In the late 19th century Nelson’s inland areas were regarded as ‘a back of beyond’.1 Agriculture was difficult to establish due to isolation, rugged landscapes and highly variable soils (with some very fertile pockets). The Riwaka and lower Motueka river floodplains were fertile, but the Moutere Basin hills and upper Motueka valley were not. Swamps had to be drained and bush cleared before farms could be established.
Land was originally divided into 50-acre (20-hectare) ‘suburban sections’, which were closer to the town, and 150-acre (60-hectare) ‘rural sections’. The smaller sections were intended to produce goods for the farmers and the local market, and the larger sections crops for export. The lack of open grazing land meant that the Nelson region never had the large landholdings common in much of New Zealand in the late 19th century.
Sheep were imported in the 1840s and wool slowly became an export product. Farming developed in the 1850s, with produce shipped to other New Zealand cities and to gold-rush Victoria, Australia. Towns grew near the more fertile farmland at Richmond, Hope and Motueka. By the 1870s farmers intensively cultivating their smallholdings supported small but vibrant rural communities. They sold grain, potatoes, fruit and vegetables, bacon, butter, cheese, poultry, eggs and other produce direct to town storekeepers. This was near the coast – inland it was a much harder life, breaking in bush country on poor soils. Out in the backblocks farmers helped each other out, creating small communities based on reciprocal work.
Sheep and beef
Pastoral production in the Nelson region was originally based on sheep and beef farming, with less land used for dairying. Wool and lamb prices were low and Nelson farmers struggled to get their stock to market. For decades drovers took sheep overland to the West Coast, Christchurch or Picton. A freezing works finally opened in Stoke in 1909.
In 2000 a new $9 million plant was built on a site beside the original works, putting an end to its ‘rotten egg’ stench. The plant was one of Nelson's largest employers, with 220 staff. It processed around 700,000 lambs a year, and contributed around $60 million to the region’s economy in 2009, its centennial year.
Out of the ashes
Farmers were loath to take up land covered in flax and scrub, believing that the heavier the bush, the better the soil. They cleared the trees themselves or employed bushwhackers. Much of the land had poor soils and ‘match farming’ was practised – the bush was burnt, and grass seed was sown in the ashes.
Small butter-making factories opened in rural areas from the 1880s and a dairy factory was built near Tākaka in 1894. In the 1940s the number of dairy farms dropped but their average size increased. The Nelson Town Milk Supply Company was set up in 1945, supplying the region with milk. Golden Bay, with its higher rainfall, has long been a dairy-farming stronghold, and since the 1990s many farms in valleys in the Buller River catchment have converted to dairying. In the 2010s milk powder was produced at Tākaka and Brightwater for export – the region’s drinking milk came from Canterbury. In 2008 the Tākaka plant employed nearly 50 staff, pumping $3 million in wages into the Golden Bay economy. Brightwater’s plant had 30 staff and paid more than $1.5 million in wages.