The greatest impact of mechanisation has been an enormous increase in productivity per farm worker – overall production and production per hectare has grown considerably, but the total number of hours worked has fallen. There has been a large drop in the number of farmers and farm workers, and less work is now done by farmers’ families. The long-term pattern has been to replace expenditure on labour with investment in machinery.
Man versus machine
One of the effects of mechanisation was to reduce the number of farm jobs available. When this coincided with an economic downturn, such as when haymaking machinery was introduced during the economic depression of the 1880s, the impact on workers was particularly severe.
There has also been a growth in farm size, as labour-saving machines have allowed ‘one-man’ farms to expand. In 1928 most dairy farms were either 55 acres (22 hectares) carrying 20–25 cows, or 100 acres (40 hectares) carrying 39–45 cows. By 2006 the average dairy herd size in New Zealand was 322. In Canterbury it was 648 – the result of large arable farms being converted to dairying.
Machines tend to operate more efficiently on larger farms, and bigger farms are better able to bear the cost of buying and running them.
Mechanisation has increased farm production significantly. For example, machines made large-scale land clearance and drainage projects possible, aerial topdressing made steep country productive for the first time, and electric fences allowed farmers to use pasture more efficiently.
Locally manufactured machinery
Farm machinery manufacturing has been a significant industry in New Zealand from the mid-19th century. Early firms – such as P. & D. Duncan, Reid & Gray, and Andrews & Beaven – produced ploughs, harrows, threshing machines, chaff cutters, and seed cleaners.
Some New Zealand-made machines, notably Andrews & Beaven’s chaff cutters, were exported to Australia and further afield. The long-serving Fletcher topdressing aircraft were often assembled locally, and in the early 2000s Cresco aircraft were made at Pacific Aerospace Corporation at Rukuhia, near Hamilton.
Reliance on imports
Despite some local manufacturing, mechanisation has tended to increase New Zealand farming’s dependence on imports. Farm machinery, particularly from the United States, featured strongly in import statistics from the mid-19th century, and local manufacturers generally used metal and parts from overseas. Feed for bullocks and horses was produced locally, as was coal for steam engines, but most oil-based fuel was imported.