When the Church Missionary Society missionaries established Te Waimate Mission Station in 1832, they had very clear goals in mind. George Clarke and his colleagues had visions of establishing Te Waimate as a model English wheat-producing farm, which would serve to educate the natives on 'proper' agricultural practices.

Ironically, however, the land's real potential for pastoral farming was first recognised by a local man who had no such sentimental baggage from 'home.' Taiwhanga, later baptised Rawiri Taiwhanga, was one of Hongi Hika's most experienced warriors, who had earlier taken part in the Ngāpuhi expedition to the Bay of Plenty. Skilled in battle, he was also a quick learner, or as missionary John Butler put it, 'a man of quick discernment.'

Taiwhanga worked for Butler as a foreman while his charges built New Zealand's oldest standing building, the Kerikeri Mission House, for which Butler paid him an axe a month, while, ever-curious, he became fascinated by foreign crops and farming methods, and was not slow in putting his new-found knowledge into practice.

By late 1826 his garden provided ample evidence of his extraordinary agricultural skills, boasting potatoes, corn, cucumbers, pumpkins, melons, onions, shallots, peas and parsnips. His vines and peach trees were also flourishing.

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But it was Taiwhanga's interest in cattle that really set him apart. He established a farm near Kaikohe, close to the mission at Te Waimate, and amassed a respectable herd of cattle, while the missionaries' dreams of creating a wheat-based agricultural economy were steadily flagging.

By 1836 Taiwhanga had 20 healthy cattle, a large herd for the time, and had established a thriving business selling butter in the Bay of Islands. As if to prove a point, he was also having a lot of success with sheep.

"The land at Te Waimate was in Taiamai(Ohaeawai), where the bulk of Ngāpuhi gardening took place," Liz Bigwood (Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) said.

"Māori had recognised the awesome soil in this highly contested landscape, and missionaries who travelled inland always commented on the huge and flourishing gardens there. Taiamai was really the jewel in the crown of Ngāpuhi before trade with Europeans in other commodities became more sought after.

"What Taiwhanga did was take on the completely new, like domesticated animals, not just extend his ability with different plant crops. He was thoroughly modern. He was a modernist, and he signalled the future."

Taiwhanga, she added, was one of New Zealand's earliest agricultural pioneers, the butter he produced selling for as much as two shillings and six pence (25 cents) a pound. These transactions are recorded, and are the earliest regular sales of dairy produce known in New Zealand, making Taiwhanga this country's first commercial dairy farmer."

The Kerikeri Mission Station and Te Waimate Mission are cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, and are all registered as Tohu Whenua.