Rural Developments 1890 - 1920

With the expansion of settlement stalled by uncertain rainfall in the north, by seasonal flooding in the South-East, and by mallee vegetation to the east of the River Murray and on Eyre Peninsula, some South Australians in the 1890s were trying to develop new farming technologies and to diversify their products.

It was generally accepted that if settlement was to be expanded and rural production increased, government would have to play a greater role than simply releasing Crown Lands. Investment in capital works, especially in railways and water-supplies, was needed to advance the settlement rather than in its wake.

South Australians had long regarded the River Murray as an artery of commerce which gave them favoured access to the western pastoral areas of New South Wales. By the late 1880s the river was also being seen as a potential source of water which could stimulate small-scale farming on the model of successful fruit-growing ventures in California.

Aware of the technical problems and cost of pumping water up the cliffs of the entrenched river, the South Australian Government did little more than encourage private or co-operative irrigation ventures. Yet when these ventures failed, the government was drawn somewhat reluctantly into the planning and funding if irrigation schemes and the allocation of water to farmers.

In 1886, Alfred Deakin, the Victorian Minister of Water Supply, invited the Canadian-born Chaffey brothers to set up an irrigation settlement at Mildura on the basis of their Californian experience. The following year South Australia granted the Chaffeys a Conditional Lease over an area of 113,000 hectares for twenty years to develop the Renmark Irrigation Colony. By 1888 their pumps were lifting water at Renmark on to newly planted vines, citrus and apricots, and had generated great hopes for the future of irrigation farming. Initial developments were in the Block B area. The much larger Block A was set aside for future allocation should the initial settlement succeed.

Some 1200 hectares had been sold to settlers by 1893. Unfortunately the Chaffeys' developments at Renmark and Mildura coincided with Victoria's speculative property boom and the disastrous crash of Australian financial markets in 1893. Irrigated horticulture is a long-term investment requiring heavy initial expenditure on pumping equipment and channel construction with only slight initial returns. The Chaffey's financial losses made them withdraw by 1895 when control of the water was vested in a trust involving settlers and the South Australia Government.

Meanwhile, the government had approved a scheme of village settlements in which men of modest means, but not the destitute, could pool their resources for co-operative working of leased Crown Land and receive cash grants of £50 for tools and materials. Attention quickly turned to the potential of the River Murray, and eleven settlements were established with 509 initial 'villagers'. With the single exception of Murtho, and contrary to the original intention, most villagers were selected from the ranks of the destitute and the Adelaide unemployed; few were farmers or farm labourers.

By 1906 only four of the original village settlements remained as co-operatives and the abandoned land was leased to individuals in blocks of at least 4 hectares. By 1913 Lyrup was the only surviving village settlement. Thus ended South Australia's fist brief experiment in communal land development. Although the village scheme was a financial failure for the government, valuable experience was gained in irrigation development. This experience was put to use in the greatly expanded projects to settle returned soldiers after 1918.

The River Murray Waters Agreement of 1914 between the Commonwealth and the three riverine States, initiated the schemes of lock-building and river flow control which were essential for any sound scheme of irrigation farming.

The swamps of the lower Murray Floodplain offered opportunities for intensive farming which were first developed by private landowners - notably by Sir W.F.D. Jervois on his estate at Wellington from 1881 onwards. Here the technical problems were not as great as in the upper Murray. Embankments, drains, sluices and syphons, were the fairly simple means of transforming wastes of rushes and reeds into productive summer pastures.

Between 1905 and 1910 the government, using its newly acquired Closer Settlement legislation, purchased several large estates and developed for irrigated dairy farming the Mobilong, Monteith and Mypolonga flats. The creation of an Irrigation Department in 1910 was a measure of the State's long-term commitment to a new form of land development.

In contrast to the droughts of the northern wheatlands, the South-East's problem was water-logging of vast areas of flats for up to five months each year. The seaward flow of rain-water across the nearly level terrain was impeded by a series of calcified sand-ridges roughly parallel to the coast.

Between 1864 and 1880 networks of drains were dug in the coastal flats around Millicent, leading the water through the coastal 'ranges' into Lake Bonney and Lake Frome. In the next twenty years attention shifted inland to improve the natural flow along watercourses parallel to the ranges and the coast. These drains, although cheap to build, produced negligible benefits.

The South-East Drainage Act of 1900 marked a renewed government effort to speed up the drainage of wetlands, and provide essential capital works in advance of closer settlement. New main-drains were constructed transversely across the ranges to lake or coastal outfalls, especially between 1910 and 1920. However, because of the failure to build networks of local drains, the real benefits from this burst of main-drain digging were delayed until after the Second World War.

Whereas the management of water was a new aspect of resource development policy, the most important changes were in the dry cropping lands which expanded in area by 55% between 1890 and 1920. Much of this expansion took place in the Murray Mallee and on eastern and central Eyre Peninsula where railways, wells and water-tanks were built by the government when the settlers arrived.

The beneficial results of light dressing of superphosphate on wheat crops were first demonstrated at Roseworthy Agricultural College after the arrival of J.D. Custance, the first Professor of Agriculture in 1882, and were continued by his successor William Lowrie.

The adoption of topdressing by the general body of farmers was slow until the 1890s when the Correll brothers, of Minlation, Yorke Peninsula, hit upon the idea of mixing small quantities of superphosphate with the seed wheat in their American-imported drills. Once again, a folk innovation provided the technical breakthrough that allowed both the further advance of agricultural frontiers into the mallee scrub and the restoration of depleted croplands in the older farming areas. 'Man and superphosphate have converted the wilderness into smiles', wrote the West Coast Recorder in 1911.

Diffusion of the 'new' farming which involved phosphatic fertiliser, improved varieties of rust-resistant and drought-tolerant wheat, and prolonged fallows with frequent cultivation to suppress weeds, was aided by the establishment in 1888 of the central Agricultural Bureau and its branches in the farming districts.

This was an agricultural extension service set up on the initiative of the farmers six years before the establishment of the government's Department of Agriculture. The spread of bureau branches from the old-settled heartland to new frontier communities demonstrated the willingness of South Australian farmers to seek and exchange applicable knowledge. By 1910 the use of fertilisers on croplands was almost universal except in the Upper North. The heaviest rates of application were in the old-settled lands where soil exhaustion from continuos cropping was first recognised.