Cereals and Grains

South Australia’s cereal and grain industries are made up of:

  • wheat
  • barley
  • oats
  • minor cereals (triticale, rye)
  • pulses (field peas, lupins, chick peas, lentils)
  • oil seeds (canola, rape seed, safflower, sunflower, linseed)
  • minor grains (rye, triticales, hops, maize, etc).

These cereal and grain industries have been through very similar development phases and share common technology, machinery and innovation. Early development of SA’s cereal industries was dominated by wheat, initially for domestic consumption, and subsequently as a key export commodity.

Some key factors influencing the growth of various grain industries includes:

  • wheat for flour was a high priority staple food in the developing SA colony.
  • growth of beer consumption resulted in expansion of malting barley production to supply breweries.
  • declining importance of draft horses resulted in reduced oat production and chaff manufacture.
  • development of grains for feeding intensive pigs, poultry, dairy and beef cattle.
  • growing importance of pulses for human consumption across the world.
  • replacement of animal fats with oil seeds (e.g. butter displaced by margarine) in human diets across the world.

The following historical overview of the Wheat Industry deals with its development to the present day with computer links to important documented ‘turning points’ which have helped to support and transform this highly efficient industry over the years.

SA Grains Industry Trust (SAGIT)

Development of the Wheat Industry in SA

The Wheat Industry of South Australia has maintained a prominent role in the state’s prosperity and in many ways has made significant inputs to wheat growing in the other southern states of Australia.

For 170 years, South Australian wheat growers have maintained production despite facing drought, soil deficiencies, disease and weeds. Wheat farmers have had to adapt to years of economic depression, war and varying global supply and demand.

Wheat growing began on the Adelaide Plains in 1839. High productivity quickly enabled South Australia to become self-sufficient in wheat. Innovative farmers took early advantage of the inherent high fertility of the soils. Exports to the United Kingdom were established aided by the repeal of the Corn Laws in England and the efficient seaport handling made possible by the state’s indented coastline.

Keen farmers and helpful governments nurtured research which introduced better varieties and with the use of phosphate fertilizers production was expanded from the early higher rainfall areas to Eyre Peninsula, Yorke Peninsula and the Murray Mallee.

The stripper, (invented by Ridley in SA in 1843), introduced mechanization to the Industry. A series of mechanical innovations have enabled continued improvement in productivity. Besides the harvester, tractors, bulk handling, boom-sprays and more recently air seeders enable large areas to be sown and reaped in a more timely way avoiding many vagaries of the seasons.

Selling to reliable standards to satisfy local and overseas buyers has always been a challenge which for nearly 90 years was satisfied by the Fair Average Quality system. This was replaced in 1974 by the benchmark “Australian Standard White”, a quality assurance measure to ensure buyers receive grain of certain protein, moisture and other determinates. These are vital determinates of flour characteristics required for bread, biscuit or pasta manufacture.

In recent years, alternate crops, such as oil seeds and pulse crops, have been introduced into the farm rotations. These have provided breaks against disease and weeds. New minimum tillage technology before seeding has further improved production efficiency.

Today the South Australian wheat industry has evolved into an independent, capital intensive, knowledge based business. A business challenged by increasing fuel and chemical cost and climate change, increasing soil salinity and herbicide resistant weeds. To manage wheat farming sustainably in the future will require a continuing high degree of adaptiveness by well-educated farmers with business skills.

175th Anniversary Royal Show posters

The historical context of the South Australian cereal industry was prepared by Dr John Radcliffe, former Director-General of Agriculture, for the 175th Anniversary of the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of South Australia Inc. We thank the Society for allowing this material to be published by the History of Agriculture Project.

Further Information

The following compilation of papers, describes important aspects of the development of the Wheat Industry in South Australia:


  • Ophel-Keller, Kathy. Et Al. 1980, Development of a Routine DNA-based Testing Service for Soilborne Diseases in Australia. Article, Australian Plant Pathology Society 2008, V. 37. P. 243–253.
  • Wallwork, Hugh. 2007. The Role of Minimum Disease Resistance Standards for Control of Cereal Diseases. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research, V. 58, P. 588–592.
  • Watson, I.A., Butler, F.C., 1984, Wheat Rust Control in Australia. The University of Sydney, Australia.
  • Prest, Wilfrid. Kerrie, Round. Fort, Carol. 2001, The Wakefield Companion to South Australian History. Chapters, Agriculture. Page 32. Wheat. Page 583. Wakefield Press. Kent Town, South Australia.
Page Last Reviewed: 20 Nov 2017
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