but could earn more than 20 shillings a week – about double what many women earned as domestic servants for just as long hours.



In 1875, during a debate on factory conditions, a Parliamentarian remarked that that ‘a woman who had learned to tend a loom should be as eligible to become a wife as if she had never been in a manufactory.’ 3 At that stage, many people saw mill work as unsuitable for women, but factory legislation helped make it more respectable as well as safer.


Factory regulation

The first factory legislation in New Zealand was aimed at protecting women workers in woollen mills. The Employment of Females Act 1873 gave them an eight-hour day from Monday to Friday, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. They also worked Saturday mornings. An amendment in 1874 said their work day could start at 8 a.m., and another in 1875 took away their half day off on Saturdays. An 1878 Royal Commission found the acts’ provisions were not enforced and that employers often sent work home for women to do at night, as outwork was not covered by the legislation.

The Factories Act 1894 replaced the women’s eight-hour day with a 48 hour week – which often meant nine hours on weekdays, plus Saturday mornings. In 1914 an amendment to the act limited women’s work to 45 hours a week, and by 1921 the 44-hour week was almost universal for women in factories.

Factory work was noisy and dangerous, especially in crowded and badly ventilated mills. Tinnitus and other hearing problems were common complaints. The factory acts of 1901 stopped women doing wet spinning unless they were protected from the steam, and prevented them working on mercurial or white-lead processes, which could be poisonous.

    • Quoted in Nigel Smith, Heritage of industry: discovering New Zealand’s industrial history. Auckland: Reed, 2001 p. 165. Back
    • Otago Witness, 25 October 1873, p. 1. Back
    • Parliamentary Debates, vol. 19, 1875, p. 117. Back

Woollen mills in the 20th and 21st centuries

Wars boost production

The South African War boosted woollen mill production. During the two world wars woollen mills worked at full capacity and could not get enough skilled workers. Shift work was introduced at some mills during the First World War, including at Lane Walker Rudkin’s Ashburton mill, where orders for khaki-coloured fabric for army uniforms kept the machines running 24 hours a day and stretched their capacity to the limit.

During the Second World War the Ashburton mill installed automatic looms and ran three shifts a day. It made more than 724 kilometres of fabric for army clothing – using 427 tonnes of wool – as well as army blankets (grey with a red stripe down the middle), yarn for jerseys, socks and Shetland-blend underclothes. However, profits were cut back by having to pay overtime rates; in one year this came to 80,000 hours among the 300 employees because, in spite of people being ‘manpowered’ into mills, staff was hard to get.

Woolly work

Bessie Turnbull (1885–1988) started at Mosgiel Woollen Mill in 1900, making socks in the hosiery department. She worked five and a half days a week, from 7.45 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and Saturday mornings. She had an hour for lunch but no tea breaks. At first she was paid by what she produced, not by the hour. ‘Fifty-seven years I worked in the factory. I liked my work and did my best,’ she said, aged 101. ‘I’m not saying I had an easy life … I’m not sorry to say I enjoyed it and I’ve had a lot of pleasure with my workmates.‘1

Import protection

From the late 1930s woollen mills were protected by import restrictions and high tariffs on textiles, which meant imported fabric was much more expensive than locally made. One downside of the licensing system was that it stopped diversification, because those who held an import licence for a particular item could oppose local mills wanting to make that product in New Zealand. Textile importers and other mills could oppose the importation of new machinery for a mill to make a new item.

Both the wool-processing industry and the clothing-manufacturing industry it supplied were very big. In 1939 Ross and Glendining – which employed nearly 2,500 people in its mills, clothing factories and warehouses – was the largest company in New Zealand. It was only one of about a dozen firms operating woollen mills.

Woollen mills merge

In 1960 there were 18 mills in New Zealand, operated by 16 companies. In 1968 they produced 10,000 tonnes of carpet, weaving, machine- and hand-knitting yarn, 3 million square metres of woven fabric, 223,000 pairs of blankets and 67,000 rugs. However, the new light-weight easy-care synthetic fabrics that had become available in the 1950s were providing competition for woven woollen fabrics.

Many woollen mills merged in the 1960s. The Timaru and Ōamaru mills formed Alliance Textiles, which then took over the Bruce Woollen Manufacturing Company. The Kaiapoi and Petone mills merged, UEB took over Ross and Glendining and the Napier Woollen Mills, and the Roslyn and Mosgiel mills merged.

Despite these mergers, in 1969 a committee set up by the Department of Industries and Commerce concluded that there were still too many mills making small amounts (‘short runs’) of the same items – mainly blankets, and serge and flannel fabrics.

New mills open, old mills close

New small textile factories started up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, making knitwear from imported synthetic yarns. The Industries Development Commission’s Textile Industries Plan, implemented from 1980, let more imported yarn into New Zealand.

In 1980 the Mosgiel Woollen Mill was put into receivership after almost 110 years of operation. By 1982 there were only eight mills, controlled by five companies. When import licensing for textiles ended in 1992, mills faced more competition from imported textiles on which the high tariffs were being gradually lowered. By 2000 all of the major mills had closed.

Old looms, new fibre

Stansborough Fibres uses six 19th-century wool looms – believed to be the only ones of their kind still being used commercially in the world – to make fabrics used in films including The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Looking for ways to diversify from meat and wool production, Wairarapa sheep farmers Cheryl and Barry Eldridge began breeding Swedish Gotland Pelt sheep, and bred their own Stansford Greys to produce a wool fibre that is soft and shiny.

21st-century processing

In the early 2000s textile producers continued to make carpet yarn and spin fine Merino wool for clothing fabric. In 2009 New Zealand’s largest mills were South Canterbury Textiles in Timaru, which mainly wove wool; Inter-weave in Auckland, which produced furnishing fabrics; and Masterweave in Masterton, which concentrated on alpaca and mohair rugs.

Firms that spun yarn included WoolYarns of Lower Hutt, which used possum fur, angora and silk as well as wool; Design Spun in Napier, which developed fine worsted spinning; and Quality Yarns, housed in the old mill buildings in Milton. The largest textile firms knitting fine Merino and other fabrics were Levana Textiles of Levin and Designer Textiles in Auckland.

    • Charlotte Macdonald, Merimeri Penfold and Bridget Williams, eds., The Book of New Zealand women – Ko kui mā te kaupapa. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1991, pp. 699–700. Back

Grain processing

Importance of grain milling in colonial New Zealand

Flour milling was the most widespread industry in early colonial New Zealand and remained one of the largest industries through the 19th century. Flour milling turned wheat into flour, which was mainly used for making bread.

Wheat was grown in many parts of the country in the mid-19th century, but by the 1870s it was concentrated in the areas most suited to it – South Canterbury, North Otago and eastern Southland, where milling was an important industry.

Hand-operated mills

The first mills in New Zealand were small hand-operated machines that turned wheat into flour. Wheat was an unknown foodstuff to Māori until northern chief Ruatara, who had sowed and harvested the first crop of wheat in New Zealand in 1813, obtained a hand-operated flour mill in 1814 from Samuel Marsden’s exploratory party. He is said to have ground some wheat and made a cake – in a frying pan.

Historic mill survives

New Zealand’s only surviving water-powered flour mill, Clarks Mill, also known as the Maheno Valley Roller Mills, is owned by Heritage New Zealand (formerly the New Zealand Historic Places Trust). The mill, near Ōamaru, and its specially constructed millrace from which it could draw water from the Kakanui River to power it, was built around 1865. At first it ground wheat and oats using grindstones powered by a water wheel. In the 1880s was converted to roller machinery powered by water turbines.

First flour mills

The first flour mill in New Zealand was built at the Church Missionary Society’s farm at Waimate North, beginning operation in 1834. It was made of timber, and powered by a water wheel set in a small stream.

Auckland’s first flour mills were built in 1844. The first, Mason’s Mill, was a windmill designed by William Mason, New Zealand’s first architect. It was built out of scoria rock at Epsom. The second was a water-powered mill at Mechanics Bay. By 1845 there were also three mills in Wellington, one in Nelson and one in Akaroa.

Māori mills

From the mid-1840s tribal groups in Waikato, Wellington, Taranaki and Whanganui invested in water-powered mills, usually to process the wheat they grew. Between 1846 and 1860, 37 flour mills were built for Māori owners in the Auckland province alone.

Whanganui River mills

The first mill on the Whanganui River was built on the Awarua Stream at Pūtiki in 1845. It was built by Tom Higgie under the direction of missionary Reverend Richard Taylor, who acted as a go-between for Māori and millwrights.

The most famous mill on the river was built at Matahiwi in 1854. Mill stones from Australia and cast-iron machinery and brass bearings from Britain were carried up the river by canoe. It was named Kawana Kerei in honour of Governor George Grey, who had donated the millstones as a personal gift to the Ngā Poutama people. Grey gave loans to Māori in other areas to build mills.

Dressing stones

Before use, mill stones had to be ‘dressed’. This meant using a little pick to make sure the grooves in the stone stayed clean – or the bran would not flake off cleanly and darker flour would emerge. Richard Davis, who ran the Waimate North mission station garden, wrote in 1836: ‘Took up the Mill Stones and began to dress them. It is my first attempt at anything of the kind’. Davis was relieved when two years later he had ‘succeeded in procuring a useful mechanical man as Miller and Millwright’.1

How mills worked

Milling involves crushing the grain to separate the tough outer husk from the flour. This was done by mill stones powered by wind, water or steam. The most common form of mill in colonial New Zealand was the water mill, followed by windmills, and then steam-powered mills.

Mill stones were made up of interlocking pieces of quartzite or other very durable stone, secured by iron bands. The one at the bottom, the bedstone, sat fixed, while the top stone, the runner, rotated on it from a central shaft. The stones had a series of furrows, which left sharp edges that ground the grain. Centrifugal force sent the freshly-ground flour out to the edges through grooves cut in the stone.

Mills were tall buildings, often three storeys high. Grain was lifted to the top floor and dropped down on to the eye of the mill stone. When the flour emerged at the edges of the mill stone, it fell down a chute to a sack beneath.

    • Quoted in Geoffrey G. Thornton, New Zealand’s industrial heritage. Wellington: Reed, 1982, p. 26. Back

Grain processing from the 1880s

New Zealand’s first roller mill

Milling changed from the 1880s when millstones were replaced by rollers. The first mill in New Zealand to use rollers was the Timaru Milling Company’s six-storey mill, built in 1882. It was still operating in 2009.

First automated mill

The first fully automated mill was Josiah Clifton Firth’s Eight Hours Roller Flour Mill on Auckland’s Quay St, which opened in 1888. Firth had been to the United States to buy the latest machinery. His five-storey brick mill had steel rollers and 40 elevators 24.3 metres high. It was powered by a 250-horsepower (186-kilowatt) Corliss engine, and could produce around 60 tonnes of flour a day. It was named the ‘Eight Hours’ mill because workers did an eight-hour day – in three shifts – rather than the usual two 12-hour shifts worked in mills.

How roller mills operate

In the newly mechanised mills of the late 19th century, wheat was cleaned of imperfect grains, chaff and dust, then passed through steel break rollers, after which bran was collected. The milled grain then went through sieves, purifiers and reduction rollers, after which wheatgerm was collected. The fine flour emerged after a journey through more reduction rollers.

The by-products, bran and pollard (a fine bran-and-flour mixture), were used as stock feed. The Northern Roller Milling Company started specifically making stock feed from the by-products in 1944 – and installed machinery to make stock feed pellets in 1954.

Converted mills

Many mills were converted to the new roller technology in the early 1890s. This often meant increasing the height of the buildings. When the Crown Roller Mill in Dunedin started in 1867 it was three storeys high and had steam-power driven millstones. Two floors and steel roller machines were added in a 1890 conversion.

These tall buildings often dominated downtown areas. The huge four-storey Northern Roller Milling Company building in Auckland’s Fort Street was a major architectural feature of the central city from 1875. When it ceased operation in 2000, the building was converted into office space.

Creamoata’s Sergeant Dan


In Gore the millers Fleming and Company produced rolled oats, mainly used to make porridge, under the brand name Creamoata – ‘Cream O’ The Oat, The National Breakfast’. Their advertisements featured Sergeant Dan, a boy scout, eating his porridge.


Canterbury, Otago and Southland

Milling was a particularly prominent industry in Canterbury and Otago, where wheat was grown. Ōamaru had huge grain stores – such as the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Company’s three-storey, 100,000-sack-capacity warehouse built in 1882, and the New Zealand Elevator Company’s (later J & T Meek’s) grain elevator. But these buildings stopped being used as grain stores when wheat growing declined from about the beginning of the First World War. By 1924 wheat for flour was being imported from Australia.

Industry regulation

From 1965 to 1987 the New Zealand Wheat Board controlled the wheat-milling industry. After deregulation came into effect in 1987 there were a number of mergers and closures in the industry as import restrictions were liberalised and mills could buy grain direct from growers.

Milling in the 2000s

Most of the grain produced in New Zealand in the early 2000s is used by Goodman Fielder’s Champion Flour Mills, Weston Milling and Milligan’s Food Group, which operate flour mills and stock feed mills. However, most of the wheat milled for flour is imported from Australia. In the early 2000s more than half of New Zealand’s grain crop was being turned into animal feed by the Northern Roller Milling Company, which started producing stock feed in 1944 – and stopped producing flour in 1992.

Freezing works, 1880s to the 1970s

Refrigerated shipping sparks new industry

The first shipment of frozen meat left Port Chalmers on the Dunedin, bound for Britain in February 1882. It sparked a major industry after its cargo of frozen mutton and lamb sold in London, within a fortnight of arrival, for more than twice the price it would have got in New Zealand. Exports of frozen meat grew rapidly – they tripled from 4,300 tons in 1883 to more than 12,000 tons in 1884.

For the next century most of New Zealand’s meat would be shipped as frozen carcasses to Britain. This was particularly the case during the two world wars, when deals were made to send all available meat there. However, by the 1950s most of New Zealand’s beef went to the United States.

Freezing works

The freezing for the first frozen meat shipment had been done on board ship, the Dunedin having been fitted with a Bell-Coleman freezing plant. When freezing works were built, the animals were killed and the carcasses gutted and frozen there.

Freezing works were New Zealand’s first large-scale industrial plants. They were often built near wharves – but where they were not, insulated railway carriages were developed to transport the frozen carcasses.

Freezing works employed many workers, both skilled and unskilled, and paid them comparatively high wages. In 1927 Gisborne Sheepfarmers Frozen Meat and Mercantile Company, with its large Kaiti works on the Gisborne waterfront, boasted that it was the largest employer of labour and largest distributor of wealth in Poverty Bay.

Nelson Brothers’ empire


William Nelson set up his Tōmoana operation in 1880 as a boiling-down works, producing tallow and canned meat. But he knew refrigeration was coming and made sure he could convert his operation once the freezing process was refined. Tōmoana quickly became a huge works and Nelson Brothers was the biggest company in the freezing industry’s first decade. They opened other works in Waipukurau, Gisborne, Woodville and Spring Creek. In 1920 the company was sold to British firm Vestey Group.


First freezing works

The first freezing works were built at Burnside, Dunedin, in 1882, shortly after the first frozen meat export. In 1883 the Gear Meat Preserving and Freezing Company began freezing operations in Wellington; the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company opened a works at Belfast; and William Nelson started freezing operations at Tōmoana in Hawke’s Bay. By 1892 there were 21 freezing works, 12 in the North Island and nine in the South.

Early works ownership

Some early freezing works were started by butchers, such as James Gear in Wellington and Richard Hellaby in Auckland. About a dozen of the freezing companies set up in the first two years of the industry were provincially based, as combinations of businesspeople, often including farmers, merchants, shippers, politicians and lawyers, pooled their resources to set up freezing works. They saw freezing works as a way of bringing wealth to their area as well as themselves. Farmers formed cooperatives to start freezing works – which meant they had control over the access to killing space for stock when they needed it.

Students and writers in the works


As the busiest part of the freezing works’ killing season coincided with university holidays, students could take jobs there, and the high wages could fund them through the academic year. Writers, including James K. Baxter and Ronald Hugh Morrieson, also took jobs in the works to be able to devote non-earning winters to writing.


The killing season

Freezing works operated on a highly seasonal basis – the the ‘killing season’ started around August and reached a peak in January. Their weekly schedule told farmers the prices they would pay for stock in the weights and grades required. Drovers ‘drove’ – and later trucks transported – animals to the works’ holding paddocks.

Solo slaughtermen and the chain

Before the 1930s solo slaughtermen, who were highly skilled butchers, killed the animals, pulled their pelts off by hand, and gutted the carcasses. They were paid for each animal killed, with tongues used to count the tally. Labourers moved carcasses around and cleaned up the mess.

From about 1930 ‘the chain’ was introduced – which moves carcasses along as workers carried out a specific operation on them.

Slaughtermen strike


Wellington slaughtermen struck in 1907 – the first strike over an award under the arbitration system. They wanted 25 shillings for killing 100 sheep, 5 more than the 20 shillings they’d been awarded in 1901. They settled after a week for 23 shillings, which was soon adopted nationally. The Department of Labour prosecuted 200 men, as striking was illegal under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. But many did not pay their fines – and as freezing workers often did not have a permanent address, they could not be tracked.



Freezing workers formed large, strong unions, which were prepared to strike for better wages and conditions in a dirty, dangerous industry. Freezing workers accounted for half the total working days lost to strikes in the 1960s. However, there was no national union of freezing workers until 1971, after 50 years of attempts to form one group. There were 732 strikes in 1976–77 – which meant, on average, each worker walked off the job at least seven times in those two years.

Meat inspectors

Meat inspectors were employed by the government from 1889 to inspect carcasses and offal for quality, disease and contamination. They wore white, while freezing workers wore black. ‘We stood out like a neon sign. We were the policemen in the set-up; the companies tolerated us’, said Gary Leslie, who started as a meat inspector in 1963.1

Pilfering or a perk?


Taking a bit of offal home or having a free feed at lunch time was considered a perk rather than pilfering. Tokomaru Bay solo slaughterman Lance Roberts recalled that, ‘Although we weren’t meant to cook offal, tongues, puku or lamb’s heads it all used to happen. They’d put a whole lot in a bucket, go to some quiet spot where there’s a steamo [steam coming from the boilers], poke the hose in and turn the tap on just a wee bit. Hot steam would go through your meat and the muttoncloth, and by lunchtime it was all cooked.’2



New Zealand meat processing plants produce by-products including tallow (the fat in beef used to make soap but also, in the 2000s, bio-diesel), sheep skins, slipe wool (removed from sheepskins), oils, blood-and-bone fertiliser and glue.

British buy works

By the 1930s British companies with retail butcher’s shops – including Thomas Borthwick and Sons, Vesteys and the Co-operative Wholesale Society – had bought many of New Zealand’s freezing works. By the 1970s the only true farmer cooperative left was the Auckland Farmers Freezing Company (AFFCO), which owned three works.

    • Quoted in Sheridan Gundry, Making a killing: a history of the Gisborne–East Coast freezing works industry. Gisborne: Tairawhiti Museum, 2004, p. 151. Back
    • Quoted in Making a Killing, p. 76. Back

Meat processing from 1970s

Major changes from the 1970s

Meat processing changed dramatically after the 1970s, when most New Zealand meat was still exported as frozen carcasses. At that time Britain was the largest market for sheep meat, with the United States the largest for beef.

Factors forcing change in the next two decades included:

  • Britain’s entry to the European Economic Community, which brought an end to practically free access to the British market; and changes in market access to the United States, which meant New Zealand meat processors had to find new markets
  • new hygiene standards set by Europe and the United States – which meant works had to be upgraded to comply
  • new processing and packaging technology – so meat no longer had to be frozen, but could be shipped chilled
  • the deregulation of the New Zealand meat-processing industry in 1980 – which made it easier to start new plants with new technology.

Old freezing works close

As a result of these changes many older works closed from the mid-1980s – nine large multi-chain plants closed between 1987 and 1991. Closures were because the old works could not easily be upgraded to meet new hygiene standards, and because overcapacity in the industry meant too many works were competing for too few animals. In 1994 the Tōmoana, Feilding, Aotearoa, Whangārei and Kaiti works closed because their owning company, Weddel, collapsed under debt.

Tōmoana suddenly stops


One Friday evening in 1994 Dot Waitoa was setting up for work on the night shift at Tōmoana freezing works, in Hawke’s Bay, when ‘All of a sudden there were security guards everywhere. Our supervisor said, “put your knives down, this place is being closed.” Then he started crying and said, “I’m sorry. Please go to your lockers, take any personal gear, do not take any company gear. That’s all I know, all I’ve been told to tell you.” I went home and saw the announcement of Tōmoana’s closure on the television news.’1


Closure impacts communities

When freezing works closed down, large numbers of people, often many members of the same extended family, were suddenly out of work. The whole community was affected as spending power dropped sharply.

Pātea was the most famous case. When its Vestey-owned freezing works closed in 1982, the Taranaki town lost 700 of its 1,000 jobs. Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club expanded their hit song ‘Poi e’ into a musical about the effects of the works’ closure on the town, winning music awards and doing a British tour.

New products in new packages

In its search for new markets, the meat industry had to present meat the way customers wanted it – as cuts of meat ready for sale to retail customers.

By the 2000s new meat-processing plants packaged cuts of meat, either froze or chilled them, and usually packaged them into the product that would be bought by the consumer in a retail outlet in one of the more than 100 countries to which New Zealand exports meat.

Among New Zealand’s new export markets are those requiring sheep to be killed according to Islamic law, with a single slice to the throat and with their necks and stomachs facing towards Mecca. Many works incorporated Halal butchering so they could sell to Islamic countries.

Increased mechanisation and fewer strikes

Increased mechanisation and changes in operation sped up the meat works process. In 2009 Alliance’s Lorneville works in Invercargill had four chains that processed eight sheep per minute. In some works robotic technology operated the big saws that make the first cuts to carve up a carcass – the ‘robots’ providing a safer, as well as more efficient, method of ‘disassembling’ the carcass.

Works were often double-shifted – two 12-hour shifts a day at the peak of the season, often with staff on a ‘four days on, four days off’ work schedule. Changes in employment legislation allowed for such arrangements, and brought a sharp decline in strikes. Striking meat workers lost $36 million in lost wages in 1990, the year before the Employment Contracts Act, and only $1 million the following season.

Women can be butchers


When the Ocean Beach Freezing Company refused to let three female employees become mutton butchers, the women laid a complaint with the Human Rights Commission – and won. The commission’s 1979 ruling said the management had unfairly discriminated against them. The company refused to back down before the commission instituted legal proceedings. The case was taken before the Equal Opportunities Tribunal – which ruled in 1980 that the women had to be considered purely on their ability to do the job.


Women in the works

Some women were employed as ‘bag room girls’, shearing and packing fleeces in some works in the late 19th century. During the Second World War women were employed in the canning departments of some works.

But the employment of women in meat works really began in the 1970s, first at Ocean Beach and Longburn. At first women were restricted to a few jobs in departments such as casings, lamb cuts and offal. In 1978 two women at the Feilding meat works became the first female mutton butchers in New Zealand.

By the early 1980s women made up about 5% of workers in export works. There were more women in newer works, where they had been employed from the start of operations. For example at Takapua and Oringi women made up 30% and 21% of the work force respectively in 1984.

Farmer cooperatives own meat works

By the end of the 20th century, meat works were again mainly owned by New Zealand farmer cooperatives, as they had been a century before. In 2009 the largest of the farmer cooperatives, Silver Fern Farms, operated 21 processing plants and employed 7,000 people at the peak of the killing season.

Meat money


Meat processing works are important features of a local economy. For example, because Alliance’s Smithfield works injected more than $20 million into the economy in 2004, the Timaru District Council cut the waste and water charges it would have paid by $300,000.


21st century meat works

In 2009 there were about 80 meat-processing plants in New Zealand, employing about 26,500 people and exporting to about 150 countries. These ranged from small single-plant operations to some of New Zealand’s largest companies – such as Silver Fern Farms, Alliance Group, ANZCO Foods and AFFCO. Most produced a combination of frozen and chilled products, packaged ready for supermarkets or other customers.

    • Dot Waitoa, personal communication, 2009. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jane Tolerton, 'Agricultural processing industries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jane Tolerton, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010