1901 Peanut industry begins in Australia

The peanut plant - Arachis hypogaea

As early as the 1860s, Chinese immigrants were growing peanuts (often referred to as ground nuts) in North Queensland. Commercial farming began in 1901 when Samuel Long planted 3 acres (1.2 hectares) in the Kingaroy district. Regarded as pioneers of the Queensland peanut industry, Ben and Harry Young, sons of another Chinese immigrant, began a larger operation nearby in 1919.

Like bananas, peanuts arrived in Australia with the Chinese. Attracted by the prospect of gold, many turned their hand to cultivating vegetables and crops. The first peanuts were grown for domestic use and were slow to gain acceptance beyond the Chinese community.

A few voices were raised in favour of developing a local peanut industry and at least one farmer was growing them in the Condamine region of Queensland by 1869. Writing in The Queenslander, under the signature of J.C.W., he recommended the crop as excellent food for both animals and humans and noted its popularity with the Chinese:

By way of conclusion, I may remark that the Celestials residing amongst us are extraordinarily fond of ground nuts. They regard them pretty much in the same light as the Englishman does his roast beef and plum pudding. Ground nuts have only to be tasted to be appreciated.

For many years most peanuts continued to be imported. Distribution was largely controlled by Chinese merchants, who were importing nuts from China and Japan. The Corowa Free Press reported in 1918 that these merchants ‘naturally preferred nuts imported from the East’ but were willing to use locally grown nuts if equal in quality. The article added that ‘Anyway, control by Chinese merchants that may be inimical to the local producer has got to be broken down – as in the case of northern rivers bananas to wit.’

As the peanut industry expanded in southeastern Queensland in the 1920s the local growers sought protection from the imported product, claiming that diseases were being imported with the nuts. Their efforts led to a ban on imported peanuts in 1927. The merchants gained a partial exemption from the ban by baking them ‘in bond’ before they were distributed and selling them at a price that undercut the local product. Further lobbying by growers led to the imposition of a total ban in 1929. The ban was overturned in 1933 when demand for peanuts could not be met by the Australian-grown product.

Today the peanut industry is largely confined to Queensland, which produces more than 95% of the national output.  The two main production areas were originally the Burnett and the Atherton Tableland but, since 1990,  Bundaberg, Mackay, Emerald and southern Queensland have been growing peanuts under irrigation and now produce 50% of the Australian crop.  We continue to import two-thirds of our peanuts, mainly from India, Vietnam and the United States.

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