Many farmers are mid-way through their winter crop plantings at the moment, while others wait for rain. It’s a busy and stressful time of year for many, but also an appropriate time to look back on the history of cropping in Australia. Agriculture has come a long way in the last few hundred years. Today Australia produces some 24 million tonnes of wheat per year of which 75-80% is destined for export markets mainly the Middle East and Asia. Of that figure around 800,000 ha of wheat is sown annually in southern and central QLD producing 1.2 million tonnes of grain. Half of this is exported, with a quarter each being used for domestic milling and domestic feed grain.
On the sorghum front approximately 60% of the Australian crop is grown in QLD, with an annual planting of between 600 to 700,000 hectares, the grain is used almost exclusively for feed and none for human consumption. Japan is our leading export market although sorghum is highly valued in other parts of Asia, one example being feed for the lucrative racing pigeon industry, where it is not uncommon to pay upwards of $3,000.00 for a bird.
However grain growing in Australia had a slow start. If we rewind to the April of 1787, Australia in its infancy as a British colony had a long way to go before the growing of cereal crops such as wheat became viable. Captain Arthur Phillip was directed, amongst other things, to proceed as soon as possible on arrival in the new colony to the cultivation of the soil with the purpose of securing “grain and provisions”. This directive was based on Captain James Cook’s reports regarding Australia’s potential for productivity when he arrived back in England.
Unfortunately Captain Cook’s glowing accounts of Australia’s soil fertility proved to be a little too enthusiastic. Neither Botany Bay nor Port Jackson were suitable for the cultivation of cereal crops, and when the time came to cultivate the soil it was found that there were very few people who actually had any idea how to go about growing a crop. There are oblique references in historical accounts of convicts of farming backgrounds who appear to have had more idea than their British masters when it came to agriculture, however their opinions were rarely listened to.
So Australia’s grain industry had a shaky start, but what began as a small plot in a Government Farm in the middle of Sydney gradually increased as explorers opened up our vast country. The acreage put under the one-way plough increased dramatically in the 1830s to 1840s with the formation of the states of Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia. Further expansion into New South Wales and the influx of immigrants during the Gold Rush of the 1850s and the construction of the inland railways were major factors in the development of the industry. The more remote farmers were now able to transport their produce a lot quicker and easier to major cities and ports which in turn opened up export markets. Wheat was first exported abroad in 1845, although it would be a good thirty years before this became a regular event.
By the 1880’s nearly 2,000,000 acres were under cultivation in QLD, by 1907 that number had increased to 3,000,000 acres.
In many parts of Australia each decade from the 1830s on saw more land being turned to the cultivation of crops firstly through government sponsored exploration and innovation and then the introduction of mixed farms. These advances were complemented by the wipe spread use of tractors on farms, in particular from the First World War on. By the 1930s fertilizers and improved cultivation techniques along with the early bulk handling systems of the 1940s were in play, although even in the early sixties it was not unusual to see rows of 180 pound wheat bags sitting in rows outside depots.
I’m sure if Captain Arthur Phillip could be with us today he would be amazed to see the versatility of our grain products. Australian wheat based noodle, bread and bakery products can be found across the globe and include Chinese style noodles, Wanton Dumpling skin, European pan bread and Indian flat bread. And our sorghum fattens some of the best beef in the world. It’s a far cry from the early settlement staple of weevil infested johhny-cakes cooked over a camp-fire.