The other exploited producers – origins of the class of working farmers in New Zealand

(First of three articles on workers and farmers in 1913 New Zealand.  Long-time readers of this blog may notice that this article overlaps substantially with a post from 2015 entitled Capitalist farmers and family farmers. I am re-posting partly because there is some additional material in this post, but mainly because it is essential to understanding the next two articles in the series of three.)


After 1890, the big capitalist farmer-land-speculators, dislodged from their position of dominance in the New Zealand parliament by the Maritime strike, remained, unloved, in political isolation for the next two decades. The Liberal Party of the urban manufacturing capitalists dominated political life in the form of its swaggering Prime Minister Richard Seddon, politically supported by broad layers of the working class and petty bourgeoisie.

Richard Seddon (right) at a political rally, Greytown, late 1890s. Photo:

However, the landowning class lost none of its economic power during this time. In fact, the landowners profited handsomely from the Liberal moves to ‘burst up the big estates.’ As the government purchased a part of their land at favourable prices, they were able to diversify their investments beyond the farm. The main fields of investment they chose were the new industries processing farm products such as woollen mills, meat freezing works and dairy processing factories, as well as rural credit and trading. The key rural credit institutions at the time were the stock and station agents, initially traders who sold livestock, seed and farm implements on credit, but whose operations soon expanded to include buying farm produce, insurance brokering, real estate sales, and many of the functions of banks.

Stock and station agent at agricultural show. New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency stand at an Agricultural and Pastoral show, probably Nelson district, ca 1910. Jones, Frederick Nelson, 1881-1962 :Negatives of the Nelson district. Ref: 1/1-009392-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Such enterprises brought the interests of the landowners closer together with those of the urban capitalists, and the political rift that had divided the urban bourgeoisie from its rural counterpart in 1890 slowly healed.

Burnside freezing works, opened in 1883.Burnside Freezing Works, Green Island, Taieri. Webb, Steffano, 1880-1967 : Collection of negatives. Ref: 1/1-022204-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The Maritime Strike of 1890 marked the birth of the working class, and one of the demands of this class had been land for the landless. The Liberal government took steps to enable some of these workers to take up land. Prior to that time, capitalist farming in New Zealand had been dominated by extensive sheep farms, producing wool, owned by a very small number of landed families and worked by itinerant rural wage-workers. That began to change during the 1890s. The technology of refrigeration made it possible to export both frozen meat and dairy products to Britain. Dairy farming in particular required closer settlement of the land.

Dairying opened up forested lands that required clearing. Clearing land, Northland. Northwood brothers :Photographs of Northland. Ref: 1/1-010823-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The rapid expansion of dairying brought another exploited class into existence: the class of family farmers. Dairying opened up regions of higher rainfall, where the land was thickly forested. Clearing the forest cover and planting pasture grasses was slow and laborious; a job that only the small farmers could undertake.

The new dairy farmers settled on small farms under the Liberal ‘closer settlement’ policies were generally not exploiters of the labour of others. They worked their own land, hiring no labour beyond their own family members. As petty-bourgeois producers, they were themselves exploited, although the forms of exploitation differed from the wage workers. Whereas the workers were wage-slaves of the employers, the small farmers were debt-slaves of the stock and station agents and the banks. They were also subject to the capitalist monopoly of trading and processing of farm products.

At the start of the 1890s, these small farmers were drawn from the ranks of the workers, and were little different from workers in their living standards and political sympathies. Often they continued to work for wages for several years, building roads and other public works, while they developed their land. Over the next twenty years, this slowly changed; a greater differentiation grew between small farmers and workers, as well as within the class of small farmers. At its upper end, a new layer of capitalist farmers emerged, increasingly wealthy and increasingly reliant on hired wage labour, which identified its interests with the landowners of old. It was one of these new capitalist famers who assumed the leadership of the capitalist class in the counter-offensive against the labour movement that began in 1912.

William Ferguson Massey. Schmidt, Herman John, 1872-1959 :Portrait and landscape negatives, Auckland district. Ref: 1/1-001540-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

William Massey was not a member of the pre-1890 landed oligarchy. Nor was he one of the small farmers who owed their holding to the Liberal government. Born into a landowning Protestant Irish farming family, Massey emigrated to New Zealand in 1870. He leased a 100-acre farm in south Auckland six years later, soon becoming a leader of the Mangere Farmers Club and the Agricultural and Pastoral Association. It was in this role as a ‘farmers leader’ that he became vice-president of the National Association of New Zealand, a political group formed to gather together the dispirited forces of opposition to the Liberal government of 1891. He entered Parliament in 1894. Deeply hostile to the fighting labour movement that emerged after 1907, Massey worked hard to win the small farmers into a rural alliance against the working class. His rallying cry was the freehold, and it was an effective slogan.

Most of the new family farmers settled since 1890 obtained their land under long-term leases from the state. This was the means by which the Liberal government broke the monopoly of the big estate owners. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, writing about nationalisation of the land in 1907, wrote that “we see something similar to it [i.e. nationalisation – JR] in New Zealand, a young capitalist democracy, where there is no evidence of highly developed agricultural capitalism. Something similar to it existed in America when the government passed the Homestead Act and distributed plots of land to small farmers at a nominal rent.”

The leasehold tenure enabled landless workers with little savings to obtain land to work on their own account. It barred the land from being used as collateral against loans, thus preventing traders and mortgagees from evicting the farmer and claiming the land for payment of debts. Low-interest state loans were made available under the Advances to Settlers Act, another key element in the Liberal land reform. This was a programme for the rapid development of capitalist farming, and that was precisely its result.

Dairy factory, Te Rauamoa, [ca 1900] Reference Number: 1/2-001733-G Photograph by William Archer Price of the dairy factory at Te Rauamoa, Otorohanga. Shows the wooden factory building, with people and horse-drawn milk carts outside. The milk carts are loaded with drums of milk.

While the state lease gave the leaseholders some security in land, by the same token it prevented them from engaging in another form of enrichment that their capitalist-farmer neighbours enjoyed: trading and speculating in land. This was the lure of Massey’s slogan of the freehold: it held out to the small farmer the prospect of joining the bourgeoisie and enjoying its privileges.

Under the capitalist mode of production, land is private property that can be traded in the market. The price of commodities in the capitalist market is ultimately determined by the amount of labour needed to make them. Land, however, is not a commodity, because it is not a product of human labour. The price of rural land is a capitalised rent, and is ultimately determined by the income that could be gained by farming the land.

When farming shifts to more intensive use of the land, as it did when small-holder dairy farming became economic in New Zealand in the 1890s, the price of the land increases in proportion to the increased income obtainable from a given area. The seller of the land gains a windfall profit from the buyer, who essentially pays the seller an advance on the future income from the land in question. Such windfall profits accrued to the estate owners who sold part of their land to the state in the 1890s and later. The windfall continued as long as prices for agricultural produce remained relatively high, which in this case meant right through the years of the Great War and beyond, during which time the British government continued to pay guaranteed prices for meat, wool and dairy products. It only works in this way while price of the agricultural commodity remains high: when the price of the commodity falls, so does the price of the land on which it is produced, the most recent buyers then find themselves insolvent, and the land sales go into reverse. The big capitalists can then buy back their land, with improvements, at low prices.

Tom Mann during a visit to Auckland, New Zealand, probably in 1908. Photo: Solidarity Forever

Militant UK unionist Tom Mann visited New Zealand twice in 1901 and 1902, and provides this glimpse of dairy farming at the time in his memoirs. “I had opportunities of studying the conditions under which dairy farming was conducted in the Taranaki area. This is one of the best dairy districts in New Zealand. Some farmers are, naturally, very well circumstanced; but in a very large majority of cases the children of school age had to help at milking before leaving for school in the morning, and the same when they returned, the reason being that the children’s parents could not do all the milking themselves, and could not afford to pay for labour to do it. The cost of land had been run so high by speculation that only by utilising child labour was it possible to make ends meet…

“On my return visit to New Zealand, I again visited Taranaki, but found no improvement whatever in the condition of the children on the dairy farms. I saw more clearly than ever that many of the New Zealand farmers were simply running farms for a period, until they were able to sell at an advantage, and that they were more keen on making a deal of this sort and scoring financially than they were upon establishing permanent homesteads. It was not pleasing to learn that the farms had already changed hands so frequently that, good as the land was, and excellent the yield, it took a farmer and his family all their time, and seven days a week at that, to pay interest on capital, for, in addition to paying interest on the purchase value of the land, in many instances they had to get farming implements on the hire system and to pay ten or twelve per cent on the amount.”

By 1910, the coalition that had kept the Liberal Party in power for nearly twenty years had worn itself out. Its capacity for progressive reforms was exhausted. A class-struggle union movement had grown up that openly defied the Arbitration system and rested on the organised strength of labour. Against this open defiance, the Liberal government seemed powerless to enforce its legal penalties; in consequence it rapidly lost the support of the manufacturing capitalists.

On the other hand, Massey’s agitation around the freehold had eroded the Liberals’ support in the countryside. After its long period in the wilderness, the conservative opposition was finally able to assemble its forces in a stable political party: the Reform Party, founded in 1909 with Massey at the helm. In 1912, Reform defeated the Liberals in Parliament and Massey became prime minister.

James Wilson, capitalist farmer and president of the Farmers’ Union, in 1910  Photo: SP Andrew

The political basis of Massey’s Reform Party was a political alliance between family farmers and the capitalist farmers and creditors who exploited them. This alliance had been built through years of work in organisations which claimed to speak for all farmers, such as the Agricultural and Pastoral Associations, and above all the Farmers’ Union, founded in 1902 under the leadership of Manawatu landowner and former Parliamentarian James Wilson. Wilson declared that he wanted to “deal not with party politics but with farmers’ politics.” The Farmers’ Union campaigned aggressively for the freehold tenure.

Newspaper cartoon mocks town ‘mashers,’ on left, contrasting them with honest farmers on right. HIDING DIRT. Farmer’s Wife: Gracious me, William, why do those town mashers wear garters? Farmer: To keep their socks from slipping down and letting people see they’re too lazy to wash their legs. __ (Observer, 30 March 1912). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The rural newspapers, meanwhile, fanned the flames of resentment of the country-dwellers towards the city. The Wairarapa Daily Times wrote, for example, in June 1904: “Farmers for many generations have been employed in the task of producing the necessaries of life cheaply, in order that the non-farming classes may live in comparative ease and comfort… The professional politician who skims the pages of socialistic books or panders to the prejudices of city agitators, knows absolutely nothing of the lives of the majority of our landowners. He confounds the worst kinds of city landlords and speculators, with industrious settlers, and would mete out to men who are turning waste lands into productive farms, the same treatment that he would give to the rack-renters of slums and the owners of unimproved allotments. There are abuses under the present system of land ownership, but they are nearly entirely confined to cities and their environments.

“….[Liberal Premier] Mr Seddon is artisan and not agricultural in his instincts; still he ought to know that the bulk of the freeholders in New Zealand, instead of waxing rich and prosperous through unearned increment, work longer hours and harder for less returns than the average wage-earner, and that where freeholders do prosper they cannot help benefiting the whole community and enriching the State. There are thousands of men willing to pay dearly for the privileges of the freehold, but there are very few who will pay for the sake of farming land in the interests of the State, or rather for the benefit of those who dwell in cities, and enjoy the pleasure and conveniences of what they call civilisation. Some of our City agitators are very much afraid of the settler benefiting by public works, in the shape of increased land values, but increased land values are anything but a blessing to the genuine farmer…

“History has proved again and again that it is the land-owner who can be depended upon to fight for and work for his country… It will be a bad day for New Zealand when the freehold is done away with, if an enemy appears at our gates, and the nation has to struggle for its existence…”

The Death of Leasehold. The New Zealand Herald, 31 August 1912. Cartoon by Lloyd, Trevor, 1863-1937 :Ref: A-315-2-023. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

From 1912, Massey’s Reform government consolidated the alliance by moving quickly to grant crown tenants the right to purchase freehold on generous terms. Massey also energetically promoted the politics of freeholder-militarism alluded to in the Wairarapa Daily Times article. Two days after becoming Prime Minister, he was appointed honorary commandant of the Legion of Frontiersmen, an ultra-patriotic paramilitary outfit set up throughout the British Empire in the early years of the twentieth century. The Bay of Plenty Times reported Commandant Allen Bell telling the meeting “the Legion of Frontiersmen was not by any means a new idea. The Forest Rangers in the Maori War excelled the Imperial troops, and beat the Maoris at their own game. (Applause).”

The first test of the alliance came in 1913, and the ‘enemy at the gates’ was the working class at home.

Second part here:
When the countryside marched on the town: Massey’s Cossacks in 1913

2 responses to “The other exploited producers – origins of the class of working farmers in New Zealand

  1. Pingback: When the countryside marched on the town: Massey’s Cossacks in 1913 | A communist at large·

  2. Pingback: “Farmers’ sons with whom we have no quarrel” – workers reflect on the 1913 defeat | A communist at large·

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