Use this timeline to to find out about some key dates relating to discoveries about farming and the environment in New Zealand.
800–1200 – People occupy New Zealand
New Zealand is covered in bush, tussock, alpine plants and swamplands. After the first Polynesian settlers arrive, bush and tussock are burned so that moa can be hunted and crops like kūmara, taro, gourds and yams grown.
1769–1800s – Animals and plants introduced
Europeans arrive and establish farms. Horses, cattle, sheep, fruit trees and pine trees are introduced. The exchange of goods with Māori and with Australia develops into a trade industry. Farming items traded include timber, flax, wool, potatoes, fruit and pigs.
1860–1900 – Farming expands
Machinery importation aids wide deforestation. Mixed livestock and cropping operations develop. Butter and meat trade with Britain begins. High returns encourage intensive sheep and dairy farms. There are 13 million sheep by 1880. Superphosphate is manufactured.
1900–1935 – Farming methods improve
Mechanical methods of milking cows introduced. Tractors arrive. Dairy Board and science institutions set up to control exports and improve efficiency of dairy industry. Electricity supplied to rural areas. Hill erosion from forest removal becomes a problem.
1935–1940 – Intensive farming and orchards
Cobalt deficiency in soils recognised. Cobalt is added to superphosphate to help make more intensive livestock farming possible. First commercial orchards of Chinese gooseberries (later known as kiwifruit) are established.
1941 – First environmental legislation
Soil and Rivers Control Act is passed. This is the first environmental legislation in New Zealand, passed to prevent and reduce soil erosion and protect property from flood damage.
1945 – Science helps farm production
New Zealand scientists produce grasses, clover, crops and breeds of sheep to suit local conditions. Cow population is 1.7 million.
1947 – Use of fertiliser widespread
Aerial topdressing makes it possible to fertilise hill country paddocks.
1952 – Dairy farming intensifies
Waikato farmer Ron Sharp develops the herringbone dairy, cutting milking times in half. Herd sizes increase.
1967 – Water and soil issues recognised
Water and Soil Conservation Act passed, addressing water and soil pollution issues. Cow population is now over 2 million.
1969 – Further dairy developments
Taranaki farmer Merv Hicks develops the first turnstile milking system – forerunner to the rotary.
1977 – Further intensification
The Livestock Incentive Scheme is set up by the government to encourage farmers to farm more livestock and entice them to stay farming. Export competition results in declining international prices.
1978 – More land turned into farms
The Land Development Encouragement Loans Scheme encourages further development of land into farming pastures. Fertiliser subsidies encourage the use of fertiliser and lime.
1980 – Recognition of land preservation
National Parks Act passed. This recognises that areas of New Zealand are of ‘such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest’.
1984 – Farming subsidies removed
Government removes subsidies on fertilisers, weed control, tax breaks and grants. Farmers diversify and are more efficient and more responsive to the market. High country sheep farming declines. Number of sheep peaks in 1982 (70 million). Smaller farms amalgamate.
1987 – Awareness of environmental issues
Environmental Act shows an increasing awareness of environmental issues. There are calls from concerned groups for better soil and water protection and more sustainable agricultural practices. Riparian protection and planting are encouraged.
1989 – Farmers diversify
New regional councils take responsibility for water and soil management. Farmers diversify into deer and goat farming. Horticulture becomes popular in better soils. Sustainable use of South Island high country explored – programmes put into place to control rabbits.
1991 – RMA is passed
The Resource Management Act (RMA) focuses on using resources to provide wellbeing for people while safeguarding the environment. Landowners take responsibility for impacts of their activities. Tougher environmental standards set in place.
1992 – Science, forestry, dairy increase
Crown research institutes are formed for agricultural research, ending research through government departments. Forestry planting expands. Conversion of sheep and beef farms to dairy farms increasing, particularly in the South Island. Nutrient budgeting is encouraged
2002 – Climate change recognition
Climate Change Response Act passed. Greenhouse gases have to be recorded and reported in accordance with international law. Cow population is now over 3 million. Average dairy herd size is 308 cows in 1997.
2003 – Pollution and farming addressed
Dairying and Clean Stream Accord highlights water pollution of lakes, rivers and streams due to intensification of dairy farming and promotes sustainable dairy farming. Tax on agricultural gas emissions (‘fart’ tax) proposed. Pollution in Rotorua lakes investigated.
2004 – Farming changes continue
Amalgamation of smaller farms continues. Number of farms reduced from 71,505 in 1980 to 60,000. Wine, olives and avocados become popular diversifications. Invasive rock snot (didymo) found in rivers. Nitrate becomes an increasing problem in groundwater.
2008 – ETS enforced
Climate Change Response Amendment Act passed to reduce emission of greenhouse gases caused by human activity. An Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) charges high gas producers as an incentive to produce less. Report criticises dairy industry and high emissions production.
2011 – Cow and sheep population
Cow population 4.4 million. Average dairy herd size is about 400 cows. Sheep population reduced to just over 31 million.
2012 – Science, farmers and environment
Scientists work to improve farming and the environment. Planning for soil nutrients, nitrification inhibitors, denitrification beds and farm management practices are examples of science and farmers working together to improve productivity and the environment.
2019 – global mega trends
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) releases a report into the future of food and farming. The report identifies three mega trends: enhanced environmental consciousness, new technological developments (genomics, for example) and changing consumer preferences (including provenance, health benefits and ethics).
Use this timeline to explore how dairy farming has changed significantly over the centuries in New Zealand.
See how nitrogen leaching due to agriculture has increased over time in New Zealand.
Find out more about the 2019 MBIE report Current land based farming systems research and future challenges.