The origins of a Kiwi tradition

by Andy Bryenton

As far back as most dairy farmers can remember, June 1 has been called Gypsy Day; the time of year when farms changed hands and sharemilkers took to the roads to move to their new pastures for the season.

Digging deeper to find out why this is the case reveals a couple of interesting points. The first of which, of course, is that this day has nothing at all to do with the Roma people of Europe, the original Gypsies, who, along with the Irish Travellers, make up the largest nomadic culture remaining in the developed world. The name is a nod to the way these folk would travel the roadways in ancient times, with all their possessions and their livestock in tow. It’s a romanticised notion of life on the road, but one that resonated with our colonial forebears, who, once a year would see cows and wagons lining the rural roads as farms changed hands.

Nevertheless, why June 1? The day seems arbitrary, but the effects are real. Schools see enrolments jump around this time, those tradespeople who renovate homes are busy in the rural heartland, and hundreds of millions of dollars change hands as properties are sold.

One theory holds that the timing is to do with the date of cows drying off before calving, but this varies according to climate and stock genetics. Another holds that the date was set in order to get the new farm squared away before winter struck.

However, the oldest records point to the date set not by farmers but by clerks, at the State Advances Corporation in the 1890s. This body was set up to lend money to settlers for creating new farms, and the powers that be expected their money back as the farm flourished. June 1 was set as a date different from the end of the corporate year, but also to enable physical messages to reach London, still the hub of commerce, by ship, before the end of the British business year.

In those days of manual transactions, paper deeds and no radio or internet, setting a single day for major farming transactions made it easy to get everyone on the same page. That’s why June 1 is still a busy time to this day, and why it carries such an interesting name.