Kōrero: Arable farming

Whārangi 1. 19th-century arable farming

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What is arable farming?

Arable farming means growing crops in fields, which have usually been ploughed before planting. Arable crops are generally annual – they need to be replanted each year.

Land is cultivated (prepared by ploughing) in autumn or spring, and the crop is planted. It grows through the spring and summer, and is harvested in late summer or autumn. The land is then cultivated again for another crop or returned to pasture for one or more years.


Early missionaries were the first to grow wheat and oats in New Zealand. In the mid-19th century some North Island Māori communities grew wheat, which they sold to settlers, exported to Sydney, or used themselves.

New Zealand Company settlements, such as Wellington, Nelson and Whanganui, were intended to be based on arable production rather than animal farming. However, at that stage there was a limited export market for crops, but a huge market for animal products – initially for wool and later for meat and dairy production. Cropping remained important in some areas, particularly the Canterbury Plains and North Otago, where summer conditions were ideal for maturing grain crops.

Breaking in new land

Breaking in land for crops was a laborious job. In North Island bush country, forests were burned or felled, and logs and stumps removed before ploughing could start.

In the South Island grasslands, shrubs, stones and tussock needed to be cleared before ploughing. The vegetation was burnt. In many places the fibrous roots of the tall tussocks had to be dug out – a practice known as spading – before a plough could be used effectively.

Bullock language

Bullocks could be recalcitrant and bullockies were renowned for their colourful language. The bullocky who took Lady Whitmore to Rissington Station, in Hawke’s Bay, was ordered not to swear in front of her. At one point the bullocks came to a complete stop in a river. When all permitted measures failed to move them he appealed to Lady Whitmore: ‘Well, mum, it’s a case of stickin or swearin.’ Faced with the prospect of remaining stuck in the river, she replied, ‘Swear away, Jock.’ At a torrent of familiar words the bullocks got back to their work. 1

From bullock teams to horses

The earliest cultivation was done using a single-furrow wooden-framed plough drawn by a bullock team. This required two people – a ‘bullocky’ in charge of the draught animals and a ploughman handling the plough. It was a slow job. Iron ploughs, which were more robust, were introduced. In the 1860s, bullocks were replaced with horse teams, which could be controlled by just the ploughman.

The early rotation

Turnip seed was often sown after the land was first ploughed. Sheep grazed the crop and trampled the ground, helping to break up heavy clods. Next the land was cross-ploughed – a second ploughing at right-angles to the first. It was then cultivated with a harrow – which breaks up the soil into finer clods – and sown in wheat.

Usually, successive cereal crops were grown until the yields dropped to an uneconomic level, due to diminished fertility. Then the land was sown in pasture for animal grazing.

Horse and man power

John Grigg of Longbeach in Canterbury was one of the great cropping farmers during the wheat bonanza. At harvest time he needed 70 reaper-binders, 70 wagons, 1,000 horses and 1,000 workers.

The wheat bonanza – 1870s to 1890s

In 1867 a trial shipment of wheat and flour was sent from South Canterbury to England. The experiment proved that there was a market for New Zealand grain in Britain.

When wool prices declined in the 1870s, pastoralists on the plains and downlands of Canterbury and Otago turned to large-scale cropping as a source of income. Technological improvements in ploughs and harvesting machinery made this possible.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Geraldine Absolom, ‘Rissington.’ In Tales of pioneer women, edited by A. E. Woodhouse. Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1940, p. 67. › Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Sue Zydenbos, 'Arable farming - 19th-century arable farming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/arable-farming/page-1 (accessed 23 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Sue Zydenbos, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008