The period between 1840 and 1860 has been described as the golden age of Māori enterprise. Māori were the key producers and suppliers of agricultural produce to the towns that began to spring up. They invested in agricultural implements, flour mills and coastal vessels, and produced, processed and transported produce to markets.
In the early 1840s the founding of Auckland, Wellington, Whanganui, New Plymouth and Nelson created large markets for food produced by tribal groups.
In the early days of the Wellington settlement, Māori dominated the provision of potatoes and wheat to settlers, and played a key role in the supply of pigs. In Nelson the settlers were entirely dependent on Māori for supplies. By the mid-1830s Ngāi Tahu were bringing potatoes from Taieri and Moeraki by whaleboat to be sold at Ōtākou, near Dunedin.
Wheat took longer than other crops to be adopted by Māori. Unlike potatoes, which only required minor adaptations to the method for growing kūmara (sweet potato), wheat was different to any crop Māori had previously grown.
Ruatara, a northern rangatira, was eager to satisfy demand for wheat in Sydney, and sowed and harvested the first crop in New Zealand in 1813. It was not until he was able to get and use a wheat grinder that he was able to demonstrate the value of wheat to his people. Ruatara's successor, Hongi Hika, had a wheat plantation a couple of years later. Wheat proved a reliable food crop that could be stored for consumption or export.
Flour mills were a heavy capital investment for tribes. In the 1840s and 1850s mills were built through Waikato, Taranaki, Whanganui, Rotorua and Wairarapa. In Waikato around 50 were built during this period. By 1856 Māori flour mills could no longer compete with steam-driven mills in Auckland and Napier. A number of tribes found themselves in debt with a capital asset of no value.
From the 1840s a number of tribes began buying vessels to transport produce to European towns. Tribes from the Bay of Islands, Hauraki, Bay of Plenty, East Coast and Poverty Bay all purchased ships. Most were of 10 to 20 tons and were suited to shorter trips. In 1858 in Auckland Province, 51 ships were registered and 36 vessels were licensed to Māori. Due to shipwrecks, the expense of repair and losses during the wars of the 1860s, few survived by the mid-1860s.
In 1855–56 the price in Australia for wheat and potatoes dropped by at least half. By 1859 wheat exports to Australia had ended. Many tribal agricultural enterprises also suffered as soils were exhausted.
Trade came to a halt for many iwi in 1863 and 1864 due to the New Zealand wars, fought between imperial and colonial forces and Māori tribes. A number of Māori-controlled ports were blockaded by government forces. In the 1860s the Māori economy went into headlong decline.