South Canterbury’s rainfall is adequate for farming, but not generous. Successful water races for livestock, drawing on the Ōpihi and Waitaki rivers, were built in the 1880s and 1890s.
Irrigation in South Canterbury began with the Redcliffs scheme on the north bank of the Waitaki. Built in 1934–36 and serving more than 2,000 hectares, it was Canterbury’s first irrigation project. The Levels scheme came slightly later. Construction on the larger Morven–Glenavy scheme began in 1971. By 1978 more than 10,500 hectares was under irrigation. More recently, the Ōpuha project has irrigated more than 13,000 hectares in the Ōpuha and Ōpihi valleys. In 2002 South Canterbury had 11.6% of all the land in New Zealand served by an irrigation system.
The Rangitātā South Irrigation Scheme at Arundel reached full capacity (16,000 hectares) in 2014. An agreement between Meridian Energy and Mackenzie Country farmers saw 8,000 hectares there irrigated by 2016. Both schemes were delayed by environmental concerns that are likely to complicate any future proposals for irrigation projects in the region.
Much high-country farmland is leased from the state. Since 1998 farmers have had the option of buying a portion of their farms, in exchange for land with high conservation value. But environmentalists believe too much land has been sold and not enough conserved through this process, known as tenure review. In 2006 they criticised a deal made for Richmond Station (Lake Tekapo): 64% was sold (including 9 km of lake frontage). On the other hand, some farmers claim that by restricting high-altitude grazing, tenure review makes farms uneconomic.
South Canterbury has had dairy farms since the late 19th century. Sheep and cropping farms were converted to dairying after the Morven–Glenavy irrigation scheme was completed. This recent demand for dairy farms has affected the land market, changed the patterns of rural life and undermined South Canterbury’s tradition of continuous family ownership.
Most South Canterbury farmland is pasture. In the Mackenzie District, 91% of all farmland was grazed in 2012. Even in the Timaru and Waimate districts, only 14% and 8% respectively of farmland was used for crops.
In 2012 the region had 1.5 million sheep (4.8% of the national flock), almost 300,000 dairy cattle (4.7%) and more than 140,000 beef cattle (3.8%). Merino wool is processed in Timaru.
Cropping remains important in South Canterbury. In 2012 the region contained:
- 26% of New Zealand land planted in wheat
- 20% of land planted in oats
- 15% of land planted in barley.
Potatoes are an important crop in the Willowbridge district, and berry fruit are grown near Waimate and Temuka.
Only in the Mackenzie Country do farmers still graze sheep on extensive leasehold runs – the region’s original style of farming. Irrigation and tenure review are leading to changes even here.