COMMENT by ALEX NELSON
Do we need the Army again to make large-scale farming in the Territory a reality once more?
The World War Two events described in the Alice Springs News story “After Darwin’s bombing, the Army made the desert bloom” sure seems to suggest it.
It was an era of huge population gyrations as the military moved in and out.
And the Army showed that some no-nonsense resolve can indeed make the desert bloom.
Historian Peter Donovan wrote: “From 8 September 1940 to 30 October 1944, the number of troops that passed through Alice Springs totaled 194,852” (a town with less than 1,000 residents before the war).”
However, as the war drew to a close and the military departed, the Territory’s population plummeted.
W. Granger, of the Department of Territories, reported: “In June 1961, the population of the Territory was estimated at 44,500, of whom some 17,500 were aborigines.
“About 12,200 people live in Darwin … and some 3000 at Alice Springs.”
These figures are rubbery as census figures for Alice Springs are recorded as 2,078 in 1947 and 5,124 in 1961, according to Mr Donovan.
The NT’s population did not reach wartime levels until the 1970s; and by 1981, according to that year’s census, it had reached 124,500.
There’s no question World War Two triggered a boom (pardon the pun) for all primary industry sectors in the NT, including farming.
According to historian Alan Powell, the Army commenced purchases of fresh produce from three farmers in the Top End in 1939 but these were hopelessly inadequate to meet the military’s requirements.
After ministerial approval in September 1940, the Army initially acquired 107 acres of land at Adelaide River, and harvests were underway only three months later.
A year later seven more farms, each of 50 acres, were established in the Top End to as far south as Mataranka, plus poultry and bee-keeping, under the auspices of 1 Australian Farm Company.
This was well before the first Japanese air raid on Darwin of 19 February, 1942.
2 Australian Farm Company was formed in October 1943 and was based at Katherine.
Writes Prof Powell: “By mid-1944, a string of farms totaling 345 acres stretched from Coomalie Creek to Spinifex Bore 1100 kilometres further south and army units ran their own piggeries at Alice Springs, Adelaide River and several staging camps between.
“In that year production rose to peak level: 1.7 million kilograms of vegetables and tropical fruit. Honey, chickens and 53,000 dozen eggs came to army stores from the Katherine region.”
Private farms added to this productivity; and the pioneering beef cattle industry was enjoying its first ever sustained profitability with the aid of Army constructed and operated abattoirs.
There was also an experimental platoon that conducted agricultural research with the assistance of CSIR scientists (forerunner to the CSIRO).
It remains a query in my mind whether the Australian Army’s 1 and 2 Australian Farm Companies operating in the NT during World War Two are unique in the history of modern warfare.
Whatever, it’s tempting to think the Army should be returned to complete control of the NT these days, too, as it was in the early 1940s: “The army farms may not have fed the multitudes entirely but in contrast with the previous dismal record of Territory agriculture they were remarkable.”
But Powell also points to inherent problems that bedevil horticultural enterprises in the NT to this day: “Only shortage of suitable labour prevented further expansion.”
In the peak production year of 1944 manpower restrictions were eased “and army labour of any kind became scarce.
“Attempts in mid-1944 to recruit Aboriginal labour – additional to between twenty and thirty already working on army farms – failed through lack of suitable applicants”.
Colonel J. K. Murray, a former Professor of Agriculture at Queensland University, wrote a report in March 1944 highlighting some of the difficulties experienced with labour; for example, “the officer commanding 1 Farm Company estimated that he had forty “bludgers” in his command “who reduce the efficiency of the remainder.
“Farming is an art,” asserted Murray – a truth self-evident to all who have tried it – and he demanded that experienced farmers be sent to the north. “They were not to be had.”
The military’s earlier agricultural success is also illusory “as the army had more farm workers than acres and no need to consider the cost of production”.
At the height of the farming operations in early 1944 there were over 600 personnel involved, a comparatively minor contingent out of the multiple tens of thousands of troops stationed in the north.
Lieutenant N. Kjar, a botanist who provided technical advice for the army farms, warned “the Northern Territory … is definitely not a land of milk and honey waiting to be tapped by the first agricultural adventurers,” says Prof Powell.
It needs to be noted, too, that the Army’s major farming focus in the Territory was at Katherine and predominantly in the Top End, not Central Australia. This reflects the reality of geography as the Territory’s northern region enjoys substantially higher and more reliable rainfall.
The Army’s establishment of its headquarters in Katherine for 2 Farm Company has proven to be an accurate assessment, as this region is now dominant in farm and horticultural production in the NT.
However, the apparent potential for horticulture in Central Australia, recognized as long ago as 1915 by the Rev. John Flynn (no less), has so far failed to come close to meeting expectations.
The current problems besetting Central Australian horticulture is just the latest chapter of a saga stretching back a century, and maybe longer; and this begs the question why this is so.
Until the history of agricultural research and enterprise in Central Australia is fully accounted for, I believe that fondly held tantalizing promise of potential will continue to be a mirage.
PHOTO above right: a great crop of silverbeet at Haasts Bluff Aboriginal community, mid last century. Courtesy Gross Collection – Strehlow Research Centre.