The harvest of farming illusions


Do we need the Army again to make large-scale farming in the Territory a reality once more?
The World War Two events described in the Alice Springs News story “After Darwin’s bombing, the Army made the desert bloom” sure seems to suggest it.
It was an era of huge population gyrations as the military moved in and out.
And the Army showed that some no-nonsense resolve can indeed make the desert bloom.
Historian Peter Donovan wrote: “From 8 September 1940 to 30 October 1944, the number of troops that passed through Alice Springs totaled 194,852” (a town with less than 1,000 residents before the war).”
However, as the war drew to a close and the military departed, the Territory’s population plummeted.
W. Granger, of the Department of Territories, reported: “In June 1961, the population of the Territory was estimated at 44,500, of whom some 17,500 were aborigines.
“About 12,200 people live in Darwin … and some 3000 at Alice Springs.”
These figures are rubbery as census figures for Alice Springs are recorded as 2,078 in 1947 and 5,124 in 1961, according to Mr Donovan.
The NT’s population did not reach wartime levels until the 1970s; and by 1981, according to that year’s census, it had reached 124,500.
There’s no question World War Two triggered a boom (pardon the pun) for all primary industry sectors in the NT, including farming.
According to historian Alan Powell, the Army commenced purchases of fresh produce from three farmers in the Top End in 1939 but these were hopelessly inadequate to meet the military’s requirements.
After ministerial approval in September 1940, the Army initially acquired 107 acres of land at Adelaide River, and harvests were underway only three months later.
A year later seven more farms, each of 50 acres, were established in the Top End to as far south as Mataranka, plus poultry and bee-keeping, under the auspices of 1 Australian Farm Company.
This was well before the first Japanese air raid on Darwin of 19 February, 1942.
2 Australian Farm Company was formed in October 1943 and was based at Katherine.
Writes Prof Powell: “By mid-1944, a string of farms totaling 345 acres stretched from Coomalie Creek to Spinifex Bore 1100 kilometres further south and army units ran their own piggeries at Alice Springs, Adelaide River and several staging camps between.
“In that year production rose to peak level: 1.7 million kilograms of vegetables and tropical fruit. Honey, chickens and 53,000 dozen eggs came to army stores from the Katherine region.”
Private farms added to this productivity; and the pioneering beef cattle industry was enjoying its first ever sustained profitability with the aid of Army constructed and operated abattoirs.
There was also an experimental platoon that conducted agricultural research with the assistance of CSIR scientists (forerunner to the CSIRO).
It remains a query in my mind whether the Australian Army’s 1 and 2 Australian Farm Companies operating in the NT during World War Two are unique in the history of modern warfare.
Whatever, it’s tempting to think the Army should be returned to complete control of the NT these days, too, as it was in the early 1940s: “The army farms may not have fed the multitudes entirely but in contrast with the previous dismal record of Territory agriculture they were remarkable.”
But Powell also points to inherent problems that bedevil horticultural enterprises in the NT to this day: “Only shortage of suitable labour prevented further expansion.”
In the peak production year of 1944 manpower restrictions were eased “and army labour of any kind became scarce.
“Attempts in mid-1944 to recruit Aboriginal labour – additional to between twenty and thirty already working on army farms – failed through lack of suitable applicants”.
Colonel J. K. Murray, a former Professor of Agriculture at Queensland University, wrote a report in March 1944 highlighting some of the difficulties experienced with labour; for example, “the officer commanding 1 Farm Company estimated that he had forty “bludgers” in his command “who reduce the efficiency of the remainder.
“Farming is an art,” asserted Murray – a truth self-evident to all who have tried it – and he demanded that experienced farmers be sent to the north. “They were not to be had.”
The military’s earlier agricultural success is also illusory “as the army had more farm workers than acres and no need to consider the cost of production”.
At the height of the farming operations in early 1944 there were over 600 personnel involved, a comparatively minor contingent out of the multiple tens of thousands of troops stationed in the north.
Lieutenant N. Kjar, a botanist who provided technical advice for the army farms, warned “the Northern Territory … is definitely not a land of milk and honey waiting to be tapped by the first agricultural adventurers,” says Prof Powell.
It needs to be noted, too, that the Army’s major farming focus in the Territory was at Katherine and predominantly in the Top End, not Central Australia. This reflects the reality of geography as the Territory’s northern region enjoys substantially higher and more reliable rainfall.
The Army’s establishment of its headquarters in Katherine for 2 Farm Company has proven to be an accurate assessment, as this region is now dominant in farm and horticultural production in the NT.
However, the apparent potential for horticulture in Central Australia, recognized as long ago as 1915 by the Rev. John Flynn (no less), has so far failed to come close to meeting expectations.
The current problems besetting Central Australian horticulture is just the latest chapter of a saga stretching back a century, and maybe longer; and this begs the question why this is so.
Until the history of agricultural research and enterprise in Central Australia is fully accounted for, I believe that fondly held tantalizing promise of potential will continue to be a mirage.
PHOTO above right: a great crop of silverbeet at Haasts Bluff Aboriginal community, mid last century. Courtesy Gross Collection – Strehlow Research Centre.


  1. Overseas there are many countries that have adapted to their environment and growing food needed to support populations. The wonderful thing about mankind is the ability to make the best of what we have.

  2. Whilst Janet appears to be very pleased with herself (Janet Brown, Posted March 2, 2012 at 12:36 pm), glibly telling us to “make the best of what we have”, she might meditate upon the fact that history – as Alex points out – may more usefully inform our conduct than homilies and Pollyanna-style wishfulness do.
    Perhaps Janet would like to nominate the comparable isolated, low rainfall, very hot desert countries (with some of the world’s worst soil qualities and nutrient contents, and highest labour costs), that have adapted to these local challenges sufficiently to compete with the much lower costs involved in growing veges in more moderate climatic conditions and better soils in heavier populated coastal and temperate regions? Does Janet have a magic solution to the extremely high water evaporation and saline content rates, prolonged droughts, very poor soil nutrient content, regular intense outbreaks of vegetable eating grass hoppers and caterpillars, and the high transport costs associated with obtaining fertilisers, cooling and distributing produce, and housing seasonal workers in a region of very low population density?
    At a guess, I’d hazard to think that she probably doesn’t have answers to these questions, but probably does have another breezy and evasive aside to offer instead.

  3. Oh Bob. Your days must start with a double of dose of the nasty pills. Our history here when I was a kid we had citrus orchards and big market gardens. We here in Alice were pretty self sufficient. We had dairies and chicken farms supplying eggs. You see like Alex I grew up here and know what we are capable of. And Israel is a good start for info into farming techniques – refer to past info from John Elferink. I am sure Erwin did an article on it. We cannot control the environment but we can adjust to work within it. After all most of us are practical logical people. Willing to have a go. “Cannot” is in not part of our vision. A “can do” approach drives mankind’s future. Gives opportunity to many. And differentiates the drivers from the arrogant knockers that find no reason to see the good in anything. Aussies are known for having a go. And I am a proud Aussie.

  4. Come clean Janet. There were only ever a very small number of the local enterprises to which you refer (citrus orchards, market gardens, dairies and chicken farms supplying eggs). They may have survived when the transport costs of interstate produce were very high, but they proved to be uncompetitive when modern transport and cooling systems improved in reliability and price. They were mainly family enterprises employing small amounts of local labour. Their productivity was lessened by the increasing salinity in their soils, and the rising cost of labour as award wages affected primary industries. They foundered in the seventies and eighties, as the competition from the supermarket chains and interstate suppliers made them uneconomic. If it’s possible to supply Alice Springs with locally grown food at competitive prices now, why aren’t you using a bit of your Aussie know-how and growing Alice Springs’ food needs at economic prices on your family’s land?

  5. I’ve already revealed the fallacy of the Brown “can do” over Steve’s explicit failure to consider the benefits (or negatives if he’d like) of take-away alcohol sales free days. But he can’t do that.
    Neither can Janet answer a host of questions I’ve put to her, especially the question of whether it’s true that the CLP, if elected to NT Government, intend to dismantle the Stronger Futures Alcohol Reform measures throughout the Territory.
    The paucity inherent in this local council election is that aspiring leaders believe they have a silver-bullet solution to all of the issues facing Alice Springs, but they can not reason with those who have expertise outside their own field.

  6. Oh Bob you need to read a good book it will be more exciting than the stories you write. Your accusations are wrong and not an ounce of fact. Life goes on and times change a lot of things.

  7. I think something to consider is the Greening The Desert permaculture project in Jordan.
    It is possible to garden in our ‘harsh conditions’. In fact if we can get our practices right we’ve got benefits in our climate here. Endless sunny days and temperate and sub-tropical qualities mean we can grow a huge diversity of foods. Thinking outside of our regular practices and understanding that it takes time to set up versatile and sustainable food production systems but it can be done … even in regions that experience poor soil and water quality. Diversifying our water supplies (let’s get a tank on every roof in Alice) and improving our soil through broadscale composting systems (we throw out 30% of our food that could be used to contribute to creating compost) is one step that can improve our food garden opportunities. We may not become food-self-sufficient anytime soon but we can work towards it by educating ourselves in best practice techniques and through local government getting on board with supporting the systems that will end up supporting us. To learn more about home food gardening (workshops happening now!) see

  8. OK Kim (Kim Hopper @Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:12 am):
    Here are some important differences:
    Jordan has a huge pool of desperate people who will work hard in the hot sun and cold rain for next to nothing. It has even bigger markets very close at hand, produces waste for compost in enormous quantities, and may even be willing to re-use human waste.
    I am not arguing that food can’t be grown here. I grow some myself. What I am challenging Janet Brown to tell us is how food can be grown here at costs and quality and in sufficient quantities that will match those of food grown interstate and landed fresh in our shops.
    Before any more scarce government money is invested in pursuing the ideal of “food-self-sufficiency” in places like Alice Springs, I would like to see the results of a scientifically conducted random sample survey of Alice Springs residents, asking them (a) whether they are already composting and/or growing vegetables, and if not, why not; (b) whether they are interested in doing such work in their spare time (presuming they have spare time); and (c) whether they think it would be a better investment of government funds to pursue schemes to promote more private composting and vege growing, or whether the money would be better used in supplying a lot more affordable accommodation, a lot more support services for people experiencing problems maintaining tenancies, more night-time services and programs for disengaged young people, more extensive early childhood support and intervention programs, better schools and improved attendance, more violence prevention projects, more safe houses and DV prevention programs, more youth centres, sports facilities and youth programs in bush communities, much better regional roads and airstrips, more school holiday programs and more community policing activities in communities that want them.
    And no, I don’t think that it’s possible to have all these vital things at adequate levels, and still have money left for attempts at encouraging a probably reluctant population to spend more of their scarce leisure time in the 40 degree heat growing tomatoes that are quite likely to be eaten by bugs before they hit the table.

  9. There is a project that could be taken up by the Town Council that is related to farming and gardening. They could expand the green waste initiative at the tip to include the production and sale of bio-char.
    Good for the environment in that it locks up carbon that would otherwise become part of the carbon increase in the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration by other means.
    Good for the soil in that it holds water and aids plant growth, especially in an arid environment such as ours. Mix it with mulch and watch the water bill come down and the soil quality improve.
    Good for Alice Springs’ green credentials. There might be a grant in it. I think a recent raft of grants was allocated to local governments for bio-char initiatives, but they might be closed now. Maybe next time, but we would need to be prepared.
    If sold, bio-char could pay for itself, or even make a small profit for Council.
    Might even get a couple of jobs out of it.
    In short, I can’t think of one negative aspect to expanding the tip’s green waste venture to include the production and sale of bio-char.
    Even Malcolm Turnbull thinks it’s the bee’s knees.

  10. @1.
    Thanks Hal! and Bob. It’s all good food for thought. I wasn’t comparing Jordan to Alice Springs in terms of social demographic Bob, although it seems Jordan is one of the most developed in the Arab world. The program I mentioned is also a tourism venture with a lot of international volunteers choosing to study there.
    There is an interesting trend beginning to happen in Australia with farmers and agri-business looking to Central Australia as a good option for relocation/investment. It appears we have one of the most predictable and stable climates in Australia so while we are looking to the east coast to supply us with consistent and reliable fresh produce they are looking to us to provide the same thing.
    The duopoly that currently exists with the two major supermarket chains is not reliable or sustainable. We all know that farmers are the ones who lose out in the buying market and as we stay distanced from our food sources we become less and less aware of the true cost and value of it. Food For Alice try to address this buy sourcing independent and ethically grown produce. I support the idea of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Central Australia. This requires commitment from the community in $ and support from government in terms of land allocations. Some of our most fertile soil just went under the bulldozer and bricks at Kilgarrif. I don’t pretend to have the answers to all of the issues you mentioned Bob but maybe if we can get it right in the way we use our natural resources we might be able to learn something about other forms of sustainability including appropriate housing and social policy.

  11. Kim (@Posted March 15, 2012 at 2:00 pm):
    Thanks for taking the trouble to reply to my cranky missives. Here’s another round from me.
    Sorry, but this is not Lalaland where everything nice can happen just because we like the idea. We are in the midst of a deepseated social crisis. Resolving it will require immense resources, energy, time, commitment and effort. The comparative cost-benefits of investing any available public capital have to be considered before we back nice ideas predicated around dubious assumptions about an “interesting trend” (exactly who are these “farmers and agri-business looking to Central Australia as a good option for relocation/investment”?).
    Apart from a melon farm, which can’t attract local labourers, 400 km north near Alekerange, and the failed Territory Grape Farm venture near Ti Tree (it proved to be uncompetitive and ended up being sold to a local at less than a quarter its replacement value after it was on the property market for three years at bargain basement sale prices, with the original investors taking close to an $8 million loss on their investment), I haven’t noticed any of them setting up operations here in the last 35 years, despite considerable efforts by the CLC and Centrefarm to attract them as partners for other Aboriginal investment enterprises.
    You may be correct in claiming “we have one of the most predictable and stable climates in Australia”, but you neglect to consider that it is the predictability of periods of scorching heat and long droughts, broken sometimes by catastrophic floods, and dotted with occasional leaf-stripping tornadoes and fruit-shredding hail storms (just ask Robert LeRossignol about it), which most dominate the horticultural-related outlook. You should also note that climate scientists have repeatedly predicted that increasingly extreme events of this nature will become more dominant in the future in Central Australia.
    How you can possibly think that these are good portents for horticultural investment I’m not sure!
    To claim that “while we are looking to the east coast to supply us with consistent and reliable fresh produce they are looking to us to provide the same thing” is just so much piffle. In making statements like that without supplying supporting evidence you run the risk of appearing to be somewhat adventurous with the facts.
    The “duopoly that currently exists with the two major supermarket chains” may not be “reliable or sustainable” in some ideal or absolute sense, but it is not as though they are the only sources of fresh produce in Alice Springs, and I’d bet my hat AND shirt that they are more “reliable and sustainable” than any likely alternatives in the foreseeable future.
    As for the fact that “farmers are the ones who lose out in the buying market”, that’s the farmers’ problem, not ours. We have plenty of more immediate issues to worry about.

  12. Kim – a postscript: today the beautiful Port Lincolns finally cleaned up the last, almost ripe, fig on tree outside our kitchen door. Having already chomped their way through several varieties of grapes, assisted by babblers, and feasted on most of my mandarins and tangelos, I see something approaching poetic in that.

  13. @Bob
    To say that it is the farmers’ problem, not ours, if they (the farmers) lose out in the buying market seems to me to be a bit myopic. While it is true that we have other issues to worry about, I suggest nothing is more immediate than food and water.
    The local water was under threat with the proposed development of the Angela Pamela uranium prospects. That threat seems to have faded, and long may it remain so!
    Our food is sourced almost entirely from far away, and while that works, well and good. I had, and still have, no problem with the development at Kilgariff, but there is other fertile land in the Centre. Surely some effort could be made to develop that resource. One or more endeavors might actually work, but they never will if no start is made.
    I make these comments in no way to belittle your commitment to finding a way out of our well documented social crisis. But every way forward that I have read includes the imperative of finding some form of sustainable, doable work. Farming might provide one such avenue.
    If climate change continues to wreak its predicted havoc in the southern farmlands with an increase in both drought and flood, we may be in line to help out. At the very least it’s worth thinking about, and not dismissing any suggestions as just so much piffle.
    [ED – Visit for a report on a horticulture venture in The Centre that’s a roaring success.]

  14. Hal (@Posted March 15, 2012 at 11:02 pm)
    The farmers are interstate, and have their own well-organised advocacy groups, so they are amongst the least of our problems. My brother and his son, for example, just lost hundreds of sheep and many miles of fencing in the Riverina floods. Their insurance does not cover these losses, but they are applying for government disaster relief and loans, for the first time, and will probably get some help. But I will try to take your point about the need to avoid myopic thinking.
    I have no problems with people making efforts to develop resources or grow food locally, provided they are not misled into wasting their time and money by idealistic ideologues and propagandists – mainly in the green movement and in that section of the local business and political classes whom the Americans would call “boosters” – who should know better.
    I just challenge anybody to justify the investment of further scarce government funds into subsidising such activities whilst badly neglected kids at Hermannsburg can’t get sufficient attention of an experienced case worker, or low paid workers – or even better paid experienced case workers – can’t afford to rent accommodation in Alice Springs, amongst many other similar considerations. There’s a long list of many of these issues in one of my earlier comments.
    The idea of promoting horticulture and like activities as occupations for unemployed Centralians seems logical, until you consider the innumerable market gardens, vineyards and orchards standing neglected and dying in bush communities throughout the region. Many people could be growing food for themselves and their families using these existing investments in infrastructure, and even earning some extra dollars to help run their car, but they aren’t doing it on any discernable scale. Just ask Geoff Miers for a detailed overview of those. Gardening for long hours in the hot sun for low returns is simply not an occupation that attracts anybody much in Central Australia. The abandoned vege patches, fruit trees and date farms at Wallace Rockhole, Intjartnama, Hermannsburg and Aputula, amongst many other places, are testament to this; as is the inability of the proprietors of the Alekerange melon patch and Rocky Hill vineyard to attract the services of local workers, white or black, when they need them. I believe this was also the experience of the Ti Tree grape venturers before they abandoned their enterprise.
    The “piffle” to which I refer is the allegation that interstate food producers, wholesalers, retailers and/or consumers “are looking to us to provide … consistent and reliable fresh produce”. As far as I am aware, there is simply no evidence that this is so. Certainly Kim has not produced such evidence, and the Rocky Hill initiative is a different beast – a product of deep local knowledge and determination to make a go of something against all the odds, allied with the energy of a family-based project and pre-existing resources and commitment. I doubt that the Hayes family receive or seek public subsidy for their project.
    We need to demand accuracy, candour and realism in these discussions, which too often slip into vague and unsubstantiable assertions.
    Of course water is fundamental, but it is misleading to claim – as some do – that “food security” demands that we prioritise the maximising of locally produced fruit and vegetables, or kid ourselves by exaggerating the competitiveness and profit potential for interstate investors in local farming.
    Also, to Erwin:
    As you sagely noted in your piece on Rocky Hill a few months back: “The handsome profit potential of Rocky Hill has a flipside, requiring nerves of steel to stay in the business. Just one rainstorm at the wrong time, or hail, worse still, can ruin an entire crop in a few hours. The grapes would split open and be unsalable. A year’s work would be down the gurgler.
    “Mr Hayes says he now has plastic sheets to cover the entire vineyard if rain is threatening. One year he had a low flying helicopter crisscrossing the vineyard to blow-dry the grapes.”
    Right now, I must abandon this keyboard as I need to spray the citrus and chillie bushes for their current infestations of thrips. Then, once the rainy weather clears next week, I’ll treat the grapevines for the mealy bugs and powdery mildew, and see what I can do about the moulds or whatever is causing the loganberry and mulberries to lose their leaves.
    Happy gardening, and bon appetit!
    [ED – Find here some details about the Finke project to which Bob refers.]

  15. @Bob
    Not to labor the obvious, but I think I remember stories from a few years ago that spoke of the Ti Tree grape venture planning to import pickers from the Solomon Islands (?) because they could not attract local help.
    And this in an area where most able bodied men and women collect fortnightly dole payments.
    Perhaps that is what we need to look at – restructuring the eligibility for welfare to exclude those who refuse to work when work is available.
    Not being a horticulturist, I have no idea if Central Australia could ever become a bread basket. But both Israel and Jordan are growing food, and can their climate be said to be more conducive to agriculture than ours?
    As for finding money to help, I’ll jump topics here and suggest that if we did not spend millions supporting misguided wars in the Middle East, we might have a bit more to spend in Australia.
    Also, tax those miners.

  16. Hal
    (@Posted March 16, 2012 at 8:43 am):
    I couldn’t agree more about your suggestion for “restructuring the eligibility for welfare to exclude those who refuse to work when work is available” – something I’ve been advocating (with spectacular lack of success) since I assisted Alice Springs town camp leaders to make a submission along these lines to the Hawke Government’s review of the Social Security Act in 1984.
    Re “both Israel and Jordan are growing food”: it’s not just the climate and welfare challenges, it also involves the economics of distance, the local prices of land, energy and fertilisers, the cost and willingness of available labour, the size of markets, access to specialised services such as mechanics qualified to maintain your computerised machinery, and how these costs compare to those of your rival producers in the Hunter, Yangtze and San Joaquin Valleys.
    Not an easy ask, but that’s life in the globalised free markets dominated by gigantic multinational conglomerates, who do deliver us reliable year-round supplies of what is probably the best quality and widest variety of nutritious foods that the human masses have – on average – ever had available to them.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here