Today, Australia’s farmers number around 135 000 and produce enough food to feed 80 million people, providing 93 per cent of the domestic food supply. The agricultural and food production industry has evolved from convict workers and experiment farms, to innovations in agricultural implements, pest control, food science and digital agriculture; innovations which will be crucial in solving the global challenges of food production and sustainability. We take a look at the history of agricultural innovation...

Indigenous innovations

For tens of thousands of years before European settlement, Australia’s original inhabitants developed their own farming and food gathering methods and technologies. Eel traps, fisheries, shell hooks, spears and fire-stick farming are all examples of inventive farming and food production techniques. The Kerrup Jmara (People of the Lake) of Western Victoria for example, engineered an ancient, 8,000-year-old complex network of water channels at Lake Condah. Aboriginal people were also expert farmers, and used fire to hunt and cook food as well as manage and revegetate land. Only now, almost 230 years since European settlement, are the merits of traditional Aboriginal farming practices being recognised.

Image: Aboriginal men using fire to hunt kangaroos, 1817, Joseph Lycett, National Library of Australia

Colonial experimentation

After the First Fleet anchored in Sydney Cove in January 1788, the native vegetation was cleared and replaced with European crops and buildings. However, the British maize and wheat crops failed and a second settlement site was established at Parramatta.

Governor Arthur Phillip used convict labour to establish ‘experiment farms’, where settlers learned and tested their farming skills, and produced the earliest stores of seed and grain. Examples were Government Farm, later known as ‘Dodd’s Farm’, run by the experienced farmer Henry Dodd. And convicts James Ruse and wife, Elizabeth Parry, produced the first successful wheat harvest at Parramatta before the couple were awarded the land they had toiled in 1792.

The colony’s first farmers were faced with a drier climate, unfamiliar soils and inadequate equipment. Over the next century, the Australian agricultural implements industry became one of the oldest and largest secondary industries, described in one newspaper as a story of ‘enterprise’ and ‘inventive genius’.

Image: Governor's House at Sydney, Port Jackson 1791, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Engineering ingenuity

The late 1800s saw an innovation boom in agriculture. Historian, Ann Moyal, notes the entrepreneurial endeavours of individuals across Australia often involved ‘trial and error’ and, occasionally, ‘chance discoveries’.

There were many well-known characters of agricultural innovation throughout the 19th century, such as John Ridley and his world-first mechanical grain harvester(1843), Richard Bowyer Smith and his ‘stump jump plough’ (1876) and Hugh Victor McKay’s ‘Sunshine Harvester’ (1885).

But there were many other important contributions to the agricultural industry. In the 1840s, explorer and pastoralist William Morton devised a dip for dressing scab, a skin disease in sheep. Manufacturer, James Alston, realised the potential of windmills to tap into artesian water and power sawmills and other machinery. His iron, later steel, windmills of a circular design with curved sails were patented in 1884 and, within six years, were operating throughout Victoria and being exported to South Africa.

Image: Alston Windmill at Thylungra, Queensland, 1915, State Library of Queensland

In South Australia, brothers John and David Shearer developed ploughs, scarifiers, harrows, strippers and grubbing machines to tackle the difficult Australian landscape during the 1880s. Another successful ‘family affair’ was J Furphy and Sons, established in 1864 and famous for their Furphy Water Cart for bushfires, despite the contraption never being patented. The company’s founder, John Furphy, invented farming equipment including his award-winning grain stripper, furrow plough and iron swingletree. Today, the company is still family owned (5th generation) and operating from its base in Shepparton, Victoria. On one of his products, John Furphy wrote: ‘I have made very little out of them, except for the satisfaction of spreading the marks of civilisation’. 

Image: Two men demonstrating the Furphy's water cart, used for fighting bushfires, Shepparton, 1900, Museum Victoria

In some of cases, inventors never reaped the rewards from their innovations, and in others, fortunes were made. One of the most common challenges faced by these individuals was finding the finance to fully patent their inventions. Regardless of their levels of success, their efforts not only facilitated a vibrant, internationally-renowned agricultural industry, they galvanised Australia’s export trade and brought the country into the industrial age.

From pest control, to food science and digital agriculture

If the 19th century was the age of the individual inventor and agricultural implements, the 20th and 21st centuries has seen developments in pest control, food science and nutrition, conservation and in more recent times, digital agriculture.

At the forefront of pest control, food science and conservation has been the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). During the 1920s, scientists saved apple producers about £100,000 per year by discovering how to avoid bitter-pit disease. During the 1950s and 1960s, a cattle breeding research station was established in Queensland, eventually developing the ‘Belmont Red’ breed to withstand hotter climates. More recently, research is being conducted into digital agriculture, from genetics to transport logistics. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are being used to identify the location of livestock across extensive farmlands.

Image: Belmont Red Cattle, image courtesy CSIRO

The University of Southern Queensland’s National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture is experimenting with driverless tractors and UAVs to automatically perform crop scouting and detect ‘unhealthy areas in the paddock’. The solar-powered ‘Ladybird’ robot developed by the University of Sydney’s, Professor Salah Sukkarieh, has been designed specifically to scan vegetable crops. It detects pests, collects data on the crop’s nutritional development, mapping, and eventually, will conduct weeding and harvesting.

Image: UAV in action, part of a project by the National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture, University of Southern Queensland. Image courtesy National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture, University of Southern Queensland

24 January 2017