Kōrero: Rural workers

Whārangi 5. Changes in the rural sector

Ngā whakaahua

Wool, wheat and refrigeration

In the 1870s wheat-growing was expanding, especially on the Canterbury Plains, creating demand for threshing gangs at harvest time. By the 1890s the dominance of wool had begun to wane as refrigerated shipping made meat, butter and cheese into exportable commodities.

The groceries are coming

Irishman Creek Station had a good view across the Mackenzie plains towards the road from Burkes Pass. In the 1920s a whole year’s stores was brought in by traction engine (which had replaced bullock teams). Coal, flour, sugar, oatmeal and chests of tea were piled up on wagons. From the station, staff could see the engine’s steam up to two weeks before it arrived.

Technology and mechanisation

In the early 1900s, mechanisation gradually reduced farm labour needs. Shearing machines replaced hand shears. Header harvesters, firstly horse-drawn, were introduced in the late 1920s, and by the mid-1930s had replaced steam threshing mills. At the same time, tractors with rubber tyres were replacing horses.

Mechanisation increased the viability of smaller farms, run by a farmer with his wife and children. Numbers of itinerant workers dwindled – although there was still work for contractors such as shearers, harvesters and fencers. By the 1920s, most New Zealanders lived in urban areas, and less than 30% of the male workforce was engaged in agriculture.

Demise of the casual labourer

Artist Trevor Moffitt’s father Bert was a casual rural labourer in the small town of Waikaia, Southland. But by the mid-1940s, within a decade of Trevor’s birth, the writing was on the wall for such roles. ‘The moment concrete posts came in, header harvesters came in, machine shearing came in, [my father] couldn’t change or adapt or somehow be part of that. So what had been there for years and years on a seasonal basis just disappeared in a year or two.’ 1

Second World War

In the Second World War there was an acute labour shortage because of men away fighting. Many farms were without farmers. Young women, known as land girls, stepped in to manage properties – but this was just a brief interlude until the men returned. The government was keen to provide farms for returned servicemen, and steep hill country in the North Island was developed in the 1940s and 1950s. Contracted scrub cutters attempted to convert mānuka-covered hills into pasture. From the 1950s the use of superphosphate fertiliser on paddocks greatly increased grass growth and stocking capacity.

Specialist workers

Specialist rural workers emerged after the war, as more science was applied to farming. Government-employed farm demonstration workers taught farmers new practices and technologies. In the era when milk was separated on the farm, up till the mid-1950s, herd testers visited dairy farms to assess milk quality. Often women, they arrived just after lunch, had a cup of tea, then tested the evening’s milk. In the morning they did another test before moving on to the next farm.

Selective breeding, which became more common in the 1950s and 1960s, greatly increased productivity and contributed to the intensification of farming. Artificial insemination technicians still exist in the early 2000s. More recently, TB testers visit farms testing deer and cattle for bovine tuberculosis.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Chris Ronayne, Trevor Moffitt: a biography. Auckland: David Ling, 2006, p. 21. › Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Carl Walrond, 'Rural workers - Changes in the rural sector', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/rural-workers/page-5 (accessed 18 October 2019)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 24 Nov 2008