I have been reading the recently published Seeds of Empire: the Environmental Transformation of New Zealand, and have made a few surprising discoveries. One was how much of an impact the Korean War had on the New Zealand rural landscape. The War led, in fact, to the last phase of geographical expansion of the productive rural landscape, or the “farming frontier”, as the authors put it.
In their concluding chapter, Seeds of Empire editors Eric Pawson and Tom Brooking explain how the Korean War triggered a boom in wool prices. In order to increase production, New Zealand sheep farmers expanded into areas that had previously been considered marginal from a productive standpoint. This expansion of farmland began in the 1950s but carried through to the 1970s. To increase soil productivity, especially of these more marginal areas, large volumes of fertiliser were dropped from specially modified military aircraft (and later, the purpose-built “Fletcher” light aeroplane – see photo below): 27 million tonnes of super phosphate, rock phosphate, as well as slag, cobalt and potash were applied between 1949 and 1980. Large amounts of chemicals were also applied to combat weedy invaders of pasture.This treatment particularly benefited the high country, and in the South Island, sheep numbers more than doubled (from 15 to 32 million), while in the North Island numbers increased from 19 to 37 million. In parallel with this transformation, the 1950s also saw an acceleration of the industrialisation of farming: it brought about the advent of large tankers to collect milk, and the demise of small local dairy factories in favour of large regional dairy processing plants. Many of these local dairy factories can still be seen, generally unused and derelict, when driving on the main road through small rural towns.
Source/further reading: Seeds of Empire: the Environmental Transformation of New Zealand (2011), Tom Brooking and Eric Pawson (editors).
Review: click here to read David Young’s review of Seeds of Empire in Environmental History in New Zealand.
Photo top: Sheep farm, Northland Region. Shows sheep being yarded by a sheepdog. View includes fenced paddocks, farm buildings and two automobiles. Photograph taken ca 1925-1930 by the Northwood brothers of Kaitaia. Not to be reproduced without permission from the Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. ID 1/1-010760-G. Above: Fertilizer truck and top-dressing plane, Taihape, circa 1960s. Shows an Aerospace Fletcher FU24 aircraft. Taken by an unidentified photographer. Not to be reproduced without permission from the Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. ID 1/2-132136-F.