Wairarapa's economy is dominated by pastoral farming. The industry is dominated by sheep and beef cattle, and dairying. In 2012 the region, including all of the Tararua district, had 10% of New Zealand’s sheep (3.1 million) and 3.6% of its dairy cattle (232,400). Deer, goats and pigs are also farmed.
Sheep and beef cattle
In 1844 Wairarapa’s extensive grasslands spurred several Wellington entrepreneurs to try farming. By 1851 there were 20,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle in the region. From 1853 the government bought Māori land, much of which ended up in the hands of large runholders.
Runholders faced many challenges. Merinos were the first sheep in the area, but were prone to foot rot. Romneys were better suited to the region. Scab – a skin-burrowing mite that causes wool to fall off, leaving a greenish scab – was a major problem until the runs were fenced and stock regularly dipped. Rabbits were introduced for sport, but reached plague-like proportions in the 1880s, damaging pasture and reducing stock ratios.
In the 20th century, livestock numbers grew as more land was brought into pasture and new technology increased production. This included aerial topdressing with phosphate and lime, which improved grass growth.
Since 1990 a drop in demand has curbed production. Sheep and beef cattle numbers have fallen and the sector has responded by becoming more efficient and increasing lambing percentages.
Tragedy at Ngakonui
In the 1860s four brothers – Peter, Robert, James, and Donald McLaren – settled in Wairarapa, buying the 15,000-acre farm Ngakonui. Tragedy soon struck. Robert was charged by a horned merino ram and died from his injuries. Donald was killed when he fell from his horse, and James bled to death after a dog triggered his muzzle-loader. Peter survived, married Sarah Morrison, and had five children. His descendants still farm parts of Ngakonui.
Every March Masterton hosts the Golden Shears competition, promoted as the world’s premier shearing and wool-handling championship. The first event in 1961 was an immediate success. Contestants compete to shear a set number of sheep in the shortest time, with the least faults. Over the years organisers have introduced new contests – wool processing, wool handling, Miss Golden Shears (a beauty pageant, later discontinued) and a Shearable Arts (fashion) show.
Dairying began in the 19th century with the Small Farms Association and bush settlements. These set up budding farmers on small blocks of forested land, mainly in the west. Once grass had replaced trees, farmers ran herds of 20–25 cows.
Growth was held back by the sector’s small scale and a lack of entrepreneurialism. Attempts in the 1880s to start up cheese factories were hindered by farmers’ inability to guarantee milk supply. In the early 1900s farmers established cooperative dairy factories, the butter and cheese from which found ready markets. When milk tankers were introduced from the 1930s, the industry was rationalised and many factories closed. In 2019 only the Pahīatua factory remained open.
Since the 1960s the trend has been towards fewer farms, larger herds and higher production. In 1965 the average farm size was 70 hectares, on which 83 cows each produced 126 kilograms of milk fat. By 2013/14, these numbers were 132, 366 and 206 respectively. Total cattle numbers grew, with some sheep and beef farmers switching to dairying to benefit from rising prices.
At the 2001 Wairarapa A & P show, Dale Collie revealed she had ‘never missed a show in my entire life’. When she was growing up, children were given the day off school to attend. ‘My mother had four daughters and we all had a new dress for the show. She made them all. My father exhibited Friesian cattle … We always brought cows to the show. I’ve grown up with it.’ 1
A & P shows
The Wairarapa’s first A & P (agricultural and pastoral) show, displaying exhibits from the farming industry, was held in Masterton in 1871. In 1877, the Wairarapa and East Coast Pastoral and Agricultural Association was set up to run a more permanent event. They found a venue in Carterton in 1878, but in 1885 split into southern and northern factions. The northerners formed the Masterton Agricultural and Pastoral Association and established their own event, now based at Masterton’s Solway showgrounds. The southerners stayed in Carterton.