Our Daily Bread An 1800s agricultural story

When the First Fleet arrived on the shores of Australia in 1788, the land on which the colonists set foot may as well have been another planet.

"Never had a colony been founded so far from its parent state, or in such ignorance of the land it occupied. There had been no reconnaissance." (Robert Hughes, ‘The Fatal Shore’)

Eating for survival

On a meager diet with strict rationing, the convicts had brought enough food with them to last two years. But there would be no going back to England. If they were going to survive, they would have to start growing food immediately.

With virtually no knowledge of Australian soils or climate, the First Fleet had brought several types of grain from England, not knowing how their initial harvests would go.

Meanwhile, colonists were rationed enough flour to make 1-3 loaves of bread per day. What they baked often took the form of 'damper'.

Based on a folk tradition of baking bread in the ashes of a dying fire, damper was easy enough for the early colonists and explorers to bake. The recipe used by the colonists required ‘old leaven’ instead of powdered yeast. This is similar to what we call sourdough today.

Unfortunately, the land at Botany Bay proved impossible for crops.

In desperation, the settlement was moved to Port Jackson, but here too the soil proved poor.

Few of the colonists had any knowledge of agriculture.

The first wheat grains they planted had overheated on the journey, and in the dry summer did not even germinate.

The young colony almost starved in the first few years. As early as May 1788, Governor Phillip wrote to England with depressing updates such as this:

“The great labour in clearing the ground will not permit more than eight acres to be sown this year with wheat and barley... the immense number of ants and field-mice will render our crops very uncertain.”

To secure the colony’s food supply, new farming settlements were started beyond Sydney, with more success.

Before long, additional colonies were founded and food production began to grow in earnest.

Australia was able to begin exporting wheat by 1845.

Growing and sowing

Although wheat doesn’t require too much water to flourish, relying on rain alone could mean a failed crop if the rains didn’t come at the right time. As the colonies expanded in the 19th century, the settlers resolved to create irrigation systems to ensure crops like wheat would produce enough food.

With booming population growth and a crippling depression in the 1880s, the government also wanted to make farm land available to poorer citizens, creating jobs and growing the economy.

This would not have been possible without readily available water for the scattered farms.

Fortunately, explorers in New South Wales and Victoria were discovering vast networks of rivers further inland. In time they would learn they were all part of one enormous connected system: the Murray–Darling Basin.

Recognising the Murray–Darling Basin's huge potential for inland growth, the Victorian government brought out three brothers from California, the Chaffeys, after seeing their success irrigating farmland around California.

One of the brothers had seen a small homestead in Mildura using a windmill to pump water from the River Murray to a small vegetable plot. He described it as a "tiny oasis in a barren landscape".

Someday, all of Mildura will be as this garden - George Chaffey

The Chaffeys were soon planning and building Australia's first large-scale irrigation systems.

Powerful pumping stations drew water from the rivers to the fields.

Soon the water began to flow.

The Chaffeys' vision knew no bounds. Talk of "greening the deserts" led to huge enthusiasm for grand irrigation schemes.

Some were apparently so ambitious that they sparked panic in local communities about their towns being flooded by dams.

Major construction efforts were underway to develop the necessary water storages and infrastructure, and new towns were built to accommodate the population moving into these areas.

It was an exciting time for many in Australia, a flourishing and wealthy country by the end of the 19th century. It seemed like nothing could stop its progress.

Reality bites

Unfortunately, the Chaffeys' grand plans hadn't taken into account the different environment of the Murray–Darling Basin compared to California. One difference was soil type: California had mostly black, nutrient-rich soil that retained more water. Mildura had mostly red soil; poorer in nutrients and less able to retain water near plant roots.

As a result, many schemes, such as their development of Mildura, were built on untested assumptions, unrealistic goals, and without regard to realistic cost estimates.

People demanded answers about how it all went so wrong, and before long a Royal Commission was hearing evidence of all manner of problems.

As deep-rooted trees were cleared for crops, another problem was revealed underground. Enormous reserves of salt, the legacy of an ancient inland sea, were now leaching into the rivers from rising groundwater.

Also, livestock had wrought havoc in scrubby bushland, compacting the soil, destroying native vegetation, and eroding river banks.

The Royal Commission made many observations and recommendations as they began to realise that the environment of the Murray–Darling Basin was not an endless resource.

However, the impacts on Australia's Aboriginal people were not even a footnote in their findings.

With their native grasses eaten by livestock, and their yam daisies and other staple food sources driven to near-extinction, a crisis of food security hit Australia's First People.

They would either have to leave their ancestral lands, risk fatal clashes with colonists, or try to assimilate into white society.

It would be a long time – too long – before the expertise of Australia's First People in managing our natural resources were recognised, and brought back once more.

About this story

This story is part of the Digital Stories learning resource from MDBA Education. For the accompanying teacher resource, visit the website.

For questions, comments, or feedback please email education@mdba.gov.au.