Published in Rural News 2 June.
William Soltau Davidson is not usually considered one of New Zealand’s great nineteenth-century heroes. He came as a nineteen-year-old as a farm cadet at the Levels in South Canterbury in 1865. By the age of 32 he was general manager of the New Zealand and Australian Land Company which held some three million acres in the South Island and in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, some of which Davidson sold off to small-holders. In 1882 he supervised the loading of the first exports of frozen meat at Port Chalmers and welcomed the Dunedin when it reached London.
That Davidson does not appear more prominently in our general histories reflects their neglect of the central role of farming. It is a strange omission, probably the result of the urban base of the writers, the tendency to imitate foreign histories with their focus on industrialisation and their lack of interest in the economy.
Brian Easton’s Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand could not ignore farming, for the sector dominated the economy from the beginning of European settlement – indeed, earlier as he shows, in the Maori economy – through to the middle of the twentieth century. In 1921, a third of total market employment was on farms. Add in those servicing farms and involved with farm products beyond the farm gate and the farm sector was probably half the New Zealand economy.
Farming’s share in the economy is smaller today but looking only at farm production and ignoring the servicing and post-farmgate activities, as a recent study did, is foolish. Moreover, the farm sector remains the biggest generator of foreign exchange which, as the history shows, has been the central challenge to a viable New Zealand economy.
If general histories have tended to neglect farming, there are specialist farm histories, monographs and histories of individual farms. The difference with this book is that it synthesises them, along with Easton’s own research, to make farming an integral part of New Zealand’s history. It always has been, but in this wide-ranging history which begins with Gondwanaland 650m years ago and ends with the Ardern-Peters Government and climate change, Easton tells it like it is and was.