After Darwin's bombing, the Army made the desert bloom


Here’s another question to elevate the Can’t Do Brigade’s blood pressure: Why don’t we channel our unemployed into growing produce? The correct answer: “Ohhh, it’s going to take decades, mate.”
We did, you know, 70 years ago, when the Territory just about became self sufficient in locally grown produce.
The population was 100,000, which remained much the same until the late ’70s. True, we now have more than twice that population. Are we growing half the fruit ‘n veg we need? Nope.
Is that because governments now prefer handing out sit-down money to mobilizing human resources?
A story maybe containing the answer was told in an interview this week with NT historian Peter Forrest, broadcast by the ABC on occasion of the anniversary of the bombing of Darwin.
While that event was tragic, not a great deal of military action followed. The large number of troops deployed in the Territory in anticipation of further hostilities didn’t have a great deal to do. They were a significant pool of labour.
This is not all that different from today: Many people are idle, except today we keep them on the dole. In The Centre and the Barkly alone there are about 1400 unemployed, not counting CDEP participants.
In the Territory of World War II, surplus manpower was put into growing food.
As Mr Forrest describes it, the Army set up 13 agricultural and horticultural sites along the Stuart Highway between the Top End and Spinnifex Bore, just north of Alice Springs.
And The Alice was self-sufficient in locally grown produce. For example, the hospital had a garden watered from the showers.
The Stuart Highway in those days, albeit sealed, was a narrow and winding affair and the trucks weren’t a patch on today’s giant pantecs thundering along at 100 kmph.
What’s more, many of these are empty on their south-bound journey. That means “backloading” is much cheaper than north-bound freight: NT Freight Service quotes $270 a tonne for Adelaide to Tennant Creek, compared to $160 for the return trip.
What an opportunity for exporting to the south Territory-grown produce!
Mr Forrest says the Army had “enormous resources” and money was clearly not an object.
How would these resources compare to what Canberra is spending today on maintaining people in a state of idleness?
Mr Forrest says the Army “had the labour, had its own specialist farming units.
“It recruited a lot of Aboriginal people to work on the farms.
“So it had a good labour force. Cost of production was not an object, I don’t think it was ever measured.
“And of course, it had an unlimited market, or a very, very big market, and a market that was very anxious to get fresh produce, for health reasons, apart from anything else.
“Having fresh produce was a great thing.”
The wartime farms grew water melons, lettuce, tomatoes: “They had a go at just about anything.”
By 1945 the annual production was 1.7 million kilograms a year, according to Mr Forrest. That’s 1700 tonnes.
Add to that the odd piggery and chicken run.
“The army almost achieved its goal of making the Territory self-sufficient in produce,” Mr Forrest recounts.
Cut to Central Australia of today.
Almost all produce is imported from “down south”.
The only commercial ventures in Alice are the Vietnamese market garden on Heffernan Road and the hydroponic lettuces being grown in Ilparpa.
The TiTree farms are struggling or fallow, but slowly correcting themselves, according to water expert Graham Ride.
He says there were “super profits” in table grapes at TiTree until the government removed import tariffs.
Growers have yet to diversify back into other crops that had been grown very successfully in that area.
However, the Hayes family’s Rocky Hill table grape vineyard, just east of Alice Springs, is still a nice little earner, the drop in margin resulting from overseas competition notwithstanding. Getting workers is the major challenge.
The Central Land Council (CLC) controls half the landmass. While it has had an agricultural production division for decades, it’s still mostly talk.
A CLC citrus project at Utopia had been on the drawing board for a decade when in 2001, Peter Toyne, Minister for Primary Industry and Fisheries, was told by his department: “A review of the Utopia Citrus project became necessary when joint venture partners were no longer able to meet equity in the project. DPIF began working with CLC and Department of Industries and Business in planning a revision of the proposal. Aboriginal agencies also withdrew funding for a large-scale project. The aim is to achieve horticultural development on Aboriginal land at Utopia initially, then onto other areas where water reserves have been identified, including Finke.”
The story about subsequent horticultural production at Finke is one of flagrant waste of public money, refusal to work and missed opportunities.
Russell Clifford is a local of 28 years’ standing, had run the power and water facilities in the community and now works as the school’s janitor.
He says a vineyard with 2000 vines was started with public funding, and advice from the Charles Darwin University, Alice gardener Geoff Miers and growers from TiTree.
Mr Miers says the venture got under way in about 2003 on a one hectare plot with a Federal grant of $440,000, under the auspices of the CLC and its agricultural production arm.
In 2004 a truckload of grapes was picked but there was no cool room to store them.
The next year a shed and two freezers were bought. They have never been been used, says Mr Miers.
Mr Clifford says the locals soon lost interest in the venture although “thousands of dollars was spent on fertilizer and machinery”.
Just two pallets of grapes were picked two years ago, as not sufficient workers could be found.
There was no picking at all in 2010 and 2011.
Les Smith, who now owns the Kulgera Roadhouse, was the Finke community’s CEO in 2008.
He says the birds and the horses were getting a great feed, as the fences and gates to the vineyard were down, and there was no organised picking.
“The shire wanted to get it going but the locals did not want to work on it,” says Mr Smith.
The NT Government worked for 10 years towards a horticultural joint venture where the Kilgariff suburb is now being built.
A $11m pipeline to recycle effluent from the sewage plant was built for irrigation but no joint venturer could be found.
An agricultural venture near Ali Curung, south-east of Tennant Creek, is doing well but has virtually no impact on local unemployment.
An interstate company is leasing the land from Aboriginal owners to grow melons and, recently, onions.
A local source says the operation is highly mechanised.
While the Aboriginal landlords are happily pocketing the lease payments, they’re not very interested in providing labor for picking.
That’s done mostly by itinerant backpackers.
Where does Ritchie Hayes at Rocky Hill get his labour from, for the vines’ annual pruning and picking the grapes?
They’re mostly Asian immigrants now living in Mildura.
FOOTNOTE: Annual production in 1960 of selected Central Australian communities.
Weights are in pounds. 1 lb = 0.453 kg.
Areyonga: 1800 fruit & veg, 174 dozen eggs.
Amoonguna: 3450 fruit & veg, 895 dozen eggs.
Papunya / Haasts Bluff: 16,250 fruit & veg, 42,250 net weight meat, 414 dozen eggs.
Warrabri: 11,400 fruit & veg, 1480 net weight meat, 419 dozen eggs.
Yuendumu: 6750 fruit & veg, 76 dozen eggs.
Source: Report of the Welfare Branch, courtesy Geoff Miers.
PHOTOS: TOP LEFT: Growing produce in The Centre is a breeze, says Ritchie Hayes who until recently grew cabbages as an easy by-product of a booming vineyard of table grapes. TOP RIGHT: This garden in 1944 was using water from the showers of the hospital. Alice Springs was self-sufficient in fruit & veg. From the Joan Higgins Collection courtesy Graham Ride. BELOW: Watermelons near Warrabri (Ali Curung): machines do most of the work; itinerant backpackers do the picking; the locals collect the rent – and get yet another form of sit-down money.


  1. Great article. Not so much the commentary on “sit down money” but a great idea just the same. I do agree that gardening is a great way to spend one’s time and do something good for society at the same time. And with most of the rest of the country to be covered in mines anytime soon then … I say yes, let’s mobilise all those who need to get involved in community projects and get healthy at the same time.

  2. Consider why those enterprises failed.
    Have governments reduced extra income deduction rates for Centrelink recipients shown more part time employment?
    CLC remains obstructive towards providing tenants’ leases for houses or enterprise efforts, obstructing individual, independent efforts and natural community growth.
    Will CLC’s preference for communal government funded enterprise attempts ever exhaust government?
    Will big business really make commitments without reasonable returns?
    CLC and corporate Land Trust obstructiveness block reasonable leases which provide tenants’ enforceable rights, responsibilities and opportunities.
    Even joint venture partners need Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) commercial obstructions ended, need reasonable long term leases which satisfy commercial criteria, with a fair chance to achieve a return.
    Or shall it be just more government money?


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