Kōrero: Rural workers

Whārangi 6. The family farmer

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Breaking up the estates

In the 1890s the government wanted to free up more land for settlers and small farmers. Between 1892 and 1912, the Crown bought 223 estates, totalling over 500,000 hectares, and broke them into smaller farms on which they settled 7,000 families. This occurred mostly on the lowland estates – hill-country runs remained large. Most of the broken-up estates were in the South Island. In the North Island, government purchases and land confiscations from Māori were subdivided and sold off as small farms. Much of this land was covered in forest and had to be cleared.


Until the 1900s, small landholders eked out a living – farmers may have had a cow for milk and some chickens and pigs, but a small wool clip made them little money. Many had to work off the farm as contractors, so they could afford to get by and to develop their farms. In Northland some small-scale farmers dug kauri gum.

From the 1890s there were increasing numbers of smaller farms. Refrigeration had created an export market for meat and dairy products as well as wool. As the small family farm became capable of supporting itself, the workload fell on the family. Family labour was augmented by contracting out large jobs such as shearing or threshing and harvesting. Farmers also pooled their labour – for example, helping each other in turn as they mustered sheep before shearing. From the 1900s, the settled contractor increasingly replaced the casual itinerant worker. Small businesses such as fencing contractors servicing rural areas developed in small towns – largely enabled by better roads and the growing use of motor vehicles.


Much of New Zealand, especially the North Island, had to be cleared before it could be farmed. Often bush was simply felled. Once dry it was burned, and grass seed sown in the ashes.

The job of chopping trees fell to the bushwhacker. Newspapers advertised felling contracts, often in hill country. Typically all trees greater than half a metre in diameter had to be dropped. In 1897 this brought a contracted gang just over $31 (in 2008 terms) per hectare. Men typically worked in teams of four or five and carried in all supplies. Huts built from ponga (tree-fern) logs were thatched with nīkau-palm or tree-fern fronds. Bushwhackers worked from dawn to dusk, wet or fine, six days a week, earning just enough to make a living. Sunday was spent gathering firewood, getting the camp in order and hunting pigs for meat.

Dairy demands

Children on dairy farms had to help out. One author wrote, ‘The task of milking as many as five to ten cows each morning and then facing a walk of up to 8–10 kilometres to the nearest sole-charge school resulted in large numbers of country children from small dairy farms being too tired to learn at school, probably attending only for a chance to escape the daily drudgery of looking after dairy cows.’ 1


For decades the sharemilking system has been a central part of the dairy industry. Dairying is demanding work, with the herd usually milked twice daily when cows are in milk. Many farmers contract out their land and their herd to sharemilkers, who get a share of the milk produced. By sharemilking, these young men or couples gain experience and can save for their own land.

Wives and children

The family farmer was assisted by his wife, who also looked after the farmhouse and children. A 1939 survey of dairy farms found that in a one-week period 38% of wives worked on the farm as well as doing domestic work. Children were given chores such as milking the cow and feeding the chooks or pigs. By the time they were in their teens they were often heavily involved, and boys were groomed to take over the farm if they showed an inclination.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Irene Waswo, Farming progress in New Zealand, 1814–1995. New Plymouth: I. Waswo, 1996, p. 64. › Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Carl Walrond, 'Rural workers - The family farmer', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/rural-workers/page-6 (accessed 19 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008