Clarendon Farm, Clarence, in 1886, by Friedrich Hawranck (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

About 60 percent of Tasmania cannot be cultivated because of excessive rain, mountainous terrain and accompanying highland climate. Thus agriculture is restricted to freehold land found in river valleys, coastal plains and lower plateau country. A combination of natural elements, such as soil and climate, especially winter temperatures and annual rainfall total and seasonal distribution, and human factors such as transport links, markets and government assistance, determine agricultural choices.

During the initial period of acclimatisation, farmers attempted to meld traditional British methods to new conditions. Land was cheap as was convict labour, although agricultural skills were few. Vegetables and fruit for human consumption and cereal crops for stock and export to Sydney were grown in the immediate environs of Hobart, Launceston and the Pitt Water–Coal River area. Until the 1820s the latter was regarded as the granary of New South Wales. Agricultural practices were primitive, with soil depletion around New Norfolk and the Norfolk Plains apparent by the early 1820s. The awarding of commissariat contracts for wheat and meat created a precedent of government intervention which has lasted ever since.

Commissioner Bigge's recommendations, and relatively open plains country in the Midlands and along the valleys of the Derwent and Tamar and tributaries, favoured pastoralism over small agricultural holdings. Impelling this thrust was a period of expansion in the British woollen industry. The trend continued somewhat erratically into the 1830s and 1840s in the face of depression, overspeculation, cessation of land grants (1831) and the shift from assignment of convicts to probation gangs.

After self-government, to counter what were to become 'Tasmanian perennials' – emigration to the mainland, capital and labour shortages – authorities introduced land legislation, beginning with Waste Lands Acts of 1858 and 1863. This opened up the thickly forested north-east, north-west and Huon valley to the small holder. 'Bush pioneering' was evocatively described by James Fenton in Bush Life in Tasmania. Once cleared, the volcanic north-west soils and north-east basalt lands became the most fertile in the state. Unlike the old settled areas where wheat was predominant, potatoes became the staple crop, especially in the north-west, and by Federation exceeded the gross return of all other crops. Meanwhile, with the successful shipping of apples to Great Britain in the 1880s, Tasmania's reputation as the 'Apple Isle' began.

From Federation until the First World War agriculture boomed as new mainland markets were opened. Hops, especially around Bushy Park, became a significant contributor to the economy, while fruit continued to expand. However, Tasmania's need to import hard wheat for flour was confirmed. Then the war's interruptions to markets, and shortages of labour and machinery, halted expansion. Early 1920s growth was shortlived as depression took its toll. However, important lessons were learnt. The Department of Agriculture, established in 1911, was re-organised in 1927 as the government saw the necessity of a more scientific approach to farming. Technical handicaps such as soil impoverishment from sustained monoculture became apparent. Research revealed soil deficiencies in such trace elements as cobalt, copper, molybdenum and iron. Remediation began. Pasture improvement, largely due to the introduction of subterranean clover, increased use of fertilisers, improved seed quality and significant mechanisation facilitated improvement. Agricultural research stations were established at Tewkesbury (1934), Cressy (1937) and Summerleas (1939), with emphases on potatoes, cereals and pastures, and fruit and vegetables respectively.

With improvement in pastures, there was a dramatic reduction in cereal crops and an increased emphasis on livestock. Again, with the Second World War, there were shortages of labour and machines, and markets were restricted. However, fruit processing and vegetable canning became important. Processing factories were established at Smithton, Ulverstone, Devonport and Scottsdale. They dehydrated, canned and froze mainly peas, and other vegetables in much smaller quantities. The nineteenth-century government dream of establishing an independent yeomanry, revived after both major wars in Soldier Settlement and Closer Settlement schemes, foundered after 1950. Over time, many small holders departed or sold, and as ever in Tasmania there was consolidation into larger properties. However 'bush pioneering' continued in the Circular Head district with clearing and draining of tea-tree swamps such as Brittons and Montagu Swamps, and Waterhouse and Tomahawk areas in the north-east. Development of King and Flinders Islands was overall successful, but always demanding.

While the 1950s was probably the Indian summer for pastoralism, agricultural progress was more low key. Mechanisation reached new levels with tractor use widespread throughout the state. Thus was accentuated a rural exodus which subsequently gained further momentum. The impact on country towns became increasingly obvious in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite only a slight decrease in the cultivated area over fifty years, many farmers after the Second World War switched from grain to grassland farming for hay, silage and green fodder, thereby increasing stock capacity.

Later events, such as loss of markets with Britain's entry into the European Economic Community in 1973 and devaluation and floating of the Australian dollar, further challenged agriculture. Increased emphasis on diversification of operations, more specialised and more expensive machinery, and greater attention to agriculture resulted. Calls to develop new markets were heeded, but the collapse of the 'Asian tiger economies' in the 1990s produced new challenges. With cyclical declines in livestock markets, diversification accelerated. Farmers looked beyond the traditional to new crops. Poppies, introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the central north-west, extended statewide over the next decades, and Tasmania became one of the world's major producers. Viticulture displayed similar trends, albeit on a smaller scale. Cut flowers and essential oils were part of this new style, while there was a revival in small-fruits, notably strawberries. Reliable irrigation now became an essential for much of agriculture. Potatoes continued to be the most valuable crop, apples never being so despite the 'Apple Isle' image; the acreage under barley and oats was nearly double that of wheat.

Tasmanian agriculture in the twentieth century displayed several basic patterns: the area of land under cultivation declined as did the rural workforce and number of farm holdings. Productivity and yields increased considerably. Reliance on grain crops declined, while conversion of arable land into temporary or permanent pastures increased as crops gave way to stock. Pick-up balers and harvesters supplanted manual reaping and binding; tractors of ever-increasing power and capabilities replaced the horse. Government intervention in the guise of financial assistance, scientific research and extension work was ever present, although in time more frequently involving collaboration with CSIRO, University of Tasmania and private enterprise. Less attention has been given to noxious weed eradication although quarantine vigilance is maintained.

New machinery assisted farmers form the 1920s (AOT, PH30/1/4209)

There was continued reliance on mainland and international markets because of limited demand from the domestic scene. In recent decades the British-dominated market declined, and production diversified to include a significant Asian component. Transport costs remained an inhibiting factor. Tariffs and quotas are issues of continuing salience despite the spread of free trade agreements and areas. By 2000 instability and fluctuation had replaced the stability of international currencies as reliance on sterling and gold standards declined. The importance of traditional crops and fruits, cereals, potatoes, pulses, apples and small berries continued although in varying proportions and with addition of new varieties. Niche markets were established for innovative products especially poppies, essential oils, mainly peppermint, and to a lesser extent, cherries and blueberries. There has been a return to viticulture – an important activity in colonial days – with the state gaining a significant international reputation. Diversification of crops and operations continues to be the hallmark of Tasmania's agriculture.

Further reading: J Bigge, Report of the commissioner of inquiry…, facsimile edition Adelaide, 1966; Tasmanian Year Books, 1967–2002; P Scott, 'Farming', in J Davies (ed), Atlas of Tasmania, Hobart, 1965.

Tim Jetson