Australia’s 1901 Population Census recorded around 14 per cent of Australia’s total population as working in the agricultural and pastoral industries. This contrasts with around 1.4 per cent who could be classified as farmers in 2011. The number of workers in the farming sector in 1901 was, in fact, underestimated. The census did not count aboriginal people who were working as stockmen and in other roles on pastoral properties.
The 1890s in Australia saw a decline in the birth rate during times of economic depression and as the country entered the new century there was concern about the slow growth of the population. After Federation in 1901 immigration laws – the infamous “White Australia Policy” – restricted immigration to those of European (and preferably British) origin. There was a romanticised view of the English “yeoman farmers” and various worthies in the community had visions of an Australia civilised by these stalwart and hard-working citizens.
The Western Australian Premier, John Forrest, envisaged agriculture based on small farms and “a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, men of small means but strong arms and hearts”. The Homestead Act of 1893 offered free farms up to 160 acres but, despite low-cost loans, most small farms failed, causing great economic hardship.
Others took up the cause. “Victoria, with its temperate climate, offers perhaps the ‘best prospect for a smart, active young fellow with good health and capital from £300 or so upwards, and that, although he can only freehold 320 acres direct from the Crown,” wrote one correspondent. This writer advised the “new chum” to spend a few years working on the land before taking up a farm of his own. “Let him, therefore, bank his capital and go through the mill as a bush and farm hand, and not stay too long In one spot until he has well travelled the colony. He will find a combination of dairying and fruit-growing pay him best.”
From 1906, new assistance schemes were introduced by the states, offering reduced fares, grants of land and other concessions to potential farmers. In 1909 a High Commissioner was appointed to advertise Australia abroad. The movement to attract farmers to Australia reached a peak in 1920 with Sir Joseph Carruthers’ Million Farms plan. The New South Wales politician chaired a select committee on the improvement of agriculture and the resulting campaign aimed to settle a million farms with a million (white) families.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the 1901-02 season, wheat accounted for 2 million hectares of the area under crop, followed by oats (187,000 hectares), maize (119,000 hectares), and barley (30,000 hectares). Orchards and fruits, sugar cane and potatoes occupied 59,000 hectares, 54,000 hectares and 44,400 hectares respectively. About 284,000 tonnes of beef and 400,000 tonnes of mutton and lamb were exported in the first decade of the century.