In the 19th century, farming families depended on neighbours to help them in times of trouble. The spirit of mutual aid still exists, but there are also services to call on.
In rural areas fire was used to manage tussock grasslands and burn off bush. It could easily get out of control; during a summer drought in 1885–86, houses, businesses, farms and bush were ravaged by fires in Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay. There were also major fires in 1908, 1918 and 1946. On a smaller scale, there were often grass and hay-barn fires, and the only firefighters were locals with buckets of water.
In the mid-1980s a group of Waikato farming people got together to provide an emergency fire service. They were prompted to do so after the nearest fire appliance took a long time to reach a fire at a rural property. Calling themselves the Fire and Rescue Team (FART), they kept a small tanker of water at the Tauwhare home kill. Monthly meetings were generally drinking sessions. After two years without an emergency, FART faded away.
In the 19th century county councils were not responsible for rural fire protection. Volunteer fire brigades in small towns extended their services to the surrounding district, but were hampered by poor communications, slow transport and limited equipment. More rural volunteer fire brigades were formed after the Second World War. A fire services co-ordination scheme in 1954 made it mandatory for fire brigades to attend all fires within 5 miles (8 kilometres) of their station. The Fires Service Act 1975 introduced central government control and support for fire services, including volunteer brigades in rural areas.
In 1947 local authorities became responsible for fires not involving buildings. Under the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977, forest and vegetation fires became the responsibility of the National Rural Fire Authority. In 2008 it co-ordinated 90 rural fire authorities. The firefighting force consisted of around 3,000 volunteers, with costs covered by the Rural Fire Fighting Fund.
Victim or criminal?
Isolated farmers trying to defend themselves and their property can sometimes get into trouble. In 2002 Kawakawa farmer Paul McIntyre shot and wounded one of three armed men he caught stealing his farm quad bike. It took three years of legal process before he was acquitted of firearm charges.
The isolation of farms makes their inhabitants particularly vulnerable to crime – and police have to travel long distances to reach the scene. Police are also at risk: in 1941 farmer Stanley Graham killed four policemen who confronted him at his West Coast property. Soldiers, the home guard and volunteers were called out as reinforcements in the subsequent manhunt.
In 2007 rural liaison police officers were introduced to the Rangitīkei region to help deal with the rising crime rate. RAPID (Rural Address Property Identification) numbers are part of a nationwide system to identify properties so they can be found easily by emergency services. The numbers, which are linked to an address and GPS reading, are displayed at the farm gate and given when phoning for police help.
The support of neighbours in combatting crimes such as theft of stock and machinery remains important.
Before the introduction of state-funded welfare and health care, friendly societies and other organisations offered health and welfare benefits, and were active in some rural areas. Members paid subscriptions and could get financial help if the family breadwinner died or was incapacitated. They also received subsidised doctors’ visits, medicines and hospital care. There were also local benevolent leagues which gave grants to widows, orphans and sick people.
Such organisations became less prominent after the Social Security Act 1938 and its amendments established free health care and pensions for those unable to work. There have been times when farmers have needed welfare assistance. When state subsidies for farming were reduced in the 1980s, many farming families were hard hit, and some applied for a benefit aimed at low-waged families.
In 2009 there was a nationwide network of Rural Support Trusts, which provided advice and financial assistance to rural communities in times of hardship, such as during droughts.
The special hardships experienced by isolated rural women with large families prompted the Women’s Division of the Farmers’ Union to introduce their Bush Nurse and Emergency Housekeeper Scheme in 1927. This provided home help for women when they were sick or had just had a baby. At first funded by the Division’s members, the scheme was eventually subsidised by the government. The Women’s Division also ran four homes where exhausted women could go for a rest, and holiday homes for farming families.
High costs eventually led to the closure of the rest homes, but in the 2000s Rural Women New Zealand still operated a holiday home near Auckland, and bed and breakfast accommodation in Wellington. It also ran a home nursing and help service, Access Homehealth.