Falling labour force
In the 1920s around 30% of New Zealand’s workforce was employed in rural work. By 1951 this had dropped to around 20%, and in 2004 to about 6%. In 2004, 128,430 people were employed in agriculture, and in agricultural servicing and processing industries. A further 28,710 were employed in horticulture, and 23,405 in forestry and forestry processing.
Patterns of employment have also changed. In sheep farming and cropping there has been a shift from permanent live-in farm labour to family and contract work. In the 1990s and 2000s, dairying expanded into new regions and became more intensive. Dairy farms have grown larger, increasing the demand for paid labour.
Boom and bust
The 1950s to the 1970s were boom decades for agriculture, with huge gains in farm efficiency and productivity. By the 1970s and 1980s farmers were managing 5,000 animals on their own – something which was unheard of a few decades earlier. Diversification into forestry, horticulture and viticulture also provided work opportunities.
When the government removed many agricultural subsidies in the 1980s, farmers faced harder times. The number of men in rural employment fell, but the number of women working (both on and off the farm) increased. With better transport, farmers’ wives often found work in nearby towns to augment the family farm’s falling income.
The 1980s and 1990s also saw the closure of many small freezing works, dairy factories and other processing plants, leading to job losses. These were typically replaced by a few very large plants.
Diversification and seasonal jobs
New job opportunities have arisen in horticulture and viticulture – but pay rates are low and the hours long. New Zealand’s high employment levels in the 2000s made it difficult for these industries to attract workers.
Plenty of labour is needed to set up a vineyard, and at pruning and harvest time. In Central Otago many orchards employ students or backpackers. In Hawke’s Bay in 2005, apple growers and other horticulturalists had to import labour to New Zealand as they could not attract local apple pickers. In 2007 a new policy was introduced, allowing viticulturists and horticulturists to employ up to 5,000 overseas workers a year if they could not find New Zealanders to do the work.
Move to rural areas
Since the 1980s, an increasing proportion of people live in rural areas but do not rely on agriculture for their income. Many live on lifestyle blocks on the outskirts of cities or towns, and commute or work from home.