Since 1975 there has been little change in the proportion of New Zealanders living in rural areas – it has stabilised at about 14%.
During this period, farm industries suffered tough economic conditions as prices fell, and Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community reduced a traditional market. From 1984 the extensive subsidies that government had given agriculture were removed, and many farm communities lost incomes and confidence.
At the same time there was a discovery of urban culture in New Zealand. Museums, art galleries, cafés, restaurants and night life boomed. People began to move from the suburbs into inner-city apartments.
In the early 2000s the new heroes were no longer farm types like Colin Meads, but film-makers such as Peter Jackson, with sophisticated technical skills. Even All Black heroes like Dan Carter were now promoting slick urban fashions.
Laughing at the country
As urban New Zealanders became more confident about their own culture they began to laugh affectionately at the old rural myths. In the 1970s comedian John Clarke presented Fred Dagg, a caricatured farmer who always wore a black singlet and gumboots. Murray Ball’s cartoon strip Footrot Flats, about Wal, another black-singleted farmer, and his dog, was very popular. New Zealanders now tended to chuckle at farming types, rather than aspiring to follow them.
In the face of the new economic and cultural realities, country people began to focus on urban tastes. There was a growth of homestays and farm walks, with the country being seen as an exotic location for city people to relax in. As new products such as wines and olives appeared, city people were attracted into the country for wine-tasting and good organic food. Some urban people even moved to the country, drawn by lifestyle farms, which aim to combine hobby farming with plenty of exercise and beautiful views.
Country towns began to promote themselves with events like fairs or food festivals. They also put up large icons to brand themselves, appealing to city people used to advertising symbols.
Such developments transformed the rural ideal from that of the family farm into a playground for city folks. Although the farm economy was being transformed by technology, science and business acumen, a re-positioning of the farming ideal in such terms was still in the future.