Changes in Cultivated Area

Changes in the area of land under cultivation are a good indication of the advance and retreat of the frontiers of farming and of the responses of farmers to price fluctuations, droughts and technological changes. Land under cultivation comprises cropland, fallow land and sown pasture.

1836-60: In the first twenty-five years of settlement 145,000 hectares had been brought into cultivation, giving South Australia 31% of the total area of cultivated land in Australia in 1860. The area was in a compact zone around Adelaide, occupying the lightly timbered woodlands of the Adelaide Plains and Southern Vales, the upper valleys of the Torrens and Onkaparinga rivers, the Barossa Valley and valleys northwards to Kapunda and Clare.

1860-70: In this decade, the cultivated area more than doubled with northward expansion, especially in the valleys of the Light and Gilbert rivers. There was modest growth on the fertile volcanic soils around Mount Gambier in the South-East. By 1870 South Australia, with half the Australian wheat area (double that of Victoria), had a thriving grain export trade to the eastern colonies, South Africa and sometimes to the United Kingdom.

1870-80: This was the decade of a 'great leap forward'. The Waste Lands Amendment Act of 1869 (Strangways Act) allowed land to be purchased, for the first time, on time-payment. The cultivated area increased threefold, the greatest increases being in the Mid North and on Yorke Peninsula. After 1872, settlement was allowed to extend beyond Goyder's Line on to the salt-bush plains east of the central hill country and on to the Willochra Plain. By 1880, South Australian land under cultivation constituted 46% of all cultivated land in Australia.

1880-90: This was a decade of drought and stagnation on the northern margins of settlement and also of experiment in clearing the mallee scrub on Yorke Peninsula and the Murray Plains east of the Mount Lofty Ranges. Contraction continued in the older settled Counties where declining grain yields followed soil exhaustion and wheat diseases. South Australia appeared to be developing a 'hollow frontier' where land was cleared, cropped and then abandoned.

1900-10: After stagnation of the 1890s land clearance gathered pace in a broad central belt from the Victorian border to Ceduna in the far west. In this decade of above-average rainfall the widespread use of superphosphate restored fertility to the older farmlands and allowed wheat farmers to settle on the sandy soils of the Murray Mallee and Eyre Peninsula. Subdivision of pastoral estates in the Mid North produced substantial increases in cultivation on new family-sized farms. In contrast, in the northern Counties, the scene of the rash expansion of the 1870s, there was general contraction as farmers exchanged their leased lands for new farms on Eyre Peninsula or the Murray Mallee.

1920-30: There was a post-war surge of cultivation achieved almost entirely by horse-teams in all grain-growing areas except the Upper North during this decade. Marked expansion occurred in the dry Murray Mallee and northern Eyre Peninsula where returned soldiers formed a high proportion of new settlers. Land in fallow accounted for 33% of all land under cultivation from 1905 until 1945. The area sown to wheat in the 1930 season was a record as farmers responded to Prime Minister Scullin's appeal to help relieve the foreign exchange crisis.

1930-40: This was a decade of depression, low prices, dust storms, soil erosion and contracting areas in cultivation. The only exceptions to the general decline were modest expansions of sown pastures in the higher rainfall coastal areas, a foretaste of major developments after the Second World War.

1950-60: The 1950s began with high prices for wool during the Korean War and a return of optimism for grain farmers. Horses were rapidly displaced by tractors and powerful new machinery speeded up the clearance of scrub on infertile soils in the higher rainfall zones. Trace elements, added to superphosphate, produced a pasture revolution in these areas.

The pattern of expansion after 1960 was similar to that of the 1950s, the greatest increases being in the upper South-East. Sown pasture first exceeded the area under crop by 1961, and by 1970 it had exceeded the combined area under crop and fallow.


The distribution of the five principal South Australian systems of productive land-use is shown on the map. This area accounts for all but 1% of the total number of farm holdings, and all but 3% of the State's value of farm production in 1983-84; however, extensive pastoral use extends far beyond the limit of Counties and accounts for two-thirds of the State's 62 million hectares of land in farm holdings.

Intensive farming for grapes, fruit and vegetables occurs in areas which have particularly favourable combinations of water-supply, soil quality, climate, or proximity to large urban markets.

Managed forests are largely of Pinus radiata. They have been established by the Woods and Forests Department and private companies in areas of higher rainfall and cooler summers and on soils which are generally of lower fertility than those of the adjacent farmlands. Their productive value in terms of timber yield over a forty-year to fifty-year rotation may approach that of some of the more intensive forms of pastoral farming.

Mixed gain and livestock farming is the most important South Australian system of land-use in terms of the number of farms and its share of the total value of production. Grain crops - principally wheat and barley - alternate with pasture leys consisting mainly of annual legumes. These legumes may be sown, but they are often volunteer among the stubble of the harvested grain. Sheep, principally merino, and beef cattle graze the pasture leys although many farmers in this zone raise pigs and poultry using the grain grown on their farms.

Pastoral farming includes sheep rearing for meat and wool, dairying, and beef cattle rearing. It occurs mainly in the higher rainfall areas on sown pastures of annual legumes, lucerne and perennial grasses. It also occurs in a narrow band on the semi-arid northeastern margins of the mixed grain and livestock zone where wheat farming was abandoned in the 1930s. In the higher rainfall districts sheep tend to be cross-bred rather than pure merino. In some areas barley, oats and lupins are grown on the better drained soils, while spray-irrigated oilseed crops and summer vegetables add diversity to the farm products in some districts.

Extensive pastoral farming occurs in areas where the stock rate is more than two hectares per sheep or more than sixteen hectares per head of cattle. Merino sheep graze on native grasses, herbs and shrubs south of the Dog Fence - an unbroken wire-netting barrier extending over 8000 kilometres. Cattle are raised in the more arid parts of the zone and north of the Dog Fence.

Size of Holdings

In March 1984 there were 19 923 farm holdings, or 'rural establishments' as defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Only 2.4% of these holdings lay outside the area of Hundreds. The average size of farm holding within Hundreds was 850 hectares; however, there was considerable variation in size. The Adelaide and Outer Adelaide Statistical Divisions had almost 30% of the State's total farm holdings, with an average size of only 162 hectares, while on Eyre Peninsula the average size within Hundreds was 2312 hectares.

It appears that the number of South Australian farms has declined since reaching a peak between 1968 and 1973, although changes in the definition of a farm holding prior to 1977 make long-term statistical comparisons difficult. Since 1977 the State has been losing an average of 240 farm holdings per year, mainly through amalgamation with nearby properties.


Land devoted to crops and sown pastures during the season 1983-84 amounted to 6.6 million hectares. Cereals for grain made up 43% of this total and accounted for about 91% of the area under crop.

Wheat: From the beginnings of European settlement, wheat has been the mainstay for the South Australian farmer. South Australia's hot dry summers contribute to the low incidence of stem rust, a troublesome disease in the moister wheat growing areas of Australia. In 1983-84, the State contributed 13% of the total Australian wheat production. This was a record season for South Australia both in tonnage harvested and average yield per hectare. The maps show the changes in the distribution of the area sown to wheat and of the yields per hectare at fifty-year intervals. The seasons of 1883-84 and 1933-34 mark the end of two major phases of rapid expansion of wheat growing on newly cleared land. Although similar areas were harvested in 1983-84 and 1933-34, the 1983-84 yield per hectare was triple the 1933-34 yield.

The graph of wheat production from 1840-41 to 1983-84 shows year-to-year changes in the total area sown as well as the ten-year running mean for yield per hectare. This mean has the effect of smoothing out changes in yields caused by seasonal weather fluctuations and demonstrates long-term trends. Yields fell steadily during the nineteenth century as the natural soil fertility became depleted, and farmers spread into drier areas. There was a steep rise early in the twentieth century with the widespread adoption of phosphate fertiliser. The trend line fell again in the 1920s as soil nitrogen became depleted through overcropping. The rise after 1940 reflected the retreat from marginal areas and the build-up of nitrogen which followed from the use of legumes and increased livestock. In the past twenty years the area of wheat has expanded again but the long-term trend of yield has been on a plateau.

Barley: Until after the First World War only trifling amounts of barley were grown in South Australia. As it became recognised that the conditions on Yorke Peninsula were ideal for the slow ripening of malting barley South Australia became the foremost barley producing State in Australia; by the 1960s it was producing over half the national crop. However, barley production has recently expanded in other States, and in 1983-84 South Australia's share was on 37% of the national production. Barley growing has now spread beyond the Yorke Peninsula heartland with the increased planting of high-yielding grain for livestock feeding. Whereas in 1933-34 Yorke Peninsula accounted for 64% of the State's production, it was only 31% fifty years later. Thirty-six per cent of the barley harvest came from Eyre Peninsula and the Murraylands, especially from their moister southern parts. Unlike wheat, barley has had high and rather stable yields since records have been dept, probably because production has been confined to areas with the more reliable rainfall.


Livestock production ranges from very extensive cattle rearing in the arid zone north of the Dog Fence to the highly intensive production of pigs and poultry within an 80 kilometre radius of Adelaide. Grazing conditions range from the saltbush of the Far North to the annual legumes and wimmera rye grass of the cereal growing districts, and the lush perennial pastures of the South-East, the irrigated flats of the lower Murray and parts of the Mount Lofty Ranges.

South Australia has experience two periods of major growth in livestock numbers. The first, from the beginning of European settlement until the mid-1870s, saw the expansion of flocks and herds on natural pastures in the settled areas and the outback. The second period of growth, from the late 1940s until the mid 1970s, accompanied the development of improved pastures in the southern settled areas.

Sheep: South Australia's 16.4 million sheep were just under 12% of the Australian flock in 1984. In 1884, there were 6.7 million sheep, increasing to only 7.9 million by 1934. The number had fallen again by 1946 to 6.8 million, but then grew nearly threefold to an all-time peak of 19.7 million in 1970. The proportion of the State's sheep flock carried in the arid interior beyond the limit of Counties has fallen from 25% in 1884 to only 4% a century later. The highest stocking densities have always been in the South-East, which has increased its share of the State flock from 21% in 1884 to 31% in 1984.

Merino sheep constitute about 80% of the State's flock. The early South Australian breeders developed a large-framed type of merino with a heavy fleece of medium to broad quality wool. The average South Australian fleece weight is the highest among the Australian States. It has doubled in the past century with a record of 6.55 kilograms per head being attained in 1983-84.

Cattle: South Australia has just over 3% of Australian cattle kept for meat production and just under 6% of the nation's dairy cattle. As with sheep, the proportion of cattle grazing outside the area of Counties has fallen over the past century - from 35% in 1884 to 10% in 1984. Beef cattle numbers, especially Herefords and Shorthorns, increased substantially in response to booming world meat markets in the early 1970s but have fallen dramatically as Australian produce has been restricted on northern hemisphere markets. Dairy cow numbers have changed little in the past fifty years, although their distribution has contracted to the three areas with the most favourable pasture-growing conditions: the southern Mount Lofty Ranges, the lower Murray swamps and lakes district and, in the lower South-East, the rich coastal peat soils and the volcanic soils around Mount Gambier.

Intensive Farming

The production of orchard fruit, grapes and vegetables amounted to 14% of the gross value of the State's farm output in 1983-84 and involved about 20% of farm holdings. Vegetable production is undertaken by nearly a thousand growers, most of whom cultivate only a few hectares. Glasshouse production of early season tomatoes is significant on the northern Adelaide Plains and in Murray Bridge. About 8000 hectares are devoted to market gardens; more than half are close to Adelaide. They produce all types of vegetables, including considerable quantities of tomatoes and celery for markets in the eastern States. About 2000 hectares of irrigated land along the River Murray are devoted to vegetables, mainly tomatoes, pumpkins and melons. Most of the remaining area of vegetable production is in the South-East where potatoes and onions are grown on the fertile volcanic loams near Mount Gambier.

Although South Australia is more famous for its vineyards than its market gardens, the gross value of grapes harvested is less than that of vegetables. Grape growing contributes 4% of the State's total value of production comported with 5% for vegetables. The value added in wine making gives the vineyards their significance in the rural economy. With 43% of the Australian vineyard area, South Australia grows about 58% of the tonnage of grapes used for wine making nationally. In Victoria, 72% of the grapes are used for dried fruit, whereas 93% of the South Australian grape harvest goes to wine making. There is considerable variety in the climatic and soil conditions of the grape growing district. Irrigation districts along the River Murray make up about 40% of the State's vineyard area. The hot-climate areas produce much of the sherry, port, brandy and fortifying spirit, as well as grapes for blending with those from other districts for dessert wines. The Barossa District is the heart of the State's table wine production and has 25% of the vineyard area. Production here, and at Clare and the Southern Vales District, depends mainly on winter rainfall stored in the subsoil for summer growth. In the irrigated districts the yields are from 15 to 18 tonnes per hectare, in non-irrigated districts the average is 4 to 8 tonnes. In common with other parts of Australia there has been over production of the bulk wine varieties as markets have shifted towards premium wines. Considerable areas of the less marketable varieties of vines have recently been removed by grubbing with the aid of Commonwealth and State government subsidies.

A wide variety of orchard fruit is grown in South Australia. The State accounts for about 18% of the value of the total Australian orchard crop and for 26% of the citrus and 30% of the stone fruit. Production is concentrated in the vicinity of Adelaide and in the irrigated districts along the River Murray. The citrus industry, located almost entirely in the upper Murray, experienced considerable expansion during the 1970s as returns to growers from the traditional Riverland grape varieties slumped. Record citrus production was attained in 1980-81. About two-thirds of the output of oranges is juiced; however, there is increasing difficulty in meeting competition from imported juices, notably from Brazil.

Stone fruits, mainly apricots and peaches, were an important component of government-sponsored irrigation developments after the two world wars. Most of the output now is for canning and for dried apricots. Some unirrigated stone fruit is grown on the northern Adelaide Plains and in the Barossa Valley. Pome fruit - mainly applies and pears - is grown principally at higher elevations in the Adelaide Hills. Record apple production was attained in 1940-41 when there was substantial export to the United Kingdom. Production has since fallen to about 60% of that peak and is largely consumed by the local market. A large proportion of the Australian almond crop is produced in South Australia, mainly at Willunga in the Southern Vales and in the Riverland.

Value of Production

South Australian farms accounted for just under 12% of the gross value of Australian agricultural commodities produced in the 1983-84 season; 63% of the South Australian output came from crops, 15% from livestock slaughtering and 22% from livestock products such as wool and meat. The gross value of commodities produced is estimated from data collected in the annual agricultural commodity census conducted throughout Australia on 31 March. Prices are those ruling in the previous year or season in the 'market-place', generally the nearest metropolitan market, and include any subsidies or bounties. The 'farm gate' or local value at the point of production is the gross value minus marketing costs, including transport, which in South Australia is estimated to be 10% of the gross value.

The map applies State 'market-place' prices for agricultural commodities to farm outputs within Hundreds and Counties in 1983-84. It does not represent returns to producers and cannot be interpreted as a measure of farm profitability. It does, however, indicate the relative productivity of the agricultural lands of the State in one of the best seasons climatically in recent years. Major conservation parks or areas of unallotted Crown Land are excluded; otherwise all areas within Hundreds and Counties are shaded, although all land may not be used for agriculture.

The highest values occur in the areas of specialised intensive cropping for fruit, grapes and vegetables. The most productive pieces of farmland in the State are the 250 hectares of market gardens within three council areas of metropolitan Adelaide; average outputs range from just under $7000 to $25,000 per hectare. The irrigation areas on the River Murray recorded values of production in the range $1900 to $3800 per hectare, the prime cereal-growing lands of Yorke Peninsula and Mid North from $200 to $300 per hectare, and the more marginal cereal growing areas from $50 to $100. At the least productive end of the scale, lands within Counties but outside Hundreds on Eyre Peninsula averaged from $1 to $2 of output per hectare, while in pastoral districts outside Counties the estimated output ranged from as little as 1 cent to $1 per hectare.

Land Values

The price which purchasers are prepared to pay for farm property is closely related to the present and expected returns from land ownership. These appear to be influenced by land quality, commodity prices and other factors such as tax legislation. Spatial variation in land values across the State is influenced primarily by the quantity and reliability of rainfall, by soil type, and by proximity to Adelaide or to deep-water ports.

The map of 1984 land values refers only to broadacre, unirrigated farming land which has been cleared, fenced and watered for agricultural or pastoral use. Thus, the impact of irrigation is excluded, as are the values of buildings, livestock and machinery. Additionally, no attempt has been made to identify comparable values in the vicinity of Adelaide, where the concept of broadacre farming is generally inappropriate due to the influence of intensive agriculture and hobby farming.