After the British settled the colony in the early years from 1788, they struggled to grow enough food to survive. For them, the soil around the settlement was shallow and infertile, rainfall erratic and climate alien. Yet, Geoff Raby author of Making Rural Australia: an economic history of technical and institutional creativity 1788-1860, says that within two generations they had altered the land with European plants and animals (though at great environmental cost), changed their traditional Western wheat farming practices, and created such prosperity that Australians were better clothed and fed than their European counterparts. By the 1930s Australia was the third largest exporter of wheat after Canada and Argentina. How was this achieved?
Early attempts to grow wheat near the coastal districts of NSW failed leading to an expansion of wheat production in Tasmania and its export to the mainland to feed the colony. Between 1840 and 1860 black stem rust and other wheat diseases continued to ruin the European-derived crops until an agricultural “sweet spot” was eventually discovered with just the right amount of rainfall. Wheat was eventually grown down the centre of NSW, across northern Victoria, the Eyre Peninsula of SA, and a wheat belt east of Perth in WA.
Rapid agricultural development in Australia throughout the 1800s and early 1900s was enabled through ready access to existing global technological and scientific knowledge and development of communication and transport systems, all hallmarks of the Industrial Revolution. However, direct technological transfer from Britain and America didn’t guarantee such success. Creative adaption by blacksmiths and tinkerers all over the country saw machinery and implements for wheat growing modified for local conditions, some of which were taken up by Australian manufacturers. Adding to this, agricultural societies and shows, ploughing competitions, experiment farms and later on, scientific organisations and “field days” all advised farmers of technological innovations, new strains of disease-resistant wheat and where to plant them, and different ways of farming.
Ploughs were used to prepare the soil before planting. The earliest ones used here were made entirely of timber but by the late 1820s iron components were introduced. Technological development saw wrought iron and then steel applied to ploughs which meant they were more reliable, worked better and broke less often. This was especially important when soil preparation was time critical.
Quite quickly, a wide variety of ploughs became available, especially from America, for different soil types and ploughing operations to be undertaken. However, after clearing the land of trees, the stumps and rocks left hidden in the ground destroyed the shares and mouldboards of many of these imported ploughs regardless of how strongly they were made. The stump-jump plough, invented in South Australia in 1876 by R.B. Smith, solved this problem and enabled the Mallee country of NSW and Victoria to be opened up for cereal production. Further developments were made by John Whitlock, a ploughing champion and blacksmith of Wagga Wagga, NSW, and brought into mass production in Sydney, by Clyde Engineering. Whitlock went on to work for H.V. McKay designing the famous “Sunrise” and “Sunlock” stump-jump ploughs.
The earliest method of sowing wheat was by broadcasting, either flinging it manually or with mechanical broadcasters. This wasteful and haphazard system of planting continued well into the 1890s when the seed-drill began to replace it. These machines enabled seed to be deposited evenly in the right amount at a uniform depth. Combine drills provided a compartment for the addition of fertiliser. The first American combines arrived here in the 1880s. Australia’s contribution to the improvement of the combine was made in 1916 by R.A. Squire, a farmer from Quirindi, NSW, who invented a spring-tine drill cultivator which combined sowing, fertilising and cultivating into one machine.
Up until the 1840s sickles and scythes were used here for harvesting wheat just like in Britain and Europe. Also, as in Britain, the first mechanised farm equipment were winnowers and threshing machines used by wealthy colonists in post-harvest operations, instead of flails.
The mechanisation of many aspects of agriculture began simultaneously in Britain and the USA, with Australia a ready market for imported harvesting machines because of our large areas of land and limited labour. However, John Ridley’s invention of the stripper in 1843, a harvester ideal for long dry summers in South Australia, brought rapid mechanisation of wheat harvesting to that state and foresaw the role of Australian manufacturers to adapt machinery to our unique conditions. As the manufacture of the American reaping machines of McCormick and Hussey did not go into production until the 1850s, Raby says that in the 1840s South Australia led the world in the adoption of harvesting machines.
From the 1860s many Australian agricultural implement and machinery manufacturers were established, including the Mellor Brothers and Shearers in South Australia, T. Robinson in Melbourne and H.V. McKay in Ballarat, Victoria, in 1888. McKay’s “Sunshine” stripper-harvester sold around the world and his factory, relocated to outside Melbourne, grew to 30 acres, employed over 2,500 workers and for many years was the largest in Australia.
Power on the farm
Throughout most of the 1800s the main power source to drive farm machinery was the horse via horseworks and treadmills which converted the power of the horse into mechanical power. Wealthier farmers and contractors could afford to use steam to run machines, increasing productivity and reducing labour costs. Steam portable engines, chiefly imported from Britain, were first used in Australia at least from 1847, and drove many machines including chaffcutters, feed grinders, balers, threshing machines, sheep-shearing stands, well-boring machinery, saw benches and pumps.
From about 1900 steam portables and horseworks began to be replaced by economical and easy-to-operate internal combustion engines which could run continuously without any attention. Run on oil, kerosene or petrol, they were mainly imported from the US in their thousands. These small engines revolutionised power supply on farms operating everything from cream separators to milking machines, and drag saws to posthole diggers, and even powered small electric lighting plants for outback homesteads.
Horses and tractors
One of the last aspects of mechanisation on the farm was the replacement of the horse by the tractor. For well over a century horses were used in Australia to haul implements and harvesters with their numbers peaking in 1918. Despite mechanisation in most aspects of farming, it took the tractor from 1918 to 1950 to completely oust the horse.
However, Henry Ford’s Fordson tractor, which arrived in Australia in 1919, was the first serious challenge to the horse. It was compact, lightweight and affordable, being mass-produced along similar lines to his Model T car. Many early Australian tractor manufacturers closed as they could not compete with the cheaper Fordson and very few tractors have been produced in Australia since.
A number of Australian wheat breeders made significant contributions to wheat growing through developing strains which: increased yields and quality, provided resistance to diseases, opened up new cropping land for wheat and produced better bread. Most notable was William Farrer who is credited with changing the appearance of Australian wheat fields from pale golden yellow to the famous brown heads with his Federation strain wheat, distributed to farmers from 1903.
Transport and other Technologies
Towards the end of the 1800s improved transport (especially the construction of railways) and closer settlement legislation opened up wheat areas in both Victoria and NSW. By the early decades of the 1900s few Australian farms were over 32 km from a railway station to send their products to market. Railways also transported machinery to farmers and brought new ideas through magazines and city newspapers (often sent post free). From the 1840s local newspapers, printed on small presses, reported on, and syndicated, the latest agricultural developments so isolation was not a liability.
The fact that Australia was a late player in the Industrial Revolution meant we benefited from: transport, especially railways, fast clipper ships and steam ships; communications, including post, telegraph and telephone services and particularly newspapers, providing access to the latest local and overseas technological advances; and the application of science to agriculture. This helped the rapid expansion of wheat production through mechanisation, adoption of dry-farming techniques, use of fertilisers and improved wheat varieties. Nevertheless, much experimentation, adaptation, creativity, enthusiasm for new products, and support and development of local manufacture all coincided to establish a highly successful wheat growing industry.
Raby, Geoff, Making Rural Australia: an economic history of technical and institutional creativity 1788-1860, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp.74-93
Simpson, Margaret and Phillip, Old Farm Machinery in Australia: a sourcebook & fieldguide, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, NSW, 1991.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, March 2019