An astonishing number of people think that sheep farmers are
handed their properties on a plate, writes Ann
They think that because the farm has been in the family for
two or three generations, the farmer has inherited the
property and hasn't had to pay for it.
WRONG. Intergenerational transfers cost money. Lots of it -
even when payment isn't in one lump sum. For a son or
daughter, nephew or niece to buy stock and equipment and add
their name to the property title, acquire the farm outright
or join the family partnership or trust, money changes hands.
This money goes into buying a retirement home for the
retiring parents as well as funding parents' retirement
living expenses. The purchase price may also be funding the
grandparents' living expenses.
How do I know this? Thirty years ago (1984) I interviewed 119
farmers: 67 in Central Hawkes Bay and 52 in the King Country
(Waitomo District). Each group of farmers made up 10% of all
the sheep/beef farmers in each area. All were farming
I revisited most of these farms in 2012-13 and either
reinterviewed them or talked to the people who had taken over
from them. While this is a small study, it is somewhat
indicative of hill country sheep-beef farming elsewhere in
New Zealand. It's from this study that I learned about farm
turnover, succession and debt.
The key difference between the two study areas is that the
drought-prone Central Hawkes Bay (east coast North Island)
was developed early for sheep production, whereas the lush
wet bush of the King Country (west coast North Island) was
developed more recently for farming. This means that in 1984
a considerable 36% of farms in the east had been in the same
family for three or more generations, compared to only 12% in
the west. Half the King Country farms were first generation
in 1984 compared to 40% in Central Hawkes Bay.
What about today? In Central Hawkes Bay 51% of that original
sample of farms is still in the same family and in the King
Country 49% (i.e. farmed by the same people I interviewed in
1984 or by a son/daughter or grandchild). So what is their
In 1984 few farmers in either area were debt free (only 12%
had no mortgages). Most (80%) of the farms that had mortgages
had obtained them to pay off the cost of buying the land. So
much for that free ride to land ownership.
And today? Since 1985 farmers have had no government-funded
subsidies, and have continued to cope with droughts, floods,
pests and myriad other problems and disasters. This means
today about 30% of King Country farmers from the original
1984 sample families have paid off their debts (excluding
operating expenses), while 26% of the original families in
Central Hawkes Bay are debt-free.
Interestingly, 20% of the families who purchased their farms
after 1984 were debt-free in Central Hawkes Bay. (No
information is available for the King Country newcomers).
What happened to the 60 farms that were sold? I was able to
get some information on 33 of the new owners. Of these farms,
nine were divided up between neighbours or added on to a
neighbour's farm to improve its viability. A further 21 were
sold to families from farms elsewhere in New Zealand. One new
owner was an overseas business investor and philanthropist.
That property has since been sold to a New Zealand farm
The remaining two farms were purchased by corporate
investors. Some of the properties were sold several times. It
is very common for blocks of land in separate titles to be
sold. Farmers often swap pieces of land with each other to
improve access around the farm. Often pieces of land are
bought some distance away to provide different soils,
topography and climate to complement the home block, or as a
potential retirement farm.
Why were the farms sold, and what happened to the people who
had owned them? I have information about 34 of these
families. Sometimes the stories are very sad. Tragic
accidents and deaths meant that in some cases the next
generation bought the farm, but sometimes there was no-one to
succeed, and the property was sold outside the family.
Similarly some farm couples that retired did not have anyone
wanting to take on the property. (Retirement is sometimes the
wrong word. Several older male farmers continue to do casual
work in their district because they love the lifestyle).
While many of these families have children, the greater
occupational choices available today mean that sometimes
neither sons nor daughters are interested in farming.
Daughters are much more likely to be encouraged to farm today
than they were in 1984.
A few sold their farm and moved to a different one (either
nearer urban amenities or to easier country). Only one family
left the land because they could earn more from investing
their money into urban-based business ventures, and they just
didn't like farming.
Thirty years on it's clear to me that families that choose to
invest mega bucks into farm ownership are doing it because
they are committed to sheep/beef production, are passionate
about quality livestock, care about the land, and love the
- Dr Ann Pomeroy is a senior research fellow at the Centre
for Sustainability at the University of Otago. Her 1984 field
work was funded through a National Research Advisory Council
Fellowship and the 2012-13 field work was funded by the C
Alma Baker Trust.