New Zealand’s future was not always envisaged as a grassland economy. In the 1800s many schemes imagined New Zealand following a more Mediterranean route.
Missionary Samuel Marsden and Governor George Grey saw a future based on grain, grapes and olives. Sericulture, the planting of mulberry trees for silk worms, received serious attention as a colonial industry in the 1870s and 1880s. A government-sponsored survey in the 1890s urged the development of a wine industry in places like Central Otago, a century before this came about.
There were no grapes grown in Marlborough until 1975. Twenty years later it was recognised internationally as the home of New Zealand’s signature wine, sauvignon blanc.
The area planted in crops such as grapes and olives had expanded considerably by the 2000s. However, much of the farmed landscape was still grass. Over the 2000s high commodity prices for dairy products led to an increase in dairy farms. Low-yielding sheep pastures were converted into intensively stocked, irrigated cow paddocks.
The conversion of bushland to grass reached its height in the 1890s and early 1900s, when remote forested areas of the North Island were tackled. But grass could not be grown everywhere, despite South Island runholder Samuel Butler’s observation that New Zealanders only thought a mountain beautiful if it had good grass on it. Around 60% of the South Island and 20% of the North Island is mountainous. Almost all of this land is protected as reserves and forms the core of the conservation estate, which makes up almost a third of New Zealand’s total land area. This is the other New Zealand – it is not productive farmland, but is economically important for tourism.
Historically, a great deal of government science investment was directed towards improving grassland productivity. Agricultural scientists promoted the use of good pasture seed, especially ryegrass and white clover.
As well as using the best strains, New Zealand farming benefited from technical improvements in grassland management. Experiments with fertiliser started in the 1800s, and extended with the discovery of nitrate fertilisers in the 1900s. Aerial topdressing (spreading fertiliser from low-flying aeroplanes) was widely adopted after the Second World War. In the 1950s chemicals such as 2,4,5-T became popular to keep weeds like gorse and blackberry under control.