Set up in 1892, the Department of Agriculture was initially intended to develop an export dairy industry, reduce weeds, and help prevent animal and plant diseases.
In the UK market, New Zealand dairy products faced competition from Canadian and Danish producers, who had more advanced technology, were better organised, and whose products were already of a high standard. When the Department of Agriculture was formed, its four dairy advisers decided that the state would encourage the production of butter and English cheddar using Canadian and Danish technologies, and based on the cooperative principle used in the US.
To control the industry, dairy industry acts passed between 1892 and 1908 led to the branding of all export cheese and butter, and a grading system that rewarded companies for producing higher-quality products. From 1898 the government also gave cheap credit to cooperatives to establish dairy factories. In cooperatives, farmers were shareholders, so they had a stake in making sure milk production was efficient and hygienic. Improved milk meant that New Zealand could make cheese and butter of a quality that could compete in the UK market.
The department’s Dairy Division organised lectures and published material to educate new farmers entering the industry. They tested herds to identify cows that produced high butterfat and could be used for breeding. The production of margarine in New Zealand was made illegal.
Most increases in farm production after 1920 were the result of applying technology to grassland farming. New technologies developed by the department included animal husbandry techniques, the adaptation of chemical fertilisers to local conditions, plant hybridisation, and better understanding of animal diseases.
The Department of Agriculture was charged with educating the burgeoning number of farmers about these new technologies. Initially it struggled with the task. The experimental farms set up in the North Island were inaccessible for many farmers. The department issued numerous pamphlets, and began publishing the Journal of Agriculture in 1910. To reinforce the benefit of fertiliser to grass growth, the Liberal government subsidised the rail transport of lime, while subsequent governments subsidised phosphate fertilisers.
In 1890 a group of Australasian stock inspectors requested that governments tighten up quarantine procedures and monitor disease. Over the next decade a growing team of veterinarians hired by the Department of Agriculture inspected stock on farms where disease had been reported, instigated compulsory quarantine of all imported animals, contained outbreaks of anthrax, and inspected meat under the Slaughtering and Inspection Act 1900. These inspections improved the quality of meat.
The deadly disease anthrax is caused by ingesting the anthrax bacillus, which can survive in the soil for 50 years. The disease broke out in several places in New Zealand from 1895, and the number of cases increased annually. J. A. Gilruth, chief veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture, suspected that the likely source was crushed bones imported for fertiliser from India, where anthrax was rife. A sterilisation unit was set up in 1904, and officers were sent to India and Australia to ensure that bones were sterilised.
In the early 1890s the disease phylloxera hit the infant grape-growing industry, while pests seriously harmed the development of a pip-fruit industry. The Liberal government passed the Orchard and Garden Pests Act 1896 to give inspectors powers to enter properties and order the destruction of diseased plant material.
When the Noxious Weeds Act was passed in 1900 it listed blackberry, Californian and Canadian thistle, and sweet briar as the weeds of most concern to farmers. Local councils could also declare other weeds noxious in their area. Landowners were required by law to control the weeds on their property.
By 1895/96 a quarter of the department’s budget was spent on rabbit control. Rabbit inspectors had the power to bring landowners who failed to clear their land of the pest before the local magistrate. They could also enforce poisoning on properties where rabbits had become too numerous. The Department of Agriculture introduced stoats, weasels and ferrets to kill rabbits, but the mustelids also attacked wildlife. From the 1920s the department helped set up Rabbit Boards, which organised and carried out rabbit destruction.