Cereal growing

Harvesting wheat at Cambridge, 1908 (AOT, PH30/1/4321)

Wheat, barley and oats have been produced in Tasmania since the early days of European settlement. After starvation conditions in 180507, some was exported by 1812, and in substantial quantities by the 1820s. The hinterlands of Hobart Town and Launceston proved suitable, being generally easily cleared. Cultivation was by hoe up to about 1820, and then ploughs pulled by oxen or horses. English varieties could be grown, in contrast to Sydney, and the cropping areas were close to water transport. Grain grown near Richmond, for example, could be carted to sailing ships moored at the mouth of the Coal River. South Australia was only other early settlement sharing this advantage. In New South Wales and Victoria it was not until railways allowed access to the inland areas that grain growing overtook that in Tasmania, which supplied Sydney and Melbourne with much needed food in the early years. Population drain during the gold rushes removed much of the rural labour from Tasmania.

Mechanisation accelerated in Tasmania after 1877, with the arrival of horse-drawn reaper-binders. These cut crops for stooking, then stacking and threshing with steam engines driving threshing machines. Later innovations included 'strippers' which removed grain by beating the standing crop (up to the 1930s), and 'headers', introduced in the 1920s as horse-drawn machines which cut heads off the crop and then threshed out the grain. These machines evolved into the self-propelled combine harvesters of today.

Farm record books in the Richmond area show that cereals were grown in some paddocks almost continuously from the 1820s to the 1940s. As a result, soil erosion, weeds and nutrient loss combined to reduce yields to low levels. Use of fertilisers and improved pastures have since rebuilt fertility. The introduction of other crops such as peas and poppies, and the development of irrigation, have seen cereals relegated to a lesser role on many farms.

Oats was the main 'fuel' until the 1930s, feeding working oxen and horses in both town and country. About 10 percent of a farm's grain and chaff production were required for the stables. Oats have also been commonly used as green feed during winter, and the grain has been stored for winter or drought feeding of farm livestock.

Tasmanian wheat was used for milling into bread flour in the early years, when it was renowned for its keeping quality. It has since mainly been used as livestock feed or for biscuit flour (soft grain, with lower protein than the 'wheat belt' on the mainland). From about 1950, most of Tasmania's wheat requirements have been imported from the mainland, by the Grain Elevators Board, but recently there has been an upsurge in growing again with much more suitable, high yielding varieties and better drainage on farms.

Barley has been mainly used for malting, with Cascade Brewery among 5 operating by 1823. Cape barley was then the most reliable. The English variety Proctor was introduced in the 1950s, replaced by Franklin from 1989 as the first Tasmanian bred variety which combined excellent malting quality with disease resistance.

Further reading: S Morgan, Land settlement in early Tasmania, Cambridge UK, 1992; Colonial Times, 14 April 1826, p 1 c 4; KM Dallas, Horse Power. Hobart, 1968; Tasmanian Mail, 29 December 1877, p 10; WA Vertigan, Review of barley variety improvement in Tasmania 19602000, Hobart, 2000.

Neville Mendham and Alex Green