Developing technologies

Farming practices in Victoria have changed a great deal since Europeans first arrived in the early nineteenth century. Changing technology has seen the huge pastoral estates divided into smaller farms.

Before the 1890s, pastoralists farmed large tracts of land with little regard to the alterations their cattle and sheep caused to the environment.

By the early twentieth century the state government wanted to change the farming sector, hoping that improved technology would lead to settlement of the land with more farms and more families. This was done in two ways:

Firstly, public infrastructure was funded to aid the farm sector. The expansion of the railway system in the 1880s and the construction of the Murray irrigation system were two examples. Secondly, a series of land reforms were designed to promote small farm enterprises to enable families to select suitable blocks and support them in the high outlays of aspects like fencing and feeding stock.

- Monica Kenely

Kenely, M 1999 The impact of agricultural intensification on the pastoral economy of the Western District of Victoria 1890 - 1930, Deakin University, Geelong, Vic.

As the large estates were broken down into smaller intensive farms the use of fallowing practices, crop rotation, and fertilisation meant that the land was made more productive.

Inventions like the combine harvester also dramatically improved the way that crops like wheat were harvested. The combine harvester combined into one operation what had previously been three separate processes: reaping, binding and threshing. It was first developed in the United States in the 1830s.

However, it was a Victorian man, Hugh Victor McKay, who after reading about the American combine harvester developed and patented the Sunshine Harvester in the 1880s. He built a factory in Ballarat and began producing the harvester commercially in 1888.

The dairy industry also benefited from improvements in technology, particularly when off-farm factories opened up new markets. This meant that dairy farming, once only a secondary source of income for farmers, could become their sole commodity.

Victoria’s first butter factory was opened in Cobden in 1888 and was quickly followed by five others in the area. The new technology of refrigeration was also very important to the growth of the industry.

After World War II, governments across the world promoted the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, the expansion of irrigation infrastructure, and the use of hybridized seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. Farmers were able to produce crops in even greater quantities.

The drawback to these intensive farming practices are the issues of salinity, water and soil quality that are increasingly a problem for farmers in Victoria.

More recently a shift towards large-scale single product farms has resulted in smaller family farms being bought up by large corporations.

Promotional material produced for McKay's harvester.
Pamphlet from the New Settlers' League to give information for immigrants contemplating an agricultural life in regional Victoria.
Photograph of an irrigation scheme in action.
Photograph of a helicopter spraying chemicals on a crop.