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Australian farming and agriculture – grazing and cropping

For over 100 years, from the 1840s to the 1950s, the Australian economy was seen to be ‘riding on the sheep's back'. Agriculture, especially wool, established Australia as a thriving economy with a substantial workforce, service industries and large port cites.

Australian farmer with sheep, Courtesy of Agricorner

Australian agriculture benefitted from many different agricultural practices, formal and informal land grants, overseas capital and access to relatively cheap labour through Indigenous workers and indentured schemes. Combined with invention, ingenuity and hard work this has led to Australia becoming a leading exporter of fine food, meats and grains.

However, from 1901 to 2009 there has been a dramatic decline proportionally in the income from wool, and the people employed in agriculture, from 14 per cent to 3 per cent. At the same time, there has been an increase in the head of cattle and the variety of profitable agricultural export industries. Most of Australia's agricultural products continue to be exported and farmers supply about 93 per cent of Australia's food.

There have been many changes in farming methods over the last 200 years and Australian farmers have had to be adaptable as well as resilient and inventive. The challenges of access to fresh water, the legacy of high amounts of fertilisers, massive clearing, over grazing, a tyranny of distance, transport costs and feral animals, have tested Australian farmers to their limits. In response, farming has become more mechanised and reliant on technologies, as well as holistic as it seeks to become more sustainable.

A stockman musters cattle, photograph by Gary Ticehurst. Courtesy of ABC News.

Most of Australia's land, about two-thirds, is given over to farming production. About 90 per cent of farm land is for grazing on native pastures, occurring mostly in the arid and semi-arid zones. Cattle and sheep grazing is known as pastoralism and has a long history associated with rural and outback Australia, connecting most Australians.

The opportunity to open up vast native grass resources as grasslands and establish native pasture for livestock grazing was due to the fire-stick farming carried out by Aboriginal people over thousands of years. Later, Aboriginal people became the backbone of the pastoral industry.

Fruit picker sorts apples in a Tasmanian orchard, April 2012, courtesy of ABC News.

Grazing continues as the highest value sector in farm production. In 2012, the highest value of production, in order, was cattle, wheat, dairy, vegetables, fruit and nuts, before lamb meat and wool. At the same time, most of Australia's agricultural businesses are involved in a ‘two-legged' economy – combining wheat and sheep.

Cropping is across a wide variety of grains and other crops. In 2012, smaller agricultural practices, such as fruit and nut trees, grape growing, sugar cane, and other crop businesses represented about half the number of the total grain, beef, cattle and sheep businesses. New companies are developing niche industries in organic farming and native bush foods.

The development of agricultural farming in Australia

George Stubbs, A portrait of the kongouroo [kangaroo] from New Holland, 1772

European farms developed soon after British colonisation and European settlement in Australia. Three months after the arrival of the First Fleet in January 1788, the livestock in the colony consisted of seven horses, seven cattle, 29 sheep, 74 pigs, five rabbits, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks, and 209 fowls.

However there were great difficulties in establishing agriculture. European food was in short supply until the more regular arrival of ships and the beginnings of trade. Europeans relied heavily upon eating native game and fruits to feed themselves.

Fish, oysters and a trade with Aborigines in kangaroos was the main diet of those around Sydney. In Tasmania,

many of the prisoners apply for kangaroo, the pork being so bad … Had it not been for the good success in killing kangaroos, the colony would have been destitute of everything.
(Reverend Knopwood, Tasmania, 1 July 1805 and October 1805 in Barbara Santich, Bold Palates)

Governor Arthur Phillip sent exploratory missions in search of better soils and fixed on the Parramatta region. The Cumberland Plain was an open eucalypt woodland in which the trees were widely spaced and the ground between grass covered.

About two years after the arrival of the First Fleet from England, Governor Phillip assigned land to the ex-convict James Ruse at Rose Hill (now Parramatta). This was the location of Australia's first wheat farm.

Merino sheep, mutton and market gardens

View of Elizabeth Farm 1894, by E. Camper, water colour, State Library of New South Wales.

In 1793, John and Elizabeth Macarthur received a grant of 100 acres of land near Parramatta and, using convict labour, established Elizabeth Farm. In 1796, John Macarthur bought his first merino sheep, recognised worldwide for its ability to produce wool which is soft and fine but strong. In 1807, the Macarthurs sent their first bale of wool to England. Merino wool became the basis of Australia's wool industry.

In 1813, after a period of drought and in search of grasslands for pasture, three men – Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth with an Aboriginal guide, three convicts, as well as horses, managed to survey a route over the Blue Mountains in the Great Dividing Range.

Arriving at Blaxland, they saw a vast expanse of bush and grasslands. Governor Macquarie instructed George Evans to follow Lawson's clearly-marked route. Soon after, William Cox and a team of convicts built a road in less than six months. Settlers began populating the area, bringing their livestock to graze on the open plains.

Chinese gardener on Toorale with cauliflower - Bourke, NSW c 1932 State Library of New South Wales bcp_03551r

In 1824, the Australian Agricultural Company was established through an Act of the British Parliament, with the right to select 1,000,000 acres (4,047 km 2) in New South Wales for agricultural development. The area selected ran from Port Stephens to the Manning River. It began operations to improve the stock of merino sheep for export to Britain. Cheap labour was sourced through convicts, Aboriginal workers and indentured labourers on seven-year contracts.

With wool reaching record prices in Europe, especially during the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 to 1815, there was a large influx of merinos into Australia. By the end of the 1850s, sheep numbers across Australia had reached 16 million, or around 39 sheep per head of population, compared to around 6 sheep per head of population today.

The merinos did not improve the sheep for slaughter as meat sheep. In Adelaide in 1845, high demand for kangaroo from the new settlers pushed the price to an ‘extraordinary' nine pence per pound. (Edward Abbott, The English and Australian Cookery Book, 1864 in Barbara Santich, Bold Palates)

From the 1850s, market gardens were developed by Chinese people to service the diggings in the gold rush period and from the 1860s until the 1890s, the diggings across Australia saw a fresh supply of vegetables and sometimes delivery of fruit from Chinese market gardeners.

Between 1900 and 1920 the majority of vegetables grown in Western Australia were grown by Chinese market gardeners. Over a third of the Chinese population of Western Australia was involved in the market garden industry, which was labour intensive and relied on farming techniques practiced in China.

The 1800s – natural grasslands for grazing pasture and clearing for cropping

John Lewin, The Plains Bathurst depicting Governor Macquarie's camp, water colour, c 1816, courtesy of State Library of New South Wales.

Throughout the 1800s, colonial government sponsored surveys and exploration opened up new tracts of land. In NSW, after George Evans discovered the Lachlan River in 1815 (under instructions from Governor Macquarie), the Surveyor-General Oxley successfully surveyed and described the country by following the Lachlan River and across to and down the Macquarie River. In 1816 Allan Cunningham found a way through in Queensland. Hamilton Hume, an experienced explorer, and William Hovell reached the Murray River in 1824 and then headed southwest and discovered and crossed the Ovens and Goulburn Rivers in Victoria.

Major Mitchell was appointed as the Surveyor-General of NSW in 1828 and by 1834 Mitchell had drawn a map of the colony divided into 19 counties with a description of their boundaries. Mitchell's surveys started a land rush of people keen to settle these areas and benefit from their rich soil and open plains.

Farming in New South Wales. ploughing, National Museum of Australia

Farmers and pastoralists, known as 'squatters', who squatted on the land without formal land grants, gradually moved inland and occupied huge areas of pasture for cropping and grazing cattle and sheep.

The extensive grasslands, open woodlands and abundant wildlife exclaimed upon by Europeans for their pastoral opportunities has been described as The Biggest Estate on Earth. The fire-stick farming which had created this landscape was a complex, country-wide system of land management used by Aboriginal people in pre-settlement Australia.

Further, huge areas of forest and scrub (land covered with low trees or shrubs) were cleared for pasture and crop farming along Australia's coast and inland. By 1860, after 70 years of European farming settlement, there were 1.2 million acres (or 480,000 hectares) under crop and livestock numbers had increased to 25 million head.

The wheat belt

Distribution of farm types – the rainfall lines

Goyder's Line, map, Government of South Australia

The development of crops was limited by rainfall distribution, in this case, 12 inches (30 centimetres) of rainfall a year. The temperate buffer between the 20 and 12 inch rainfall lines, separates the coastal areas from the semi-arid zones. This buffer zone, suitable for cropping, became known as the wheat belt.

The 12 inch rain fall line was marked as the Goyder Line in South Australia. This was drawn by South Australia's surveyor-general, George W. Goyder in 1865 after two drought years to delineate cropping country from extensive grazing land.

In the 1870s, however, after a series of wet years, optimistic farmers ignored Goyder's warnings and moved beyond the 12 inch rainfall line. When a series of dry seasons occurred in the 1880s, many of the farmers were ruined. When the farmers retreated the land was worse off due to the over-stocking.

The struggle to maintain the viability of this farming on the edge of suitable rainfall distribution is still discussed by CSIRO as a benchmark.

Never-the-less, South Australia's main wheat areas in the temperate buffer zone were reasonably close to the coastal port towns and it was the major wheat producer of the Australian colonies until the 1890s. Tasmania was initially part of ‘the granaries of the east’ but lost out to South Australia as transport costs were higher. 

The modern wheat belt in the eastern states was established in pastures west of the Great Dividing Range and railways established rail heads in these areas in the 1870s.  Victoria surpassed South Australia's wheat production in the 1890s. Western Australia became a major grain producer by 1905 and then New South Wales became the premier producer in 1910.

Overcoming low soil fertility for cropping – super phosphate and nitrogen

In the 1890s the introduction of super phosphate and nitrogen to improve soil fertility preached salvation although there was a tendency to crop and overgraze in low rainfall areas. One hundred years later this has led to challenges with soil erosion and salinity. Contemporary management recognises that pastures grazed at lower stocking rates such as with beef, have a much lower need for fertilisers.

Science, inventions and seed breeding for cropping

Science, inventions in machinery and experimentation in seed have added millions of hectares to wheat farming in the low rainfall areas. For most of the 1800s, most farming tasks used manual labour along with horses and bullocks. Australian inventions, like the 1840s Ridley Stripper, drastically reduced labour harvesting costs.

The stump-jump plough, sketch. Courtesy of Flinders Range Research, The Smith Brothers

The invention of the stump-jump plough in the 1870s by Richard Bowyer Smith (1837–1919) made it possible to crop large areas of the mallee scrub country. The invention was adopted almost universally across the mallee lands, further extending the reach of cropping into previously unfarmed country.

Experimentation with pedigree wheat seeds by William Farrer in Cuppacumbalong in the Australian Capital Territory led to the production of wheat that was resistant to rust and flourished in the hot dry lands of the north.

Merino sheep and drought-resistant strains of crops led to two of the most common forms of agriculture in Australia – wheat and sheep farming.

Smaller agricultural practices

Dairy, fruit and nuts

Dairy cows, courtesy of the Government of South Australia.

An average rainfall of more than 20 inches and associated rich alluvial soils allowed coastal areas to develop smaller agricultural practices, such as timber, dairy, sugar, fruits and vegetables. Tasmania changed its production from wheat to potatoes, oats and fruit, which it exported to the mainland.

These agricultural areas with rich soils have a long history of settlement farmer occupation and, have contributed greatly to a variety of food regions and a wine industry. After the White Australia Policy came into law with the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, Chinese immigration was restricted and the Italian and Slavic peoples who arrived in the 1900s worked as market gardeners in suburbs surrounding Perth.

By 1900, greater diversity in agriculture had developed with beef and dairy cattle, and a wide range of grain, fruit and vegetable crops. Dairying and horticulture became the main industries of the coastal agricultural areas. Today, yoghurts, cheese, butter, dried fruits, canned fruits, macadamia nuts and sugar are all exported but vulnerable to markets.

Sugar cane industry

Burning and harvesting sugar cane at Ingham, Queensland, 1986, courtesy of the National Archives of Australia 1 : A6135, K13/10/86/139

The sugar cane industry in Queensland was established in the 1860s using Pacific Island labourers, known as Kanakas. Tens of thousands of Kanakas, some of whom were kidnapped from their island homes, worked under indentured labour schemes on the sugar plantations. By 1906, most of the 10,000 Pacific Islanders living in Queensland were repatriated under the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901. The plantations then became family farms. Government protection and subsidies were then provided to cover the costs of white labour.

Following the deportation of the Pacific Island families, newly arrived Italian and other European workers took up the opportunities to work on the sugar farms cutting cane, and worked hard to buy their own small farms. Today, many sugar cane growers in Queensland are descendants of the early cane cutters. While machinery for cutting cane was introduced in the 1940s, it was not until the 1960s that the process became almost completely mechanised.

Water, droughts and empires

Drought in the Wimmera, Victoria, c. 1944, courtesy of Culture Victoria.

Fresh water availability and drought management are key challenges for farmers throughout most of Australia. The location of wells, the building of dams and the sinking of bores all became part of the necessary requirements for farming in the low rainfall areas to establish access to water in dry times and for droving stock to markets. In 1910 in Western Australia, the Canning Stock Route was opened up by Alfred Canning.

The prolonged drought of 1895–1904, seriously affected wool production. Sheep numbers fell from 106 million in 1892 to 54 million in 1903 – a 49 per cent fall. It took about two decades for sheep numbers to be restored to the levels of 1892, when in 1926 sheep numbers rose above 100 million once again.

Sir Sidney Kidman (1857–1935) used his experience and understanding of the Australian environment and business to build an empire of cattle stations that were 'drought-proof'. He ended up with over 100 properties, from the top of the Northern Territory and Western Australia to South Australia. They were in two 'chains' and used river systems to move cattle in good condition from the north to markets in the south.

Half a century later, another large property owner, the Englishman Lord Vestey, the owner of Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory, was at the centre of a dispute over equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers. In August 1966, Aboriginal pastoral workers at Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory walked off the job, unhappy with their poor working conditions and disrespectful treatment. This was part of a civil rights campaign which achieved equal wages. However, as a result, whole communities of Aboriginal pastoral workers, mostly in their traditional countries, were turned off properties.

Farming rice, courtesy of National Farmers Federation.


Irrigation has been a very important factor in making farming viable in inland Australia. Vast irrigation systems, such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme were established to divert water into the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers, and to important inland areas for farming. On the east coast and in the Murray-Darling Basin many Australian rivers have had their flows changed or regulated by human engineering.

Since the 1960s, new industries of rice and cotton have rapidly expanded on large properties with mechanised production. Today these industries, followed by grapes, vegetables, and nurseries/cut flowers/cultivated turf, are the most intensively irrigated crops.

Most irrigated land is located within the confines of the Murray–Darling Basin, which covers parts of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, and all of the Australian Capital Territory. However, the total area of land irrigated, about 1.8 million hectares in 2009–10, represents less than one per cent of the total land used for agriculture.

Transport – bullocks, camels, clipper ships and paddle-steamers

The development of Australian agriculture relied upon overcoming the tyranny of distance that separated farms from their markets. From the 1830s, the droving of herds of cattle from distant stations along Travelling Stock Routes was how cattle and sheep reached metropolitan markets. The feats by ‘drovers' and ‘overlanders' with teams of bullocks and horses became part of Australia's folklore.

Wool bales on paddle steamers at Echuca Wharf

The first paddle steamer arrived in Australia in 1831 and paddle-steamers plied the Murray and Darling Rivers with agribusiness supplies and return cargoes of wool for another 70 years.

Camels and cameleers first arrived in Australia in 1840. Services to outback communities and properties all depended on them. The Afghans, as they came to be called, helped turn around Australia's rural transport and communication. From the 1850s until the early 1900s, agribusiness and thereby, agriculture, relied upon the Afghan cameleers for the transport of supplies.

The creation of railways from the 1850s onwards began to connect the more remote farmers with quicker and easier transport of their produce to cities and ports.

In the 1850s, revolutions in shipping greatly expanded Australia's opportunities for agricultural exports. The development of clipper ships almost halved the time that it took to complete the voyage from Australia to England, taking only 90 days instead of 140 days. By this time, steam was also a part of transporting Australian wool and other produce.

Export viability – refrigeration, infrastructure, bounties and tariffs

SS Dunedin by Frederick Tudgay

In 1881, the clipper sailing ship Dunedin, owned by the New Zealand and Australian Land Company (NZALC), was refitted with a Bell-Coleman compression refrigeration machine and successfully landed a cargo of frozen meats in the United Kingdon. Consequently, an extensive frozen meat trade from New Zealand and Australia to the UK developed. Over 16 different refrigerated and passenger refrigerated or Reefer ships were built or refitted by 1900. By 1910, UK refrigerated meat imports rose to 760,000 tons per year.

Queensland beef, Victoria cheeses, Tasmanian apples and mutton from everywhere was sent off to grace the tables in Europe. By the early 1900s, Australia was one of the world's major food exporters. Between 1901 and 1906, exports of frozen mutton and lamb rose by 50 per cent.

Throughout the early 1900s, the export trade was assisted by the Australian government who provided assistance to farmers and primary producers in the form of bounties. The government also placed tariffs on some goods to discourage imports. This was part of an all-round policy called protection.

Australian agriculture continued to grow throughout the first half of the 1900s despite huge impacts from the Great Depression, and the First and Second World Wars. Following the First World War (1914-1918), there were numerous government marketing schemes for agricultural products which maintained high prices.

These protection programs continued until the 1980s when the National Farmer's Federation challenged the protective tariff policy. This eventuated in prices for agricultural products being directly related to the cycles of the international markets. In 2012, Australia exported 60 per cent of its agricultural products.

Wool production – the ‘golden fleece'

Rams at Wangenella near Deniliquin, c. 1930, courtesy of State Library of New South Wales.

By 1914, the United Kingdom was purchasing about 30 per cent of Australia's total wool exports and by the mid-1920s, it was an astonishing 50 per cent. Wool exports accounted for three-quarters of all pastoral export income, which included live cattle and sheep, meat, wool and hides.

Wool production was helped by a mechanical sheep shearing machine, invented by Frederick Wolseley (1837–99) when it was demonstrated around the country – to the delight of woolgrowers and the horror of blade shearers in the mid-1880s. In 1888, at Louth in New South Wales, Dunlop station become the first large machine shed, with 40 Wolseley shearing stands operating.

Throughout the 1930s, wool remained the cornerstone of Australian agriculture. Wool represented about 30 per cent of the total value of Australia's exports in the 1930s and this prosperity continued into the 1950s.

Wool clips at Pyrmont in 1937, courtesy of State Library of New South Wales.

Prosperity in the wool industry peaked in 1950–51 when the average greasy wool price reached 144.2 pence per pound (equivalent to around $37 per kilogram in today's prices), compared to the around $3.20 per kilogram achieved in mid-2002.

However, by 1970–71, wool production contributed only 15 per cent to total gross value of agricultural production. In the decade to 1999–2000, Australian greasy wool production fell by 35 per cent, partly due to a lack of demand influenced by new developments in synthetic fibres.

While there has been growth in wool exports to China and other South East Asian countries over the last decade, the contribution of wool exports to Australia's total merchandise exports fell significantly, from 5.8 per cent in 1991 to 3.0 per cent in 2001. Never-the-less, Australia produces more than a quarter of the world's wool.

Lamb – an Australian favourite from the 1920s and 30s

With the expansion of sheep and wool industries in Australia, mutton was cheap and abundant. In 1903, it was estimated that the average Australian ate 61 kilograms of beef and 41 kilograms of mutton. In the 1920s, new improved pastures enabled lamb to become readily available and by the 1930s, lamb was well and truly ensconced as an Australian favourite'.

Challenges – deforestation, erosion, rabbits, salinity and algae

Allen Taylor's Saw Mill, Mayers Point, Myall Lake. Established 1915

By definition, successful and sustainable farms necessarily depend upon healthy soil and fresh water for their arable land and this has an in-built resilience if biodiversity is maintained. A balance needs to be struck between removal of vegetation and water which may cause erosion and salinity and the cropping or grazing needs which require open pastures. A lack of biodiversity can lead to invasions of weeds and pests.

Early laws forbad the clearing of river banks but this was soon ignored and then forgotten. Great swathes of timber were cleared. By the 1840s, there was hardly a single stand of Australian cedar left on the east coast. As a result of the loss of timber in the Hunter Valley combined with overgrazing, the erosion was considered the worst land and riverbank erosion in Australia. In 1948 it was estimated that the total soil loss from erosion in the Hunter Valley was in excess of 765,000 cubic metres annually.

The endangered Plains Wanderer needs an open grassland habitat, Victoria, courtesy of Internet bird collection

Trees were ring-barked and burnt to clear hundreds of thousands of hectares as part of the caveat and lease requirements for soldier settler farming schemes in south-west Western Australia, the Wimmera in Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. Consequently, these areas became denuded of bird and other wild life, and rabbits multiplied.

The loss of Australia's grasslands has also contributed to loss of biodiversity. It is estimated that there has been a 45 per cent loss of woodland birds. The loss of native grasses has also seen a decrease in live ground cover during droughts. The effect of this is that there is insufficient cover to protect soils from erosion in the event of heavy summer rainfall.

As a result of the human engineering in regulating the flow of rivers, especially from dams and locks, many of the rivers in the Murray–Darling Basin suffer from an increase in winter velocity, slow summer flows, green-blue algae outbreaks, and stagnation. This has seriously affected the access to fresh water required by farmers for their grazing stock and crops.


Rabbit proof fence Western Australia, 1926-1927, courtesy of Battye Library 000876d

Rabbits are a feral pest that have seriously reduced the productivity of farming in Australia to the point where they have created new deserts by eating out the vegetation. Rabbits originally spread north from Geelong in Victoria across the eastern states. By 1896 rabbits were found as far west as Eucla and then Esperance.

The rabbit-proof fence was built to protect Western Australian crops and pasture lands from the destructive scourge of the rabbit. The fence represents a unique, if inadequate, response to an overwhelming environmental problem….
Construction of the Number 1 Rabbit Proof Fence began in 1901. It stretched 1834 kilometres from the south coast to the northwest coast..... Unfortunately by 1902 rabbits had already been found west of the fence line..
(Western Perspectives on a Nation, 1901-2001, The Land Rabbits)

By the beginning of the First World War (1914-18), rabbits were a major pest to farmers. In the 1930s the Australian Encyclopedia estimated that the removal of rabbits would increase the arable capacity of lands by 25 per cent. Rabbit control is still a major issue for farmers and governments today.

Natural resource management: conservation measures

Water Smart Pastoralism Project, 2008, courtesy of Desert Knowledge CRC

Farmers are now actively involved in the natural resource management. In 2010, 65 per cent of all agricultural businesses reported having native vegetation on their holding and 55 per cent of these businesses protected this native vegetation for conservation purposes.
(ABS, Land Management and Farming in Australia, 2009–10, 4627.0),

Farmers are looking to support outcomes like the Murray–Darling Basin 'Living Murray' Initiative, balancing the needs of sustaining the environment and communities' needs for water allocation. The Australian Government Biodiversity Fund assists farmers and land managers to enhance biodiversity and build greater environmental resilience across the Australian landscape. It provides support for revegetation of native plants or better management of existing native vegetation.

Since 2003, Australia's largest environmental organisation, begun in the 1980s, Greening Australia has run a national vegetation knowledge service – in partnership with government agencies across rural services, land and water, and agriculture.

Native Microlaena stipoides seeds are being harvested for sale by Martin Royds, 2010, courtesy of Soils for Life.

Farmers have also implemented holistic systems such as integrated pest management and rotational grazing. New technologies such as the use of satellite positioning systems assist in land management to minimise soil compaction, help map salinity and other soil properties.

Holistic management was one method which saw Martin Royds nominated as a finalist and award winner in the 2010 Australian Diversification Farmer of the Year awards for his property Jillamatong, near Braidwood. Enterprises included beef cattle grazing property, native grass seed harvesting and timber production. Royds has used holistic management, biological farming, biodynamics, natural sequence farming methods and Landcare to build an understanding to advantage environmental, economic and social systems.

Research on case study farms throughout Central and Northern Victoria as part of the Green Graze Project has shown grazing properties can be managed for better biodiversity as well as being profitable. Improving native vegetation can help produce more wool and meat.

Landcare is a community-based approach that has played a major role in raising awareness, influencing farming and land management practices. Landcare is a national network of more than 4000 locally-based community groups. More than 40 per cent of farmers are involved in Landcare and many more practice Landcare farming. Land care farmers make significant contributions to combating soil salinity and erosion through sound land management practices and sustainable productivity.

Stock water, soils, biodiversity, fire regimes and Aboriginal values

Kelpie farm dogs on sheep backs.

In desert Australia, the use of new technologies and awareness of water management has improved access to stock water for the pastoral industry. The WaterSmart Pastoral Production™ project across South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland has produced a practical guide for stock water management for grazing lands in desert Australia.

Understanding soils, biodiversity, land clearing, rainfall, fire regimes, and Aboriginal values for managing land, is now the subject of a large data project on the grazing of rangelands.

While some of the tools and techniques of farming have changed, others have remained the same. Working dogs are as popular as high-tech farming equipment. The Australian farm dog is a tradition that has remained in modern farming because it is still an effective way to round up sheep and cattle.

The challenge of future food production and sustaining communities

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that by 2050, food production worldwide will need to increase by 70 per cent (FAO, 2009) if:

all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
(United Nations, FAO, Declaration of the World Summit on Food Security, 2009)

Overall Australia remains a net exporter of food. In 2010–11, 67 per cent of Australia's wheat production, 70 per cent of sugar production and 57 per cent of the nation's barley production were exported. At the same time farmers provide 93 per cent of Australia's domestic food supply, with significant achievements in biosecurity and innovation, recognised in Australian Farmer of the Year awards.

Wray Organic, 2013, courtesy of Australian Eco News

Since the 1950s, international economic factors and changes in farming methods have led to a return of the larger farms of the mid 1800s, being more economically viable than small ones. While the average size of farms has increased, the number of farming families in Australia has steadily decreased.

Many modern individual family farmers find that they struggle to make a profit and some are forced to find extra work off the farm to supplement the farm income. Succession is now a priority business issue for farmers. Approximately one third of all farmers are women.

The Australian Agricultural Company remains the largest beef cattle company in Australia. As of July 2008 it had a staff of 500 and operated 24 cattle stations, consisting of over 565,000 beef cattle. It is Australia's oldest continuing operating company.

The challenge of technical efficiency and structural adjustment within the farming sector will be critically important to the future of Australia's farming communities as well as the ability of humankind to feed itself in the future.

Useful links

Farming and production history

Farming for sustainability – natural resource management

Government agency information and agriculture statistics

Information for young farmers

Farming organisations and networks

Agricultural industry and heritage


Last updated: 31st March 2015
Creator: Kathryn Wells

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