Overview of land development and agriculture in SA

Dr John C. Radcliffe

Unlike the nomadic Aboriginal hunter-gatherers, the first European settlers had agricultural practices of cultivating the soil, growing grain, fruit and vegetable crops, and rearing animals. However, eking out subsistence on Kangaroo Island was tough for the earliest settlers in 1836 (and for the whalers, sealers and runaways who preceded them there). Although the intended principal site for the colony, Kangaroo Island quickly proved to be unsuited to sustaining a large population. Thus, in 1837 South Australian agriculture commenced on the mainland around the site chosen for the capital, Adelaide, with expansion into both nearby and distant regions soon following. By 1845 a South Australian population of 22 460 had 7700 ha of wheat, 45 ha of vines, 120 ha of other horticulture, 1800 horses, 56 000 cattle and 600 000 sheep.

The land settlement policies appropriate to the foundation of the colony gradually altered as local needs and circumstances dictated activities. Wheat cropping rather than mixed farming predominated, aided by the development in 1843 of the stripper by John Ridley, and a later government policy to provide access by wheat growers to a port or railway within 24 km of their properties.

Agricultural and pastoral expansion northwards continued despite the warnings of Surveyor-General George W. Goyder in the mid 1860s. His prognostication of a line north of which farmers might  be considered eligible for assistance but was soon interpreted as the limit beyond which arable agriculture should not proceed. Goyder’s Line, still holds true. In the haste to establish more settlements and to encourage agriculture ahead of pastoralism, not all took heed of his advice and preferred the unproven maxim of ‘rain follows the plough’. To encourage the uptake of land for cropping rather than lower-value extensive pastoralism, the government under the Strangways Act, 1869 provided loans to small landholders who then only needed a 20% deposit to purchase land on credit.

By 1879 the State had 560 000 ha of wheat and 6 000 000 sheep. However, the numerous abandoned towns and homesteads, and the planned but not built towns from the southern Flinders Ranges northwards are testimony to the wisdom of Goyder and the foolhardiness of quite a few landholders. The optimistically named Farina at the then end of the government railway network reaching into the interior is further evidence of the hopes foiled by droughts that are more common to the region than rain. D.W. Meinig’s classic account, On the Margins of the Good Earth, tells this story.

While much of the north and west of South Australia was either arid or subject to low rainfall, and thus better suited to pastoral activities rather than agricultural development, parts of the Lower South East region were subject to substantial flooding annually. Government drainage works throughout the region from the early 1860s brought much highly fertile country into production. Just as drainage work was still being undertaken in 2007, the debate as to the ‘over-draining’ of some areas continues.

Areas of the Upper South East and the mallee regions of the Murray and the Eyre Peninsula contain parts that are only productive through the use of fertilisers and dryland farming practices. The development of the stump-jump plough by the Smith brothers at Arthurton in 1876 together with the Murray Bridge-Pinnaroo and Port Lincoln-Cummins railways in 1906–07 allowed the opening-up of mallee country. These rail lines were later extended to additional areas. Some of these areas, mostly outside Goyder’s line, proved marginal.

It is no coincidence that the best areas of the State for agriculture and wine – the Fleurieu and Yorke Peninsulas, the southeast border region, the Mid North, the Riverland and the Barossa Valley – are also the most densely settled.

The introduction of pest animals and pest plants intermittently from soon after settlement impacted greatly on the landscape and on agriculture. Rabbits had covered South Australia within four decades of being released in the mid 1860s. Wild dogs (dingoes), feral goats and camels to a lesser extent, and plagues of insects and rodents such as locusts and mice were other obvious manifestations of pest animals. Arguably, the impact of pest plants (weeds such as thistles, burr, soursobs and Salvation Jane [known in the Eastern States as Patterson’s Curse]) may have been greater for the agriculturalist than the pest animals. Or at least they were harder to control and so affected crop production rates and quality.

Improved biological and chemical controls of pest animals and pest plants have been effective since World War II. For example, myxomatosis (1950), the 1080 poison bait (1960s) and calicivirus (1995) have been effective in reducing rabbit numbers; the 1080 poison bait has had some impact on fox numbers; locust plagues have been controlled by insecticide spraying; and various herbicides have contained the spread of the many weeds. Physical devices such as rabbit-proof fences were introduced to exclude rabbits from areas, while vermin fences have protected stock from dingos and wild dogs. Vermin districts were legislated for in the 1880s. The individually installed vermin fences were brought together in 1946, creating the longest fence in the world. The Dog Fence is almost 2200 km long in South Australia and reaches from near Ceduna to New South Wales and Queensland.

Education has been a major aspect of the government’s role in overseeing the agricultural sector. Roseworthy Agricultural College was established north of Adelaide in 1883 under J.D. Custance, the Professor of Agriculture appointed in 1882. He identified the importance of phosphate fertilisers on wheat. The yields of wheat had been falling but the trend was reversed after 1890 when the Correll Brothers at Minlaton demonstrated Custance’s views by sowing seed with phosphate fertilisers.

Such research and development work has been a significant feature of South Australian agriculture from the very earliest experiments to see what might grow best here, through the dryland farming techniques in the 1960s, and continued with the creation of the South Australian Research and Development Institute in 1993. Since its first branches were formed in 1888, the Agricultural Bureau movement has been highly influential in sharing new ideas, educating and informing farmers in their use of the land and husbandry of its natural resources.

While the first appointment of a specific Minister of Agriculture had been in 1875, it was not until 1902 that the South Australian government responded to a perceived need to create a Department of Agriculture. Until then government responsibility for agriculture and pastoral matters had been exercised primarily through the Department of Lands and the Commissioner of Crown Lands. The appointment of Professor A.J. Perkins as Secretary for Agriculture in 1902 led to greater technical assistance to farmers from the government. More research work, for example, was possible through the Department’s experimental farms and orchards that were established in 1905 at Parafield (Adelaide plains), Murray Bridge and Kybybolite (South East), and in 1908 at Turretfield (Barossa Valley), Hackney and Blackwood (metropolitan Adelaide), Loxton and Veitch (northern Murray mallee).

Swampland near Murray Bridge was the scene of the government reclaiming areas for irrigation from 1881, with swamps at Mobilong, Monteith and Mypolonga being reclaimed for dairying during 1905 to 1910. Further northeast on the River Murray irrigated horticulture was attempted by the Chaffey brothers from 1887, but it was left to the Renmark Irrigation Trust (1893) to pursue this work after the Chaffey’s experienced financial difficulties. The 1890s depression, occurring at a time when new planned settlements and co-operative movements were popular, saw the government allocate land and funds for irrigated village settlements at Ramco, Waikerie, Holder, Kingston, Moorook, Pyap, New Era and Lyrup. The settlers were responsible for the interest on the loans and repaying the capital. Only Lyrup survived beyond 1913.

Soldier settler schemes for returned servicemen from both world wars saw many blocks allocated for irrigated horticulture at Berri, Chaffey, Cadell, Cobdogla from 1917, and Loxton and Cooltong from 1946. Other returned servicemen took up small properties in various areas of the State. In many of the cases the outcome was less than satisfactory. Inadequate farm size, poor training, deficient administration, and drainage and salinity difficulties on the irrigated blocks were some of the problems.

Education, training and research required a range of organisations. The University of Adelaide established the Waite Agricultural Research Institute in 1924 under Professor A.E.V. Richardson on land at Urrbrae donated by pastoralist Peter Waite in 1913. Urrbrae Agricultural High School was created on land offered to the State government. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (later CSIRO) established its Division of Soils at the Waite Institute from 1927. The first Agricultural Science degrees were awarded in 1932. The Australian Wine Research Institute opened at the Waite in 1955. The relocation of the Department of Agriculture’s Northfield Laboratories and Research Centre to Urrbrae from 1993 was part of the State government’s consolidation of its Adelaide-based agricultural research and development and natural resources activities in collocation with the University of Adelaide and CSIRO.

The land clearance practices imposed through the introduction of European farming practices in the 19th century often had not taken into account the natural environment. Thus, by the Great Depression of the 1930s there were years of significant land degradation. The farming techniques that applied had used long fallows for moisture conservation, but this had resulted in a loss of soil structure. Water-borne soil and wind erosion had become serious problems. Wind in the sandy mallee soil regions was particularly damaging. Legislation in the form of the Sand Drift Act, 1927 and the Soil Conservation Act, 1939 followed: the soil conservation boards formed thereby were evidence of an emerging awareness of environmental problems.

Though often unseen, women had always contributed significantly to the agricultural sector. In the World War II period, however, women had more prominent roles either through the work of the Australian Women’s Land Army or on the farms and in the rural towns. After the war, other women with little or no direct experience of agriculture were introduced to the farming life through their husbands taking up land as returned servicemen.

The State and Commonwealth governments’ War Service Land Settlement program not only saw land being allocated but the State government also played a role in developing areas of the State. Research into trace elements and subterranean clover enabled vast areas of previously infertile mallee scrub, heath and lateritic soil country to be brought into production in the South East, Kangaroo Island and southern Eyre Peninsula. One area of 160 000 ha in the Upper South East, the so-called Ninety-Mile Desert, was taken up as a private development by the AMP Society in the 1950s: thus Coonalpyn Downs was established. This was the last major area to undergo agricultural development in South Australia. Within 30 years some of these areas developed dryland salinity. In 1983 the State government placed restrictions on further scrub clearance.

Major changes in production systems in the grain-growing areas, and improved farm machinery and new technology and techniques occurred from the 1950s. More powerful tractors became widespread, while much of the machinery could do more, faster and require fewer people. New grain varieties were introduced: barley became a major crop. ‘Ley farming’ methods were adopted by cereal growers: rotating crops with grazed clover and medic pastures helped to restore the fertility and structure of the soil. Greater disease resistance, together with more selective herbicides to control weeds and crop pests, minimum tillage, improved fertiliser treatments and care in planning crop rotation helped to increase the yield of the State’s cereal crops 2.2% annually from 1978 to 1998. Over almost four decades, there were major improvements in the marketing of agricultural commodities including field and horticultural crops, encompassing product differentiation to suit the needs of individual end-users.

Whereas agriculture, including the wine sector, traditionally had been a labour intensive occupation, and one where sons followed their fathers on to the land, the number of farmers has progressively declined. In part there have been other opportunities and lifestyle decisions. Notably, successive State governments since the 1930s have pursued an expansion of secondary and tertiary (service) industries as a means of broadening the State’s employment base. The percentage of the population now directly engaged in agriculture is much less than previously. Contemporaneously, and underscoring the impact of new technology and techniques, the total production of agricultural commodities is now higher than ever before. Both the government and the private sector have pursued initiatives to develop – grapes, wine and aquaculture are the most recent sectors of the agricultural industry to demonstrate the efforts to successfully establish and meet the expectations of national and international markets. Opportunities have been developed to meet new niche markets for organic produce and floriculture. Some pasture land has been turned over to the production of fast-growing softwood and hardwood timber crops.

A significant recent trend has been the greater awareness of the need to conserve the natural resources. Reflecting a more holistic approach to the natural environment, the agricultural sector is now more conscious of the importance of the natural resources upon which it depends. Unsustainable practices are being replaced by new approaches oriented to sustainability while ensuring that the livelihood of the farming community is preserved. Soil and water conservation, biodiversity management, land use changes, the environmental movement since the 1970s and so on have all impacted on the primary industries sector. The modern farmer is encouraged to ensure that all aspects of production systems are managed as sustainably as possible. The originally introduced English agricultural production systems have been progressively adapted with increasing success to harmonise with the highly variable climate pattern imposed over an old and relatively infertile continent.

The seeds of the agricultural and pastoral industries that were sown in the colonial era sustained South Australia right through the 20th century and they continue to do so.

Page Last Reviewed: 20 Nov 2017
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