commercial cultivation of plants and animals
At first the new European settlers in the valleys of the Paterson, Allyn and Williams River valleys attempted to make them places of English style agriculture. This involved large estates with tenants as well as scattered small farms, producing a wide variety of crops sustaining the local people with the excess shipped to larger centres for sale. These ambitions, combined with the unfamiliar environment, led to great experimentation early on and the establishment of crops such as vineyards, wheat, corn, and tobacco, as well as sheep and cattle. Over time a mixture of diseases and market forces greatly narrowed this range of agricultural production.
Wheat and sheep were both tried in the Williams Valley, but both became better options further west in NSW and apart from the AAC sheep runs, which lasted until 1857, cattle predominated.1 Agriculture was slow to develop with land prices only large pastoralists could afford and wheat prices subject to import competition.2 Wine production was also very common for many years, falling only as wine consumption itself fell out of fashion. Tobacco and corn survived for two generations as the product of small land holders and tenants until the rise of dairying gave these small producers a better source of income.3
One of the earliest estates to develop was that of Webber’s farm at Tocal on the Paterson River, which reported a mix of crops in 1828 such as maize (Indian corn), wheat, barley and tobacco. Wheat received a high price and maize planted after this was harvested in November.4 In 1827, tobacco was introduced and by 1830 the estate was producing £3,000 worth of a crop commended in the Sydney Gazette as fully equal to ‘the best Colonial we have met with, and wants age alone to make it as pleasant as the Brazil’.5 Webber was soon followed by others and in 1831, Charles Boydell on the Allyn River hired a tobacconist to work in his newly built tobacco shed for £25 per year. Boydell in that year had ‘about 3 acres of tobacco, 400 bushels of wheat, 6 acres of corn, 600 sheep, 70 or 80 cattle & 2 horses’.6 Much later, cotton was also introduced at Gresford in 1863 by Boydell but was not successful.7
Those with large grants were reliant on convict labour with assignment based on the amount of land worked. Thus:
Mr. Mossman, on Williams’ River, purchased one section on which he has expended thousands, he cultivates wheat, maize, tobacco, &c – the latter article requires the constant attendance of one man per acre – for this favour he will be allowed four men and one additional for every forty acres, and admitting him to have three forties, he obtains seven men to cultivate a farm requiring twenty.8
Despite this apparent lack of workers, within 10 years, and allowing for the agent’s talk-up, substantial farms appear to have been established:
THE VALUABLE ESTATE of “TILLEGRA” on the William River, comprising 2560 Acres capable of being divided into two complete and most eligible Farms, adjoining each other and each consisting of 1280 acres, of the finest quality of land for cultivation and pasturage; with an extensive run for Sheep and Cattle. On one Farm upwards of £2000 has been expended in improvements, and there is on it a convenient Cottage Residence, with secure Store and Kitchen detached, a large Garden and Orchard, both well stocked with fruit trees, in full bearing, and a small Vineyard; with a Barn, Granary, Stock yard, Stables, Blacksmith’s Forge, Tobacco Press, Men’s Huts, a one-horse Mill, and every suitable erection for carrying on the business of such an Establishment. Several miles of the Fencing are quite new, and of the most substantial description, enclosing the Corn, Wheat, and Tobacco, cultivations, and two large Grass Paddocks.10
The brothers George and Christopher Lean provide an example of smaller settlers working without convict labour when they acquired land in Fosterton on the Williams River above Dungog town. The new land is described as ‘wild forest’ which they cleared during the 1840s with slash and burn techniques and where they built a cottage. Farming required much effort as only after several years were the many roots and stumps laboriously burnt out and cultivation became easier.11 Christopher describes how the early choices in crops became narrower:
Our principal crop was Maize, although in those days we also grew Wheat and Tobacco, but these crops both failed, the wheat being destroyed by Rust, and the tobacco by a fungus… We now confine ourselves to maize as being the safest and most profitable crop …12
Settlers both large and small had a variety of issues to consider in making their crops commercially successful. This included British import duties, the condition of the roads and the amount of shipping available. Rain made it difficult to get crops down to market, with the roads of the upper Paterson and Allyn reportedly in a ‘shocking bad state’.13 As well, the single ship at Paterson limited the speed with which crops could be got to market and those on the Williams River had similar complaints about shipping from Clarence Town.14 The existence of import restrictions to the main market in Britain caused many petitions to be written such as that got up at a meeting at Paterson Courthouse to request the export of flour and grain into Britain on the same terms as Canada.15 Despite these issues, land was rapidly cleared and crops planted so that by 1851 it could be reported that on a ride from Morpeth to Camyr Allyn ‘we scarcely ever lost sight of paddocks of wheat and of Indian corn waving in the breeze’.16
Tobacco in particular was much affected by American imports, even though an import duty was levied.17 By 1843, Boydell had his own brand of tobacco that was considered ‘American’ in quality.18 By 1855, however, Boydell seems to have ceased manufacturing tobacco.19 Nevertheless, tobacco continued to be promoted and many tobacco manufactories were established, but overall wheat, tobacco and maize were all giving poor returns in 1863 due to disease.20 This is despite the fact that, with the U.S. Civil War, American tobacco had all but disappeared and local prices rose in 1862 to 3s. per lb.21
Tobacco continued to be popular with small farmers and tenants, but the more capital intensive tobacco factories were run by larger farmers and local storekeepers. Bandon Grove in particular, about 15 miles north of Dungog along the Williams River, became a centre of both corn and tobacco farming.22 William Alexander Smith at Bandon Grove established a tobacco curing and manufactory business, even bringing out twisters and cigar makers from Britain.23 In 1855, Thomas and Peter McWilliam operated a retail/wholesale store and, in 1863, these brothers established a tobacco manufactory in Dungog town.24 In the Vacy/Paterson area in 1865 it was reported that seven tobacco manufactories were operating, two in Paterson itself.25
The level of agricultural technology in the 19th century meant that those who owned large estates could only cultivate so much themselves directly, with the rest given over to tenants to work. Even so, after 20 years of settlement the description of Boydell land on the Allyn River shows only about 10% of the land to be cleared or cultivated and with huts or cottages. While many lots are classed as ‘commands a vote’, others have been uncultivated for a number of years.26 The sale of such land and the opening up of land to ‘free selection’ after the Robertson Land Acts of 1861 resulted in many former Paterson and Allyn River tobacco growers moving onto land on the Upper Hunter around Patrick’s Plains and Singleton. The effect of this was to increase the production of tobacco in general, though not necessarily in the Dungog Shire district.27
In 1857, floods were extremely severe, destroying mills all along the rivers.28 A series of further floods in the 1860s destroyed crops, made roads impassible and contributed to a developing rust problem that all but destroyed the wheat growing of the district, while high seed costs and crops losses hit the economy of the district hard.29 In the 1870s, an influx of German settlers attempted to revive wheat growing but without success.30 Though a report of 1872 says that though damage by rust would be high, the wheat crop was plentiful with much that was safe from the rust.31 Again in 1875, an account from Vacy also reports on a fair wheat crop.32 Despite these efforts, wheat growing entirely disappeared from the three valleys in the face of wheat coming increasingly from western NSW now linked by rail.
In addition to crops such as tobacco, wheat and corn, many also attempted commercial production of butter and the growing of fruit. Boydell first sold butter at 14d per lb, and then 10d per lb. Fruit was also grown early on, with reports of ‘district navel orange trees 30 years of age still in bearing, and in the town of Paterson may be seen the old orange trees planted by Major Johnston, now over 50 years of age’.33 Boydell also reports as early as 1832 that he had produced excellent melons and peaches.34
Wine making was also popular, with Boydell recording 1½ acres of vines planted in 1833.35 By 1849, the number of acres under vines in the Hunter had greatly increased.36 At one point, with transportation ended and the gold rushes more attractive, agents organised migration from Germany under a bounty scheme to assist those with wine related skills to make the journey as the Government extended the bounty scheme.37 Bounties had previously been given only on British immigrants, but now foreigners who were specialist workers on products not produced in Britain such as wine, silk, or oil were targeted.38 By 1866, an observer reported that the demand for Australian wines at Clarence Town had markedly improved.39 Such wines included not only those from Camyr Allyn and the Lindeman estate, but also Dingadee wines made by the Hooke family on the Williams River near Dungog.40
By the early 20th century grape growing and wine production had begun to decline due to a variety of factors that included an overall decrease in wine consumption in Australia, the importation of cheap foreign wine, and a series of bad seasons and fungal diseases. In 1918 for example, it was reported that ‘Mr R B Boydell of Allynbrook … is one of the largest vignerons. The quantity of grapes treated by him last season, including that which he bought from neighbouring growers was only about a third of his own usual crop.’ This was reportedly the result of – ‘Bad seasons due to excessive rains ….’ And that – ‘Oidium, a fungous disease has done a great deal of damage and the sulphur treatment has been unavailing owing to frequent showers coming after each application.’41 Despite this, grape growing and wine making continued on the upper Allyn until at least the 1940s.42
Corn was cultivated from the beginning of agriculture in the three valleys and there are early reports of a range of cereals being grown for the Sydney market, such as wheat, barley, corn and hay. But it is corn that replaces the rust prone wheat, with corn commonly used by poorer families as a flour substitute.43 Corn, for example, was being promoted in 1864 by Thomas Mort, a friend and associate of George MacKay, a large Dungog landowner.44 Another remembers farmers reduced to ‘homony’ [a kind of porridge made from cracked corn] in hard times such as when floods washed pumpkins down off the farms.45 There are also reports of the Gringai people both helping to harvest and stealing corn crops, implying that they were happy to eat this new food also.46 However, wheat flour was always preferred for home consumption and later corn was usually fed to pigs or for milling at the corn flour mill established in 1878 on the Williams River near Dungog.47 While the Williams Valley farmers were fortunate in having their corn purchased by the Dungog based cornflour mill, those in Gresford had relied since the 1850s on a mill operated by the Boydell family and when this failed around 1894, farmers began favouring pumpkins to feed their pigs rather than corn.48
Pig raising was a popular source of additional income and in 1893, for example, some 13 farmers on the Paterson and Allyn Rivers were granted slaughtering licenses for pigs.49 Pigs seem to have been kept by a wide range of farmers and landowners, large and small. At Bandon Grove, for instance, in 1885, Vincent Dowling on 2,000 acres with 140 cattle, Joseph Atkins on 44 acres with 12 cattle, and Paul Haggerty on 32 acres with 20 cattle, all had 30 pigs each. Most kept less than 30 pigs, though Richard Boydell at Caeryurle on the Allyn River had 98 pigs.50
The Lean family at Fosterton was one that benefited from the Dungog cornflour mill. By the 1880s they had built Figtree House, ‘a brick cottage containing nine rooms with a large cellar …’ Their vineyard produced 900 gallons a year at 5/- a gallon and there were orange and apple orchards.51 In 1882, Christopher wrote that it cost him 25/- to break a horse, and that he had 400 bushels of corn unsold. Six loads of maize went to J Wade’s mill was at 5/- per bushel, and a few months later he wrote that ‘Wade is giving 4/6 delivered at the Mill’.52 Later again he reported the wheat crop was ruined by rain but that the grass for cattle was good.53 By 1884, prices for corn had dropped even more, from 4/- to 3/9 delivered and that Wade planned to stop buying at the end of the month.54
It is interesting to note that Christopher Lean was continuing to try and grow wheat at a time when many report it had already ceased to be a viable crop in the Dungog district.55 Others, it seems, also made efforts to try new crops, and some mention is made of attempts in the 1890s to grow and process arrowroot in the Williams Valley, but this was of limited success, while Paterson growers seem to have also tried this crop as early as 1865.56
Vegetables seem to have been mainly grown for home consumption and some local consumption through local auctions, the few Chinese market gardens at Dungog and Gresford being an exception: ‘We have two parties of Chinamen cultivators in the suburbs; in consequence, vegetables are plentiful and cheap.’57 As well the crown of Mt Douglas [Gardener’s Road] was reported to be occupied by a fine orchard and vegetable garden that supplied Maitland, Dungog and Paterson. This area from Mt Douglas to Clarence Town was said to be poor land well worked by German settlers.58
Much of this produce was sold locally, as this 1920s description of East Gresford describes:
Market day in East Gresford presents a busy scene, when farmers bring in their eggs, poultry, vegetables, and fruit to be “put up.” They call it the “union,” and on this and cattle sale days most of the business in the town is conducted by farmers and cattle men.59
Other produce of the district included lucerne, honey and pigs. Honey was also being produced by local bee keepers by the end of the 19th century, sufficient for a Dungog tinsmith to advertise that he made honey tins and for a Hunter River Bee-keepers Association to exist.60 It was also reported that some Aborigines of the Paterson area would, in season, collect the honey of native bees and sell this from the roadside.61 Another crop grown along the river flats was lucerne, which harvested as hay was used for both local feed and shipped as a cash crop. Attack by lucerne aphids in the 1970s caused much economic loss until resistant varieties could be developed.62 Closely associated with dairying was the raising of pigs, which were fed on the curd that was a by-product of early milk production as well as on corn. Bacon and ham production was therefore common, though as clean water and sanitation became a priority, piggeries declined.
At the end of the 19th century the dairy industry began to develop.63 At first reluctant, by the early years of the 20th century numerous farmers were at least partly devoted to the commercial production of milk. By 1910, a general description of Camyr Allyn was of its four pursuits, grazing, dairying, agriculture and wine growing.64 The impact of dairying on other agricultural pursuits was that corn, tobacco and wheat growing declined or completely disappeared, as did commercial vegetable growing. In the early years of the 20th century a description of a typical farm was of one with fruit trees, vegetables, chickens, pigs, ducks and cows (40), and a cart with one horse to take milk to the butter factory.65 And the Paterson Valley is described as one where – ‘Dairying, pig-raising, orange, maize, and lucerne growing are well established activities …’ 66
Changes in the technology of dairying had a wide range of impacts on the typical farm. The skim milk that was a by-product of cream production was fed to pigs, and when all milk began to be sent on for processing with the introduction of quotas in the 1950s and 1960s, the number of pigs kept rapidly declined. Similarly with the change over from crop fed cows to pasture fed. When corn was grown, the rows in-between were planted with pumpkins, squashes and water melons. As corn planting disappeared in favour of the sowing of rye grass, so to did the planting of many vegetables for family consumption.67
While fruit trees were established in all the valleys, the growing and sale of what were known as ‘Paterson Oranges’ became particularly established on the Allyn and Paterson Rivers, though many were grown in the Williams Valley also. A number of varieties were introduced to the Paterson Valley in the 1850s, but by the end of the 19th century it was reported that the ‘principal variety is the St. Michael’s or Siletta’.68 Already by the 1890s, oranges were being brought down the valley to be packed and shipped on to the Sydney market, but it was in the early decades of the 20th century that the ‘Paterson Orange’ dominated the market.
It is quite an ordinary sight to see in the orange season large wagons laden with oranges heaped loose in the body of vehicles coming into Paterson. Some are sold loose and placed into cases for dispatch to Maitland, Newcastle, and Sydney. The Paterson River oranges are of good marketable size, thin skinned and very juicy.69
Not only was this a delicious orange but one, ‘which is less hampered by disease than much of the fruit grown closer to the coast’.70 This industry gradually declined as competition from irrigation areas growing seedless varieties of orange out priced the Paterson variety.71
With the decline of oranges, and later dairying, the range of agricultural pursuits within the Dungog Shire district was perhaps at its narrowest in the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps the first new agricultural pursuit to enter the Williams Valley area in the post-war period was chicken farming. Chickens before the 1950s were common enough for eggs and the occasional Christmas dinner, but from the late 1950s Steggles introduced the practice of raising large numbers of chickens to be quickly killed and frozen to create a regular supply for city markets. The first of the large barn-based chicken farms to enter the Paterson River area was in the late 1960s. The most significant aspect of this type of agriculture is the tight link between the farmers and the re-seller of the chickens in determining the manner in which the farming takes place. For many, chicken farming became an alternative to dairying as this industry declined.72
As dairying and other agricultural pursuits have suffered falling returns, many within the three valleys have again begun experimenting with a range of alternatives. These have included or now include alpacas, deer, olives and snails, while Riverdene Nurseries at East Gresford has specialised in producing native plants for revegetation projects.73 Also, vineyards, following on from the great revival of the wine industry in the Hunter Valley have also been reestablished in the Paterson and Allyn Valleys, though relatively few on the Williams River.
In very recent times a handful of organic farms have also been established and efforts made to sell their vegetable produce commercially. Dungog town itself continues to have a vegetable auction every second Thursday, to which local producers bring their vegetables, eggs and chickens for sale, and several weekend markets are held throughout the district at which agricultural produce is sold.