The Farmers

Farmers push north

  • Early farming techniques in South Australia exhausted the land and as population grew there was increasing pressure on the government to make new land available for farming.
  • Many people believed that rain followed the plough.  There was a run of good seasons which made the mid-north and southern Flinders look good.
  • Between 1869 and 1872, the government opened all land south of Goyder’s Line for sale on credit. Land had to be surveyed before it could be sold and farmed.

Surveying for settlement

  • Pastoral leases were ‘resumed’ by the government to be surveyed for agriculture.
  • Government surveyors marked out new sections for farming, new townships to serve the farms and roads to connect them.
  • Colonel Light’s plan for the city of Adelaide was the model for new ‘wheat towns’ like Georgetown, Laura, Jamestown, Crystal Brook and Wirrabara.

Pushing further north

  • The land south of Goyder’s Line filled up quickly and soon there was more pressure to farm north of the Line. –    Goyder was now the Surveyor General, and he knew the inland country well. He opposed extension of farming further north, but lost out to angry public pressure for more land.
  • Good rains coincided with the opening of new northern farms. This reinforced the illusion that rain would fall if land was ploughed.
  • As the farms spread, they took over more pastoral land, as far north as Blinman and Hawker. In the late 1870s, the government responded to this expansion by planning to extend the railway from Port Augusta to Government Gums (later Farina).

Northern limits

  • Hawker is the most northerly of the surviving towns surveyed for farming (1880).
    • As late as 1884 two flour mills were built in Hawker.
    • Around Hawker you can see the ruins of many abandoned farm houses. The farms were absorbed back into grazing properties long ago.
  • Hookina was the most northerly wheat township surveyed (1883) and has been a ruin for many years.
  • Few of the northern towns surveyed for the expected wheat boom have survived. (See Farina, Carrieton, Cradock, Hookina, Pekina, Willochra).

Reality check

Every decade has a ‘great drought’. Farmers wait 10 or more years for a good harvest in between droughts.

In 1881, the government was still making new land on both sides of the ranges available for wheat farming. But the same year, hundreds of northern farmers petitioned the same government for aid, as their ‘fertile chocolate soil’ had failed to produce crops for three years in a row.

Dry seasons, grasshopper plagues, and declining wheat prices made the 1880s years of extreme trial for the farmers holding on beyond Goyder’ Line.

The 1896-1902 drought left its mark permanently on the country.

  • Choking dust storms took away soil and left sand drifts.
    • Hookina hotel closed because sand drifts threatened to bury it.
    • In the 1980s, you could still see a sand drift created then along a fence line just west of the main road a few km north of Hawker. The farm abandoned here was first owned by Heinrich Borgas, who ploughed and planted wheat in 1896. The drifting sand was held by the fence, and then consolidated by weeds.
  • Adult men would try to get work wherever they could. Many men earned a living carrying goods, but this work varied with seasons.
  • Population gradually drifted away from the farms and the little towns as the land shrivelled and work dried up.
  • Many farmers hung on with incredible optimism and endurance until in the end they had to move off the land.

Twentieth century cycles

  • By the late 1920s, those families who had stayed had expanded their farm holdings. This trend has continued – as smaller farmers move off the land, their holdings are taken into larger, more viable ones.
  • The Great Depression coincided with terrible drought in Australia. Dust blew constantly. It could be so thick that you couldn’t see your hand in front of you. An inch or more of water would blow into a billy while the water was boiling for tea.
  • Many men had to travel far to find paid work – seasonal fruit picking on the Murray; sheep shearing on outback stations; harvesting sandalwood; gathering wattle gum; fencing or road building.
  • Some farmers continued growing wheat up till the 1960s, but mixed farming had taken over by then. High wool prices in the 1950s encouraged many farmers to shift to sheep. (see Farming in Arid Land, What grows now in the Flinders region)
  • Grazing has been the main source of income in the northern districts since then.

Farming in arid land

  • The cycles of good seasons followed by long years of drought continue.
  • Many of the people who live in the Flinders Ranges are descendants of pioneers. Like them they are hardy and resourceful.

Hard Labour by hand

  • Early farms were between 200-400 acres (about 80 to 160 hectares).
  • All the work was done by hand or with a few animals. Although the farms were small by today’s standards, the workload was tremendous.
  • The first ploughs cut only one furrow, and were followed by ploughs that could cut two or three furrows.
  • A horse or oxen would pull the plough. All other tasks were done by hand:
    • Sewing seed
    • Reapers used a sickle to cut the grain head from the stalk.
    • Separating grain and chaff from straw by stamping on or beating it (threshing).
    • Separating the grain from chaff by throwing it in the air on a windy day. Later, mechanical winnowers were used.
    • Put hay into bundles and stacks using pitchforks.

Gradual mechanisation

  • All the separate processes involved in planting and harvesting wheat were gradually mechanised.
    • John Ridley’s stripper took wheat heads from stalks, and was used on most farms by the 1880s.
    • Combine harvesters revolutionised grain growing. They reap, thresh and winnow. When they first appeared in Australia in the 1880s, they were pulled by animals, usually horses.
    • The shift from horse power to tractors took place gradually. Tractors were used widely by the end of the 1930s.

Handling grain

  • When bulk handling for grain came in during the 1950s, it brought huge changes. –    Farmers needed new equipment and less labour.
  • Men to sew and lift wheat bags weren’t needed any more.
  • Farmers now truck their grain to the nearest silo (eg at Orroroo) from which it can be trucked again to a rail head (eg at Gladstone). It then travels by train to one of the ports that take grain ships – Port Adelaide, Port Pirie, Wallaroo or Ardrossan.
  • Giant silos and bulk wheat stacks (bunkers) mark the inland landscape.  You’ll see that some farmers have their own grain storage bins.

How much land for each animal raised?

  • You don’t count the number of sheep or cattle per hectare in this country. You count the amount of land needed to support one animal and keep the country in good shape. Around Quorn in the late 1970s this was about 5 to 8 acres (2 to 3 hectares) per sheep. [Quorn 1978:43]
    • In the Willochra Plain in the 1970s, graziers worked on 5 to 8 acres per sheep (roughly 2 to 3 hectares).
    • In 2011, graziers were running about 1 sheep every 4 hectares in the Flinders Ranges Council area and about 1:3 in Mount Remarkable and Orroroo Carrieton Council areas.

Weeds for feed and pest control

  • The chronic lack of good feed in this region meant that farmers here welcomed plants that were classed by the government as Noxious Weeds.
  • The plant that in other parts of Australia is called ‘Patterson’s Curse’ is known in south Australia as Salvation Jane.  Along with turnip weed, it was the best feed that many farmers had (Mincham 1980:140).
  • Castor oil bushes were planted because they are poisonous to grasshoppers. They had little effect in years of grasshopper (locust) plagues.

What  grows now in the Flinders region?

Crops and animals

  • Cereals for grain are the main crops in the region, followed by non-cereal broad-acre crops like canola. Some fruit and nuts are grown in the better watered country around the ranges.
  • Sheep are grown for wool and meat and some cattle grown for meat. No commercial dairying survives.


  • The country around Mount Remarkable has the highest rainfall and is the most productive.
    • 289,000 ha of land holdings there bring in $51 million a year.
  • Further north in the Flinders Ranges council area, nearly twice as much land (573, 388 ha) brings in less than $8 million.
  • Further east, in the Orroroo Carrieton council area, nearly 350,000 ha generates $20 million.

Table: 2011 Census figures on agricultural commodities in Flinders Ranges Region

 Flinders Ranges DC  Mount Remarkable DC  Orroroo Carrieton DC
 Total area
Area of holding  ha
 Cereals for grain  ha
 Vegetables for human consumption  ha
 Orchard trees (including nuts)  ha
 All fruit (excluding grapes)  ha
 Non-cereal broadacre crops  ha
 Total number
 Sheep and lambs  no.  125,755  229,821  171,606
 Milk cattle (excluding house cows)  no.  0 0 0
 Meat cattle  no.  4,585  5,069  8,872
 Pigs  no.  3  210 111
GROSS VALUE of Agricultural Production  $m
 Gross value of crops  $m 1.7 37.9 10.2
 Gross value of livestock slaughterings  $m 3.0 7.9 6.3
 Gross value of livestock products  $m 21.9 5.1 3.5
 Total gross value of agricultural production  $m  7.6 50.9 20.1

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics National Regional Profile

Grapes and Wine

  • The Southern Flinders Ranges emerged as a wine growing region late in the twentieth century.
  • It produces mostly red wine.
  • Irrigation is from underground water sources.