Among the first farmer and grower organisations to be established in New Zealand were Agricultural and Pastoral (A & P) associations, the earliest of which was set up at Waimate in the Bay of Islands in 1842. As settlement picked up pace, other A & P associations were formed: Canterbury in 1863, Hawke’s Bay in 1873, and Otago in 1876. In 1908, 64 North Island and 41 South Island associations were incorporated under the Agricultural and Pastoral Societies Act.
A & P associations were organised around an annual show, which was an occasion to share information, learn about practical farming techniques and trial new machinery. The associations also arranged lectures on farming topics and demonstrations. The Canterbury A & P Association published Country Journal, New Zealand’s first farming periodical. By organising social and educational events, these organisations played an important role in the community.
Gradually, A & P associations began to act as political pressure groups for farming issues. Their first national conference was in 1892, attended by farming leaders and politicians. The meeting urged the minister of lands, John McKenzie, to establish a government department to oversee agricultural affairs. Within months he set up the Department of Agriculture. National conferences became annual events.
At the end of the 1800s farmers began to form political groups, culminating in the setting up of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union. The first branch was constituted at Kaitāia on 1 September 1899, and the first national conference was in July 1902.
In 1905 the union promoted political candidates who would benefit farmers’ goals. It helped oust the Liberals in 1912 in favour of the Reform Party, headed by farmer William Massey. The Farmers’ Union eventually took over the political role of A & P associations, which subsequently became limited to organising annual shows.
The 1913 Wellington waterfront strike took place against a background of industrial unrest. Striking watersiders, after being locked out by their employers, took over the wharves. The Farmers’ Union organised groups of farmers, most of them on horseback, to converge on the ports. Prime Minister William Massey enrolled them as special constables to forcibly remove the strikers. This led to rioting, which was violently stopped by the police and ‘Massey’s cossacks’.
The Farmers’ Union motto was ‘principles – not party’, but inevitably it supported parties that shared its ideology. After backing Massey’s Reform Party, the union was rewarded with the 1912 and 1913 Land acts, which gave farmers on Crown leasehold land the option of purchasing it freehold. This had been a major issue for the union in the run-up to the 1912 election. The union also backed Massey during the 1913 Wellington waterfront strike, organising people to evict strikers who had occupied the wharves. By this time the Farmers’ Union was a national organisation. It published the Farmers’ Union Advocate from 1906 to 1924, and later Point Blank.
In spite of the political clout wielded by the Farmers’ Union, rural political representation was not unified. The New Zealand Sheepowners’ Federation and other smaller producer groups tended to compromise farmer solidarity. In 1944 the Farmers’ Union and the Sheepowners’ Federation registered the name Federated Farmers of New Zealand. Their first provincial meeting was in 1945, and the next year they became an incorporated society.
Federated Farmers represents farmers from 24 regions. It is made up of seven industry groups: meat and fibre, dairy, goats, high country, rural butchers, grain and seed, and beekeepers. The Wellington office is responsible for policy, advocacy, lobbying and advisory services, and a president acts as the federation’s public face and spokesperson. In 2017 West Coast dairy farmer Katie Milne was elected as the first female president.
In the early 2000s Federated Farmers fought a high-profile public campaign against a government proposal to impose a tax on farm animals to fund research into methane emissions from livestock. The federation called it a ‘fart tax’, and mounted such a strong campaign that the government scrapped the idea.
Federated Farmers lobbies the government on a variety of issues, including legislation affecting land, stock, taxation, local body legislation, employment regulations and environmental concerns.
In the early 2000s Federated Farmers opposed the government plan to microchip all dogs as part of a campaign to control dog attacks. They argued that microchipping farm dogs was costly, and the dogs were not in a position to attack the public. When the regulation came into effect on 1 July 2006, farm dogs were exempt.
Breed societies and industry organisations help members share information, promote New Zealand produce for export, and encourage increased diversity of produce. Sometimes they intervene in politics. For example, Pipfruit New Zealand, which represents apple and pear growers, has lobbied to get New Zealand apples allowed into the Australian market.
The diversification of farming after the economic reforms of the 1980s led to traditional national agricultural organisations being joined by emerging sectors in agriculture (llamas, alpacas, ostriches, emus) and horticulture (kiwifruit, wine, olives). The small number of participants in these new industries saw the development of voluntary organisations and associations.
The Commodity Levies Act was introduced in 1990 to formalise farmer and grower organisations. It legislated for compulsory levies in industries where the benefits of collectivism, particularly in relation to research, marketing and product development, could be undermined if some were ‘free-riding’ on the efforts of voluntary members.
Early on, every breed of sheep, cattle and horse had its own breed society. But since the 1970s many exotic breeds have been imported, and some in such small numbers that breed societies have not been formed. The Royal Agricultural Society has 31 registered beef and dairy cattle breed societies and 12 horse breed societies. There are around 19 sheep breed societies.
Breed societies have several functions. Primarily, they define what makes a particular breed. Body conformation, size, head shape, colour and markings are some of the traits that sets one breed apart from another. Breed societies organise judging at Agricultural and Pastoral shows, and set the standards by which animals are judged. They also arrange social events and field days, where members visit stud flocks and herds in different parts of the country.
The increase in dairy herd sizes led to the establishment of the New Zealand Large Herds Association in 1970. At that time, 300 head of cattle was considered a large herd – in 2008 it was 700 head. In 2008 the average herd size in New Zealand was 325 head.
The New Zealand Pig Breeders’ Association was established in 1915. The first herd book was produced in 1918, signalling the beginning of formal breeding and record-keeping. At its peak the association had some 600 members, but in 2008 the four branches had only 53 members. The Kunekune Breeders’ Association was formed in 1988 for breeders of this unique type of pig.
The New Zealand Deer Farmers’ Association was founded in 1975 – five years after the first licensed deer farm was established – and had 25 members. Other deer industry organisations are the Fallow Society, Swedish and Danish Deer Breed Society, Elk and Wapiti Society, Warnham and Woburn Society, Deer Industry Association, and the Velvet Processors' Association.
Goat farmers are represented by the New Zealand Dairy Goat Breeders’ Society (established in 1955), the New Zealand Boer Goat Breeders’ Association (1989) and the Anglo-Nubian Breed Society of New Zealand (2005). There are breed societies for llamas, alpacas and ostriches.
The New Zealand Fruitgrowers’ Federation, formed in 1916, was one of the earliest horticultural associations in New Zealand – many more followed. The Horticulture Export Authority Act 1987 created organisations to manage exports in addition to the associations for growers. For example, there is an Avocado Industry Council as well as the New Zealand Avocado Growers’ Association. In 2005 Horticulture New Zealand grouped together the Vegetable and Potato Growers’ (VegFed) and Fruitgrowers’ federations, making it responsible for most fruit- and vegetable-grower organisations in the country.
There are few organisations that represent Māori farmers and growers. The communal ownership and forced dispossession of much Māori land has had a profound impact on the way the land is managed and administered.
Little land was still in Māori ownership in 1953, when the Maori Affairs Act and Maori Trustee Act were passed. The Māori Trust Office (Te Tari i te Kaitiaki Māori) and the Māori Trustee were charged with administering Māori land that lay unproductive. Specific national Māori farmer and grower organisations did not develop. However, in some areas there are organisations at the tribal level.
Tāhuri Whenua (National Māori Vegetable Growers Collective) was established in 2004. It provides Māori growers with information on the horticulture industry, is involved in research and development, and finds funding for business development. The organisation is also involved in joint projects with Crown research institutes and New Zealand universities that aim to improve the performance of traditional Māori crops.
Te Waka Kai Ora (Māori Organics Authority) promotes the use of traditional Māori values and methods for organic food production. It certifies produce grown according to international organic standards and Māori tikanga (protocol).
Two important groups involved with the wellbeing of rural communities are the Country Women’s Institute and the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers.
The Women’s Institute movement began in Canada in 1896, before spreading to England and Scotland. It aimed to bring women together to help each other and share information.
The formation of the New Zealand Country Women’s Institute was largely the work of Bessie Spencer, who farmed fruit and honey in Napier. She was introduced to the Women’s Institute movement at a handcraft fair in London. She formed the Rissington Women’s Institute in 1921. In 1922 a second institute was founded at Norsewood.
Further institutes were established throughout the country, forming provincial federations as their numbers warranted. In 1929 these provincial organisations were regrouped under the New Zealand Consultative Council of Federation Committees, and in 1930 the first dominion conference was held in Wellington.
Māori women formed their own group, the Māori Women’s Institute, in 1929. They were associated with the Country Women’s Institute and focused on welfare and social concerns. Māori knowledge was disseminated in Home and Country magazine, which regularly published articles on traditional arts and crafts, and the medicinal properties of plants. By 1937 there were 40 Māori Women’s institutes.
In 1929 Una Macleod, secretary of the Women’s Division, caused a stir when she commented: ‘If there were legislation passed compelling every farmer to keep his wife as he has to keep his cattle, perhaps the maternal mortality wouldn’t be so heavy amongst country women.’ 1
The Women’s Division of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union was founded in 1925 by a group of farmers’ wives who came with their husbands to the Wellington Farmers’ Union conference. In 1946 they became the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, and in 1999 the name was changed to Rural Women. Their early goal was to address issues surrounding the welfare of women and children in rural New Zealand.
In 1929 the Women’s Division launched the bush nurse and emergency housekeeper scheme, which was funded by a ‘community chest’. Its success saw the organisation become a recognised society under the Domestic Service Regulations 1937, and was therefore covered by the Department of Health. With government help, the division was able to focus on supplying accommodation to farming families in need of rest. A number of homes around the country were gifted to the organisation for this purpose. The division also set up training centres for young women.
In 2008 the organisation still had a holiday home at Whangaparāoa, north of Auckland, and ran Honda House, a bed and breakfast in Wellington. Many of the health services formerly administered by the division were being supplied by a charitable subsidiary of Rural Women called Access Homehealth, which provided nursing and home care for rural clients.
The first Young Farmers’ clubs were established in the North Island (Feilding in 1927 and Auckland in 1932), but it was in the South Island that the movement flourished. In 1934, two years after the establishment of the Palmerston (Otago) Farmers’ Club, eight clubs in the Otago region formed New Zealand’s first Young Farmers’ Federation.
By 1935 there were 40 Young Farmers’ clubs within the federation, mainly in Otago (26), but also in Canterbury (7) and Southland (5). Two in Wairarapa were the only North Island clubs to be recognised by the federation. The adoption of a new constitution in July 1936, which included moving headquarters to an office in the Department of Agriculture at Wellington, made the organisation truly national. By April the following year, the federation’s 118 clubs were almost evenly distributed between the North Island (58) and the South Island (60). Although many of the clubs went into recess during the Second World War, leaving only 72, the movement quickly recovered in the years afterwards – going from 104 clubs in 1945 to 306 in 1948.
The Country Girls’ Club movement emerged after the Second World War, when the suggestion that girls be included in Young Farmers’ clubs was rejected in favour of forming a separate girls’ organisation. The Country Girls’ Club Federation was based on the Young Farmers’ Club Federation, who gave them financial support to get established, as did the Country Women’s Institute and the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers.
The winner of the Young Farmer of the Year competition receives a range of practical prizes, which in 2007 were valued at $78,785. They included vehicles, machinery, fertiliser, cash and clothing.
One activity of Young Farmers’ clubs was to organise the Young Farmer of the Year competition, first contested in 1969. Skellerup was the event’s principal sponsor until 2003, when it was replaced by the National Bank of New Zealand. The contest involves a series of tasks that test practical, business-management, problem-solving and social skills.
In 1972 the Young Farmers’ and Country Girls’ federations combined to become the Federation of Rural Youth. A year later, new rules were defined and the group was renamed the New Zealand Federation of Young Farmers Clubs. In October 2003 the federation was again renamed New Zealand Young Farmers, and became increasingly linked with the Young Farmer of the Year competition. In August 2005, Young Farmers administration was transferred to the competition’s head office in Ashburton. The next year, the Young Farmer of the Year competition board merged with the Young Farmers board.
Growing together: seventy-fifth jubilee. Wellington, New Zealand Fruitgrowers, 1991.
Portrait of change: a record of Country Women’s Institute in New Zealand. Wellington: New Zealand Country Women’s Institute, 1996.
Service simply given, 1925–1975: Women’s Division of Federated Farmers golden jubilee. Wellington: Women’s Division Federated Farmers, 1975.
Smith, Rosemary. ‘Rural Women.’ In Women together: a history of women’s organisations in New Zealand / Ngā rōpū wāhine o te motu, edited by Anne Else. Wellington: Historical Branch of Internal Affairs/Daphne Brasell, 1993, updated 2018.
Treadwell, Hugh. Show biz: the history of the Royal Agricultural Society of New Zealand, 1923–2003. Taupo: Hugh Treadwell, 2006.