Tough times for rural pioneers

A bullock team at the Narrandera Railway Station in Narrandera’s early years.

In December 1930 Narrandera, situated on the Murrumbidgee River and on the North Murrumbidgee Irrigation Canal, was the centre of a pastoral and agricultural district, with Leeton, Yanco, Griffith and Yenda within easy distance.

It was frequently referred to as a dusty place, because a local photographer happened to snap a dust storm that had its origin somewhere in Central Australia. In common with other parts of the Commonwealth, Narrandera passed through three bad years; otherwise one would not have known of any “depression.”

In 1930 within a 50-mile radius 579,967 acres were under crop, of which 48,643 would be cut for hay. This area was sown by 3419 growers.

For early lift lambs 13/6 to 16/- was received locally, equivalent to 16/6 to 19/6 Melbourne and Sydney prices. With few exceptions crops were showing wonderful recovery and many heavy yields were anticipated. Lucerne sown the first week in August was from 18 inches to two feet in length on November 2, 1930 on sandy soils.

Land values varied from five to eight pounds an acre, but very little was changing hands. The average yield was estimated at 22 bushels that year. The river flats ran one sheep to the acre and the plains one sheep to 15 acres. Monthly sales generally yarded from 7000 to 12,000 sheep and 150 to 200 cattle. Horse sales were held every six months, and owing to the high cost of motor power, horses were returning to favour. At special sheep sales as many as 42,000 were penned.

Times were tough in the early days of farming in the Narrandera area with farmers facing a tough climate and having none of the modern machinery used today. Looking back in history early farmers ploughed a whole field by hand or dig deep into the earth with only a pick and a shovel. This was what it was like for early settlers working in primary industries. Everything had to be done by hand or with the help of animals like horses. It meant that everything took a very long time and was often very dangerous for the men and women working in the fields.

Sheep farming was one of Australia’s first successful primary industries and the first hint of how much primary industries would help the new economy. From 1900 onward, wheat became a successful crop in Australia, while at the same time the beef and dairy industries were growing rapidly.

It soon became obvious that with the right farming techniques, there were many different crops that would flourish in the Australian climate. Most of the wheat varieties grown in the late 1800s-early 1900s are no longer in use, given the advances of the wheat breeding programs since the 1890s.

In 1900 wool and wheat still dominated Australian agriculture, but greater diversity was developing with beef and dairy cattle, and a wide range of grain, fruit and vegetable crops. By the early part of the 20th century, Australia’s agricultural production had rapidly increased and output expanded well beyond the needs of the Australian population. This increased production led Australia to become one of the world’s major food exporters.

Across much of the early 20th century, the Australian government provided assistance to farmers and primary producers in the form of bounties, to encourage production, employment and export. The government also placed tariffs on some goods to discourage imports. Despite huge impacts from the Great Depression, and the first and second World Wars, Australian agriculture continued to grow throughout the first half of the 20th century.

The relative importance of farming to the Australian economy decreased in the second half of the 20th century. Government assistance was reduced and wool became no longer such a significant and valuable commodity. Farmers were forced to innovate and diversify to survive. For farmers it has meant that instead of having to plant and gather crops by hand, they can now draw on the latest scientific research tools such as mechanical harvesters, computers and satellites to get the work done.

Irrigation and drought-resistant crops have made it possible to grow crops in far more places than was once possible in Australia. Water availability and drought management were, and still are, key challenges for farmers throughout most of Australia. As irrigation systems were established further inland, new farming practices other than sheep grazing became more viable.

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