Farming in Tasmania is such an important industry, more than a quarter of its landmass is used for agriculture. Some people call Tasmania a giant farm and with that kind of statistic it’s hard to argue. Tasmania is also a shining light in vegetable exports, accounting for 25% of Australia’s vegetable exports.
‘The North West Coast of Van Dieman’s Land, as Tasmania was called back in colonial days, was settled and expanded primarily for agricultural purposes. It was initially avoided, because when the Europeans first arrived, they found thick coastal scrub and densely forested land. This led to Hobart and Launceston being initially developed, with the Midlands in between the two centres being developed as the breadbasket that fed the new colony, as it was the most fertile ground that had been found in Australia at the time. However, when the densely forested lands of the North West Coast were bravely settled, they were found to be even more fertile than the Midlands. Farming then became the most important industry on the North West Coast, initially established by the Van Diemen’s Land Company, but then driven by smaller landholders, who worked hard to clear the densely forested land, to establish grazing and cropping plains.
All my grandparents were dairy farmers on the North West Coast of Tasmania where I grew up and I had lots of fun playing around on their farms when I was a toddler, which I so wish I could remember, but I was too young.
My grandparents Roy and Verna McGee were originally potato farmers on the banks of the Rubicon River in Elizabeth Town. When my mother was four years old they moved to Dairy Plains to established their dairy farm, where they also farmed pigs. They would regularly head into the Deloraine stockyards to buy and sell stock.
My McCormack Grandparents established their dairy farm on top of the hill in Kimberley. They called it Mt Melleray after a monastery with a scenic outlook.
My father then worked in agriculture, as a boiler maker welder, for the largest onion exporter in the Southern Hemisphere, an amazing Tasmanian company called Vecon. My brother and I would often accompany him to work in the factory and paddocks on weekends and school holidays because our mother was a nurse and needed to sleep after working night shift. We would visit farms with him as he worked repairing onion harvesters in the paddocks. Being adventurous young boys, we taught ourselves to drive in the onion paddocks while he was fixing the harvesters. Because were young and not very tall, one of us would operate the brake and accelerator, while the other drove. Although it was known that dad would reach around for a tool, and not be able to find the Ute! We got to know many farmers doing this and we would often then visit their farms on weekends, to catch trout in their dams, shoot rabbits, and help them maintain and improve their farms.
One of those farms was the Bennett’s dairy farm in Parkham, which is just over the hill from Kimberley, where my McCormack Grandparents dairy farm was. We would help the Bennett’s out, by shooting the wallabies and rabbits on their farm, this kept them down to manageable numbers, so they didn’t eat all the cows grass and dig holes all through the paddocks. It was so handy knowing the Bennett’s, especially one day in particular. I was driving down the road, when suddenly I spotted smoke rising from under the bonnet of my car! I pulled straight off the road and stopped the car. Luckily it was just some wiring going up in smoke. Unluckily the car was out of action. These were the days before mobile phone, but luckily I’d stopped almost directly opposite the Bennett’s farm. Phew. So I trotted down their long driveway and they kindly allowed me to call my dad, who came and towed me home.
All of these activities fostered a love of farming from a young age and as I now drive past farms, I take great interest in how they’ve been setup and operate, including where they put their sheds and where their junkyard is, because we had so much fun crawling around them and exploring what the farmers had discarded.
Some of their innovations fascinate me, like Centre Pivot Irrigators. Rather than having a big irrigator blasting water high in the air to let it rain down on crops, where a lot of the water is lost to evaporation, or blown to areas where it’s not needed. A centre pivot irrigator is a giant boom on wheels that rotates around a centre pivot. There are sprinklers on the boom that extend down close to the ground, meaning the water gets to the crop more efficiently and effectively. But they do make funny patterns in the paddock, including huge wheel ruts as they constantly turn, and the crops grow really well in giant circles rather than traditional square paddocks.
So I decided to explore farming’s history in more detail where I have a personal connection, because it’s shaped who I’ve become. I got so lucky with both sets of my grandparents being farmers, because they taught my parents so many life skills that they past down to me, including work ethic, problem solving, love of nature, accepting things out of my control, respect and teamwork. I can trace each and every one of these life skills to how it has helped me succeed in life. The founder of Vecon, Peter Gilham, even inspired my career. His key success factors were; delivering a quality product and I’ve worked in Quality Assurance; consistently upgrading his factory and I’ve worked in Lean Manufacturing, which upgrades manufacturing factories; and market diversification and I’ve worked in business strategy development. I’ve just never done any of these jobs in the agricultural industry, I’ve applied them to the manufacturing, automotive, defence, aerospace, space and ICT industries.
Farming in Van Dieman’s Land extends back well before Colonial days, because even though the indigenous traditional owners of the land, the Palawa, were better known as nomadic hunter gatherers, they also practiced farming, with a deep understanding of the environment. Living in small communities, they adapted their farming techniques based on environmental conditions and community needs, building wells, and dams. Native cherry, potatoes and carrots were all planted and harvested. Sophisticated fishing techniques were used in lakes, rivers and the ocean. They invented countless ways to use natural produce to eat and heal their bodies through bush medicine. The Palawa Native Pig Face is a great example. The leaves are edible with a salty taste, it bears a sweet red fruit and it’s also used for stings, cuts and bites.
The use of fire by the Palawa is best practice, particularly in land management, with the Tasmanian government announcing in 2020 that it will start using traditional Palawa fire burning practices, also known as ‘caring for country’, to protect the state from bushfires. Fire was used by the Palawa to promote new growth; to clear the land, which made it easier to hunt and move around; and to ensure a favourable environment for kangaroos to live and breed, as the kangaroos were spiritually important to the Palawa.
The Palawa also understood that out-of-control fires would destroy vegetation and food, so they learned how to read the land, so they knew when it was ready to burn i.e. when trees, flowers and grasses cure. They used ‘Cool fires’ at nighttime, or mornings, when nightly dews cool the fire and plants aren’t sweating flammable oils. Because the fire is cool, it doesn’t bake the seeds or nutrients in the soil; it also burns slowly, which allows insects to escape; it doesn’t burn tree canopies; reduces density of fuel load in bracken; and it doesn’t burn the logs on the ground or habitat trees. The fire is also closely monitored by the people who lit the fire, to ensure that it does not get out of control.
The Indigenous considered the tree canopies sacred; because it provides shelter and sustenance for all living things; a canopy fire releases more carbon than a cool fire, which harms their country; insects and other small animals crawl up into the canopies to find refuge from the fire; it preserves the tree cycle, so it doesn’t miss its cyclic renewal; and the smoke from a cool burn also triggers a reaction in the seeds to promote germination.
This land management technique helped Colonial Van Dieman’s Land, because it prepared the land beautifully for traditional European farming, especially in the Midlands of Van Dieman’s Land which was particularly important, as it was the most fertile land the English had found in Australia at the time, when they were also going through a famine. The Palawa Land Management techniques prepared the Midlands beautifully to become the breadbasket that fed the new colony.
When Matthew Flinders first sailed into the Derwent River in 1798, he anchored in Risdon Cove, which was fed by a stream winding down between two steep hills, into a series of three ponds. The surrounding area comprised of grassy plains and woodland, making it ideal for farmland. Risdon Cove itself, provided a safe harbour for ships. A report was then written recommending that the first Van Dieman’s Land European settlement be established in Risdon Cove.
David Collins then brought eight free settlers with him in 1803 to establish farms to feed the newly established colony. He also brought a conditionally pardoned ex-convict surveyor, James Meehan, who surveyed 100 acre plots for them in New Town Bay, where a fresh water rivulet was located. This required a lot of work, with forests needing to be cleared, and fences built.
When I first moved to Hobart early in my career, I lived in New Town, close to the freshwater rivulet, on the land that the farmers had cleared. It’s now the inner city of Hobart and no longer farmed, although fresh food was available, as they were building a supermarket at the time. My flatmate and good friend Patrick Wright, then decided to go inside and check it out, while it was under construction, until the security guard came along, he then boot scooted out of there quick smart. To be fair, we needed pasta for dinner, and he was checking if they had any! LOL! I greatly enjoyed my time living there.
The farmers then attempted to use British foods and farming techniques in this new environment, with limited success. Then in 1805 a drought descended on Van Dieman’s Land, which in combination with the lack of productive farming techniques, resulted in a famine descended on Van Dieman’s Land. Supply ships didn’t arrive and rations were cut to one third. Convicts were sent out in the bush with dogs to shoot kangaroos and rabbits, which became an important food source for the colony, rich in protein and they became some of the healthiest British colonial settlers.
Because of the drought, in 1807 Lieutenant Thomas Laycock set out from Port Dalrymple, which is present day Launceston, on horseback with dispatches for extra rations, bound for Hobart. It took him 8 days over the uncharted mountainous terrain of the Central Plateau, which would have been incredibly difficult for him, as its full of craggy towering peaks and deep valleys littered with volcanic boulders. The marshland in between the peaks is notoriously boggy. He did really well just finding a pathway through the Central Plateau. But at the same time it would have been so lovely to canter through the button grass plains, listening to the frogs croaking and the birds singing. Seeing the snow covered mountains all around him, as it can snow in the Central Plateau at any time of the year.
Thomas then found the famine just as dire in Hobart, so he was unable to obtain extra rations. He then returned to Port Dalrymple via a flatter easterly route that he had seen as he traversed the Central Plateau. This area would become known as the Midlands, because it was in between the two major settlements. After surviving the Central Plateau, riding up the Midlands, over the rolling grassy hills, must have been so delightful. The rich red soil found in the district provides perfect growing conditions for vegetation of all types, primarily due to the exalted Palawa land management techniques. This made the Midlands the richest agricultural land that the British had found in Australia, as the areas around Sydney weren’t as fertile. This led to an expansion of settlement, to establish farms and provide better food for the emerging colony, which led to the Midlands of Van Dieman’s Land becoming the breadbasket that fed colonial Australia. Laycock was exalted for his find with a cow, which at the time was a very valuable gift, given the famine.
The Australia breadbasket is focused around Norfolk Plains in the Midlands of Van Dieman’s Land. It was called Norfolk Plains to acknowledge the Norfolk Island settlers that had been exiled there from Norfolk Island. The penal settlement of Norfolk Island was in the process of being closed at the same time that Lieutenant Laycock had discovered the potential of the Midlands. The government needed somewhere to put the Norfolk Islanders, so they were exiled from Norfolk Island and resettled in Van Dieman’s Land, where they helped establish the farms that would become the breadbasket of Australia. Governor Lachlan Macquarie surveyed fifty farms and then in 1813 the Minstril and the Lady Nelson arrived from Norfolk Island with 145 Islanders, who were taken up the South Esk River and allocated farms as a reward for giving up their settlements on Norfolk Island. However the Islanders did not settle in the Midlands in the long term, with the farms being sold to British settlers, who grew wheat, barley and other crops the colony needed.
Prior to 1820, free settlers were not encouraged to migrate to Van Dieman’s Land. They needed a letter of recommendation from their Secretary of State for permission to land in Van Dieman’s Land, unless they were a convict or involved in the penal system. After 1820 more land became available in Norfolk Plains and other areas, which required additional settlers to establish farms and other infrastructure for the emerging colony. This led Lieutenant Governor Arnold to encourage migrants with existing capital, so they could assist the convict penal system, by making use of convict labour and providing convicts assigned to them, with clothing and food, while the government retained overall authority over the convicts. This took some of the financial burden off the government, while giving convicts meaningful work and the chance of redemption. However, the farming techniques they used were primitive and soil depletion around New Norfolk and Norfolk Plains became evident.
From 1831 to 1847 the British government sponsored poorer people to immigrate, using money from land sales to fund the scheme. They were living in poverty in Britain, with high unemployment therefore moving to Australia was a much better environment for them. Britain did this with two schemes.
1. The bounty system was for single females to immigrate as servants. The ladies paid half the fare 8£ and the government paid the other half.
2. Skilled married men with young families were granted £20 to immigrate.
The Australian government also paid for tickets over, as it was cheaper and easier for free settlers to go to other colonies i.e. America, as tickets to Australia were four times as expensive. The Van Dieman’s Land Company also paid farmers to immigrate to help their business. Military pensioners were given free passage and small land grants in exchange for being guards on prison ships. All of these free settlers were of lower middle class origin, who came to the new colony to establish a new life, or earn enough money to return to a comfortable life in Britain.
Van Dieman’s Land Company
The first large agriculture company in Van Dieman’s Land, was the Van Dieman’s Land Company, which was formed in 1824 by a group of London Merchants, who sought 500,000 acres of land in Van Dieman’s Land, to run tens of thousands of sheep and increase the supply of cheap fine fleeces for the British textile industry. This was driven by the Age of Imperialism, where European nations settled new colonies all around the world, to secure cheap raw materials for their industries in Britain. It became attractive to the Merchants, after Merino sheep were introduced to Van Dieman’s Land in 1820 and produced ultra fine wool due to the favourability of the climate.
An 1825 Bill then granted 250,000 acres to the Van Dieman’s Land Company, as long as it was remote from settlers. Ex Lieutenant Governor of Van Dieman’s Land, William Sorell, who had recently returned to Britain, played a key role. Back in Van Dieman’s Land, Sorell with Governor Macquarie’s assistance, had imported several hundred merino sheep from the famous Camden stock, which kickstarted the sheep industry in Van Dieman’s Land. He had then further explored Van Dieman’s Land to find the best pastures for sheep grazing.
Sorell then shared this knowledge with the Van Dieman’s Land Company, and suggested that the best land was on the North West Coast, between Port Sorell and Cape Grim on the top of the West Coast of Van Dieman’s Land. This land had previously only been explored by sea, where the rivers westward from the Tamar River were called First (Rubicon) River, Second (Mersey) River, Third (Forth) River. The land at the time, was seen as thickly forested, with rocky terrain that would make farming difficult, which led to other areas of Van Dieman’s Land being settled first. However, Sorell had requested that Captain John Rolland explore it further for sheep grazing and he had found the large grassy plains around Port Sorell suitable due to the rich red soil found in the district, which was perfect for growing food and grazing livestock.
An Advance Party was then despatched to Van Dieman’s Land to locate a permanent settlement for the Van Dieman’s Land Company, with Chief Agent Edward Curr arriving in Hobart in 1826, along with Chief Surveyors Henry Hellyer and Joseph Fossey, to search for good grasslands along the North West Coast of Van Dieman’s Land, to run their sheep and establish a permanent settlement for the Van Dieman’s Land Company.
They set out from Hobart with a loaded wagon and a large cart pulled by two teams of bullocks and made base camp near present day Dairy Plains, where my McGee grandparent’s dairy farm was located. Dairy Plains is located in the Meander Valley, with acres of lush green fertile fields, nestled in the foothills of the imposing Great Western Tiers.
In addition, the Superintendent of Farms and Stock, Stephen Adey, chartered a whaling boat with six rowers, which would be used to charter personnel and supplies from George Town at the mouth of the Tamar River, to support the Advance Party and also the permanent settlement when it was established. They planned to meet at the mouth of the Mersey River. Time was of the essence, because the chartered ship Tranmere was due to arrive within the month, with an initial supply of stock, supplies and servants for the permanent settlement.
The Advance Party then rode their horses to the Mersey River and climbed to the top of Mount Roland, where they would be able to spot the best pasture country for their sheep along the North West Coast. My grandmother Verna McGee née Treloar was born in the foothills of Mount Roland, where every morning she would listen to the Tasmanian Tigers catching their breakfast. I too climbed Mount Roland in my youth and geez it’s a hard trek up the existing walking trail, which was constructed with steps and ropes to assist, how they climbed the mountain without a trail is amazing.
The current Lieutenant Governor of Van Dieman’s Land George Arthur had informed them that the plains east of the Mersey were reserved for small settlers and young military officers currently being retired from the British Army, but they could choose any land on the west of the Mersey River. The view from the top of the mountain provided no joy, just acres of undulating green forest that were not suitable for sheep grazing. They therefore needed to examine the large grassy plains in the Port Sorell area that Captain Rolland had discovered and to travel by sea to explore the grassy plains between Circular Head and Cape Grim in the far North West, which Charles Browne Hardwicke had explored by sea in another expedition that Sorell had requested in his search for sheep grazing country. Charles had also explored Port Sorell and reported favourably, due the good pastures and close proximity to a river.
The Advance Party then spent a month exploring the land between the Rubicon River at Port Sorell and the Mersey River, which they found very promising. They camped at Northdown, in between the Mersey and Rubicon Rivers.
My family would also camp at Hawley Beach, next door to Port Sorell, every Christmas. It’s such beautiful countryside, with magnificent beaches and great fishing. We caught many flathead and crayfish. You should have seen the sandcastles we built on the beach, they were things of beauty.
The Advance Parties exploration convinced Edward that Northdown, although much smaller than the planned Land Grant, was the ideal place to establish a permanent settlement for the Van Dieman’s Land Company. They then moved their base camp to Frogmore, near the future site of Latrobe, on the Mersey River, before heading back to Hobart to seal the deal, as the new settlement would need a port where vessels could be loaded and unloaded.
This port was established in my hometown Latrobe, and Frogmore House was built by George Atkinson in 1890, which features a large observation tower. George owned a shipping company at the time and the observation tower allowed him to see the port. I had so much fun catching fish there in the Mersey river and having fun at Bells Parade, where they established the port.
Further south of Frogmore was also explored, in what is now known as the Kentish district, to find additional fertile plains, including Kimberley where my McCormack Grandparents future farm was.
At the same time the Advance Party were exploring, Stephen Adey and his team of rowers bravely made their way through the treacherous waters of Bass Strait to Cape Grim. Unfortunately they became weather bound for three weeks during the journey at Rocky Cape, which exhausted their supplies, so they needed to turn around before reaching Cape Grim and head back to the Mersey to meet with Edward Curr and team. However, Edward and the team were off exploring when Stephan arrived at Frogmore. Therefore, when he left again, he took all the food stocks with him, so when Edward and his team returned exhausted and out of food, they found Frogmore similarly without food. Luckily Stephen returned two days later from Circular Head.
It’s fair to say that I have a good idea of just how scary this would have been for them, as I learned how to sail in Bass Strait, which is one of the roughest waterways in the world. It’s because of the Roaring Forties winds, which are such strong westerly winds around the 40 degree latitude, because of the Earths rotation and the lack of land to create windbreaks. They create massive waves across the Indian Ocean, which become bigger in Bass Strait, because it’s shallower than the ocean. It also creates rogue waves, which are completely unpredictable, much bigger than regular waves, from a different direction. To row into those treacherous uncharted waters must have been so scary.
Edward then travelled back to Hobart to convince Governor Arthur to allow the Van Dieman’s Land Company to permanently settle at Northdown. However, he was met with severe resistance because it was too close to smaller settlers. Therefore, Governor Arthur insisted that the Van Dieman’s Land Company’s permanent settlement be established at Circular Head near Cape Grim.
With the Tranmere so close to docking, there wasn’t time to argue and the Van Dieman’s Land Company’s permanent settlement was agreed to be established at Circular Head.
The Tranmere arrived at Circular Head in May 1826, at the site where the town of Stanley now resides and a small port was established. This settlement remains today as the historic Woolnorth Station, owned by Van Dairy, who are Australia’s biggest milk producer with 25 dairy farms and 30,000 cows.
Circular Head derived its name from what is now called The Nut, which is a gigantic stump of an old volcano, on a small neck of land sticking out into Bass Strait. Bass and Flinders had sailed past in 1798 and thought it looked like a Christmas cake, and called it Circular Head, which was subsequently adopted for much of the area around The Nut. It was so much fun climbing up the rocky wilderness of The Nut in my youth. What was created out of the chaos of a volcano, is now a beautiful rocky headland, filled with volcanic rock and coastal scrub.
Fourteen men, four women and three children had journeyed on the Tranmere to Circular Head, where they then established the Woolnorth station and built Highfield House at Stanley. This was the first permanent settlement on the North West Coast of Van Dieman’s Land. The Tranmere then sailed to Northdown, where horses, bullocks and other sundries were loaded to help establish the new settlement back at Circular Head. Land was then rented out to tenants for further development.
The settlers that arrived then used the farming methods they were taught back in England, which didn’t suit the Van Dieman’s Land environment. The merino sheep also didn’t do well in the isolated and cold hinterland, dying of starvation, or hunted by Aborigines and Tasmanian Tigers. The Van Dieman’s Land Company then changed focus to beef, timber felling and timber exports.
In 1827, Henry Hellyer started searching for a suitable site for a larger port further along the coast, which he found when he camped at what is now Oakleigh Park, beside Whalebone Creek in Burnie, overlooking Emu Bay. The Emu Bay settlement then grew, consisting of a shop, small jetty, sandpit and a few huts. A narrow path was then built through the bush inland to the Van Dieman’s Land Company settlements of Surrey and Hampshire Hills.
Oakleigh House was built in 1840 for the Emu Bay overseer. Wheat and potatoes were grown in area. The settlements name was changed to Burnie when the town was surveyed in 1843 and honours William Burnie, who was a director of the Van Dieman’s Land Company.
I moved out of home at 17, to live in student accommodation at Burnie while I studied Civil Engineering. It was up on the hill just above Oakleigh House. I was living in a shared apartment with a couple of other students and it was such a good introduction to living independently and establishing my new life, similar to the new settlers beginning their new life.
We also sailed in Emu Bay, where the yacht club was located on the beach. So, I also have some idea what it would have been like for the Stephen Adey landing at Circular Head in his whale boat. One day we were beaching our sailing dinghy, when another dinghy turned in front of us, just as we were surfing down a big wave. Yep you guessed it, there was nothing we could do about it and we tee-boned that other dinghy, right in the middle, at speed. You should have seen the damage on both dinghys.
The Van Dieman’s Land Company left an incredible legacy for Tasmania. They opened up the North West Coast of Tasmania. They are the last chartered company still operating in Australia, as Van Dairy, who are Australia’s biggest milk producers.
Waste Lands Act
In 1856 Van Dieman’s Land achieved self-governance, which gave it control of Crown Land and resulted in federal funding being withdrawn. They also changed the name to Tasmania to disassociate themselves from their convict origins, while celebrating Abel Tasman, who was the first European to land on the island. At the same time there was mass emigration of people to the Victorian Goldfields. This prompted the Tasmanian government to open up Crown Land in 1958, via the Waste Lands Act, to land seekers who previously couldn’t afford land, in the hope it would bolster Tasmania’s strong markets in sheep and arable farmland. Smaller landholders could acquire between 100 to 640 acres, which they leased for 10 years, then purchased for a pound an acre.
Thus, farming in Tasmania became driven by small landowners, who worked hard clearing the land to establish fertile sheep grazing and cropping pastures. Once the land was cleared, the volcanic basalt soils of the North West and the North East, provided the most fertile of the colony. This entrepreneurial culture has pervaded the agriculture industry in Tasmania and I have a personal connection with many of the larger companies that became established by visionary entrepreneurs, so I’m also exploring their history.
The Apple Isle
Tasmania is well known as the Apple Isle, for good reason. The first apple tree was planted in Tasmania in 1788 by William Bligh on Bruny Island. Colonel Paterson then planted apple trees in 1804 at York Town in Northern Tasmania and small house orchards spread throughout the colony, where it was found that the apple varieties grown in England were more productive in Tasmania, due to a more favourable climate.
Towards the end of the 1820s, when the trees were maturing and producing better yields, export opportunities were explored, as the Tasmanian apples were of higher quality. This led to the first export to England in 1829 by Daniel Stanfield junior from Clarence Plains, however the apples didn’t travel very well and they needed to wait until better shipping methods were developed. Luckily, the export market to Sydney performed very well in the 1830’s and by 1860 there were 120 varieties of apple being produced in Tasmania, with Launceston as the primary production location.
In the 1870’s the Codlin moth appeared in Tasmania with disastrous results for the industry. The moth is indigenous to Europe, and had spread to America. Shipments of apples from America then introduced the moth to Tasmania. However, the Huon Valley south of Hobart remained free of the moth, which allowed it to become the biggest grower and by 1883 there were 552 orchards in the Huon Valley. This taught a very valuable lesson to the Tasmanian agriculture industry and they have since worked very hard to ensure that the island remains free of pests and disease that plague agriculture in other parts of the world. Biosecurity has since become a key competitive advantage for the Tasmanian agriculture industry, with Tasmania remaining free of many of the pests and disease that plague other parts of Australia and the world.
While most of the apple production is in Launceston and the south of Tasmania, Spreyton on the North West Coast has really good growing conditions and produces quite the crop. It’s just down the road from Latrobe, with the first apple orchard being planted in 1908 by the Langworthy and Viney families. Four generations later, the families are still working together at Spreyton Fresh and have expanded into juices and vinegars. My father knew the Langworthy’s and Viney’s really well and would often do small jobs for them. I got great delight peeking into the Apple processing facilities.
I also had a good friend who lived on a farm with his parents near Spreyton, in Lower Barrington. I went to Primary and High School with Peter Stevenson, we had great fun playing field hockey together and I had many fun sleepovers at his house. It was a big sheep farm and his parents weren’t full time farmers, so it was impressive they maintained it as well as they did. They had the most immaculate shearing shed and other facilities. I greatly enjoyed jumping in the back of the Ute to help his parents maintain the farm.
As I’ve previously said, my paternal and maternal grandparents were dairy farmers. Dairy was an important industry for the new colony right from the beginning, where two bulls and seven cows arrived on the First Fleet. They then promptly escaped into the bush to begin their new life in the colony and the herd grew to 61 after six years.
The Tasmanian climate was ideally suited for pasture-based dairying, because of the temperate climate, fertile soils, reliable rainfall and regular sunshine. Dairying began in Tasmania with farmers clearing densely forested land to create paddocks. They then milked a few cows for their own use, selling any surplus milk they had. Butter and cheese were imported from Sydney.
As the colony grew and expanded the market, more dairy farms were established, and better-quality cows were imported. By the 1850s Tasmania was self sufficient and exporting both butter and cheese. By 1891 there were 445 dairy farmers in Tasmania.
The commercial dairy industry then took off when the Table Cape Butter and Bacon Factory opened in 1892. Other businesses soon followed, creating an expanding industry, including the North West Cooperative Dairy Company, the Duck River Cooperative Butter and Bacon Factory in Smithton, and the Ringarooma Cooperative in the north east. Thus the North West Coast of Tasmania played an important role in the dairy industry, and my grandparents were a part of that.
While I don’t have memories of my grandparents’ dairy farms, I do have memories of other dairy farms in my life. My father was really good friends with David Bloomfield, who had a 140-acre dairy farm in Kimberley, with around 650 cows. It was just down the hill from my McCormack Grandparent’s dairy farm. I never milked cows there, but we did catch lots of fish, as it’s located on the banks of the Mersey River. After catching some big trout we’d often check out the property and I greatly enjoyed learning how it all worked.
Vegetables were grown in Tasmania for early explorers and European vegetables grew very well, especially in the North West. The first crop was green beans grown at Risdon in 1804, planted by Robert Knopwood. Many households followed, growing peas, carrots, cabbage, green beans, cabbages, lettuce, and asparagus for their own consumption. Farmers provided vegetables for markets. Preserved vegetables in bottles became widespread.
My McGee Grandparents were potato farms on their first farm in Elizabeth Town and Potatoes are one of Tasmanian agriculture’s biggest earners, especially on the North West Coast of Tasmania, because of both the equable climate, which means it stays at an even temperature without sudden changes, and the decomposed basalt soil.
The decomposed basalt soil dates back 500 million years when Tasmania was part of Gondwana, which comprised of Australia, Antartica and the America’s. When they detached, a vast 500 cubic kilometre lake of molten rock was formed under Tasmania. This lava then seeped up through cracks in the crust, creating amazing dolerite columns, that stand tall and proudly today, all along the coastline. Tasmania has the most exposed dolerite columns in the entire world. The lava flows were so fierce they created lava plains on the North West Coast, which are 750 metres thick. The nutrient rich basalt was formed by the rapid cooling and solidification of the lava. As the basalt weathers, the nutrients seep into the soil, providing ideal growing conditions.
The first potatoes were planted at Risdon Cove by Lieutenant Bowen in 1803. The first exports to Sydney were by the Van Dieman’s Land Company in 1826. The 1840’s were a difficult time for the industry, due to a glut of potatoes on the market, where thousands of tonnes were dumped into the sea. This particularly affected the Port Sorell growers, as potatoes were their main crop. However the industry quickly rebounded and by 1900 Tasmania grew 100,000 tonnes of potato.
While the smaller landowners had done a terrific job establishing the agriculture industry on the North West Coast of Tasmania; to be able to grow the industries and increase export potential, larger companies, mechanised farming and processing plants were required.
This was aided during the Second World War, when demand for preserved and canned vegetables grew significantly for armed forces. Tasmania was well positioned to provide this, which led to the government established dehydration plants in Smithton, Ulverstone and Scottsdale. A canning facility was built in Devonport. After the war, the plants were sold to private firms.
American company Simplot, also established a processing plant in Ulverstone in 1943 on the banks of the Leven River, which is in between Burnie and Port Sorell, to supply dehydrated vegetables to World War II armed forces. They then diversifying into rabbit processing, canned peas and frozen vegetables. In the late 1940s, Simplot developed the first commercially viable frozen French fry and became the exclusive supplier to McDonalds. This led to the Ulverstone plant processing frozen French fries in 1962 and it saved the Tasmanian potato industry, after the Sydney potato market had collapsed. This increase in demand injected funds into the Tasmanian potato industry and helped it modernise with improved fertilisation, irrigation and mechanisation.
The Devon Canning Plant built by the government in the Devonport suburb of Quoiba was purchased by Edgells. Quoiba is the aboriginal name for wombat. My Uncle Paul Lowry worked at this huge plant. Edgells was started by Henry Edgell, who had arrived in Launceston in 1851 to manage an insurance office, where he was very active in the local community serving on boards, and the Municipal Council. When he retired he helped his two sons, Maxwell and Hampden, to can asparagus in Bathurst, New South Wales. This grew into Gordon Edgell and Sons, which rapidly expanded during the Second World War supplying canned goods to the armed services. This led them to buy and expand the Canning Plant in Quoiba, which became the largest processor of canned and frozen peas in Tasmania. A series of mergers and acquisitions ensued, with the legendary Edgells-Birdseye brand established in 1955. JR Simplot now owns the corporation.
When looking for a pioneering Tasmanian vegetable company, the company my dad worked for Vecon is a shining example. The name was derived because they were VEgetable CONtractors. They introduced the commercial production of onions, walnuts, and tulip bulbs in Tasmania and went on to become the largest exporters of onions and walnuts in the Southern Hemisphere. The visionary leader that created this amazing company was Peter Gilham, who first established a poultry business and a 2ha market garden in Port Sorell with his wife Beverley. They used the chicken manure to grow vegetables, which they sold to Clements and Marshall. They also sold the eggs, dressed poultry and opened one of the first road-side stalls in Tasmania. It was located on the Port Sorell main road, just before you enter Port Sorell and was run on an honour system, where customers could select their produce and deposit payment into a tin. He found that his customers where quite honest and only ever stole one pumpkin, and occasionally the money tin would disappear. It was quite successful, and Peter stuck at it for 15 years.
Peter met Bruce and Ross Cutts through the Market Garden. Then, along with Peter Cocker they established Boisdale Contractors in 1966, because they could see opportunities to mechanise the harvesting of green beans in Tasmania. Boisdale was named after the Cutts’ farm located in Northdown. They started harvesting beans in Smithton and quickly expanded into other green vegetables. They expanded geographically up the East Coast of Australia so they could extend their harvesting season, eventually expanding over to South Africa.
A couple of years later the partnership split, because Peter could see the opportunities to go beyond harvesting, into distribution and sales. He deeply desired to start a business where he could control the quality from seeding through to distribution. The dissolution of Boisdales allowed him the freedom to do this and he started Vecon.
To start Vecon he identified a gap in the European onion market. Because our seasons are different, there was a shortage of fresh onions on the European market, just when ours were being harvested and were fresh. He was one of the first people to identify this and provide the fresh onions they needed, eventually becoming the biggest onion exporter in the Southern Hemisphere.
Peter has been described as a larrikin, a gambler, innovative, a visionary, and a dreamer. He drove a culture that focused on delivering a quality product, reliably. He achieved this by ensuring his vegetable harvesting and processing equipment were consistently up to date with best practices; the storage and shipping facilities treated the produce favourably; and that he constantly understood what his customers wanted and when they wanted it.
But he also understood that agriculture is an unforgiving business, and he didn’t want a bad year for one vegetable, to place the company under too much pressure. He also wanted to give his workers full time employment, that wasn’t subjected to seasons, so he diversified into vegetables that were harvested at different times of the year, regularly and successfully.
Peter and Vecon fundamentally changed the agricultural landscape in the mighty agricultural dominated state of Tasmania and it took a larrikin, a gambler, an innovator, a visionary and a dreamer to do it.
Vecon were based in the beautiful agricultural district of Forth, which is close to Devonport, on the North West Coast of Tasmania. Forth was settled in 1839 by James Fenton who bravely ventured into the North West Coast before the Waste Land Act was introduced and spent considerable time and money trying to drain the estuarine swamplands to establish cropping fields.
The Bridge Hotel at Forth is a remarkable relic of those times, having been opened in 1872 by John Liddle. It was a high quality build at the time, has been well maintained and still in its original condition. There are stories of ghostly encounters, including a grief stricken lady in the upstairs window, dressed in wedding attire, gazing across the bridge for her bridegroom that unfortunately never came.
The Vecon factory and office were located along Forth road, on top of the hill. They had a big factory and office complex that my brother and I knew like the back of hands, because we had so much fun and learnt so much when we accompanied our dad there while he worked there. We caught trout in the dam, drove forklifts around the factory hiding pallets, learnt how to commercially process onions, mowed lawns, sorted tulip bulbs, got to know all his mates and had heaps of fun.
One of Peters very successful diversification strategies was into walnuts. He used the exact same entry strategy as onions, by identifying that only 3% of walnuts were grown in the Southern Hemisphere, leaving a gap in the market, ripe and ready to be filled. The entry strategy also highlights just how important the Tasmanian agriculture industry took its biosecurity and just how determined Peter was in everything he did.
When Peter first introduced walnut trees into Australia, he undertook two years for biosecurity trails to ensure no virus was in the wood, in a Laboratory in Kingston near Hobart.
The prunings he imported from North America were Scion wood, which is the technical name for winter wood i.e. they were dormant wood and not in season buds. They needed to trick the wood into believing that it was spring time, due to the hemisphere change, as there is a 6 month change in season.
They would wait until the sap under buds started to move, then as the the buds loosen on the stem, take them off, making sure they got the bud eye, because that’s the embryo that they wanted to grow. This would then be grafted onto root stock, which had been in quarantine for three or four months beforehand. A Vecon employee would go down to the Laboratory every week, for four or five weeks at a time, to do a days grafting. Every week there be new buds ready to graft. Trees would stay in quarantine for two years. They would then became mother trees, but they had to wait for three or four years for the mother trees to grow enough buds to warrant a grafting program to go out to orchards for production.
Peter was a very determined man and he could have given that project away many times, but to his credit he stuck with it, became the largest exporter of walnuts in the Southern Hemisphere and enabled the walnut industry in Australia, which is now huge, thanks to all he did. He committed wholeheartedly to the biosecurity measures, because he knew that it would give him a market advantage to keep Tasmania free of the diseases that plague the rest of the world.
Many Vecon employees went on to establish their own agricultural businesses on the North West Coast of Tasmania, including:
Kevin Langmaid worked for Vecon early in the business and had completed the site preparation and earth moving when the Forth factory and offices were being built. He then worked as a Foreman. Kevin started Cherry Hill Coolstores in 1990, down Cherry Hill road in my hometown Latrobe. Kevin learnt much from Vecon and my father about machinery development that he then used at Cherry Hill. They installed the first potato sorting and grading machine to service Tasmanian potato growers and Cherry Hill has flourished ever since. They now have 16 coolstores, and 3 dry store areas that can hold 15,000 tonnes of seed potatoes. After my dad retired from working at Vecon, he would regularly assist Kevin maintain his equipment.
Neil Armstrong started working for Vecon in the 70s, he then founded Harvest Moon in 1981, with the name respecting the other Neil Armstrong who landed on the moon. Harvest Moon is a grower, packer, marketer, and exporter of onions, carrots, beans, broccoli, and cauliflower, based in the Forth. My father was good friends with Neil and we often visited the factory.
Mike and Gaye Broadby both worked at Vecon until they starting Perfecta in 1984 with their two sons Darren and Steve. They are based just outside of Ulverstone, on top of the hill near Frombergs Dam, where I won many trophies racing my model yacht. They have quite a diverse business and they are; a major exporter in onions, which they also pickle under the iconic Blue Banner brand; an exporter of cherries, with 20,000 cherry trees, covering nine hectares of high-density orchard; a shop near the factory on top of the hill with outstanding views, that serves cherries, ice cream and many other treats; and an amazing Café called Windows on Westella, on the grassy plain below the hill.
Buz Green and Mike Gow are former Vecon employees that bought Vecon’s Agriculture Chemical Marketing Division to form the company ServeAg, based in Devonport in 1976. Buz Green had been Vecon’s Field and Research Manager, who had bought a science driven support to, agriculture soil analysis, technical advice, production agronomy, Integrated Crop Management, conservation tillage, soil moisture management and solving major pest and disease problems. He then founded Serve-Ag to; supply crop protection products and provide advice; undertake research; and develop technology in agriculture. Serve-Ag then spawned a number of national and international agricultural companies involved in providing technical support, services, products and R&D, to farmers Australia wide, including Peracto Pty Ltd, AgVita Analytical Pty Ltd, AgNova Technologies Pty Ltd and an entity that became Macquarie Franklin Pty Ltd.
Clements and Marshall
One of the largest competitors for Vecon was Clements and Marshalls. Edwin Thomas Clements came to Launceston from London in 1888 during a recession. He married Agnes Maud Shute in Devonport in 1890 and had 11 children. He then started as a produce merchant in Formby street Devonport in 1901, using the slogan ‘The farmers friend’. He began using a bicycle to do his rounds, graduated to a horse and pony, and thought he’d really made it when he graduated to a car in 1910. He expanded state-wide into potatoes, chaff and other vegetables. The business became Clements and Marshall in 1921.
Clements & Marshall then established the most amazing Apple orchard and processing plant alongside the Bass Highway at Parramatta Creek in 1990. It was the largest Apple orchard in Tasmania with the processing plant located on site, which was very unusual. They had giant frost fans to protect the trees from frosts. I received great joy driving alongside it, as my dad explained how it operated and ran.
In 1996, Vecon was then purchased by another amazing Tasmanian company called Websters, after Peter unfortunately contracted and died of cancer. Websters had been founded by Alexander Webster in 1831. Alexander was born in London, arriving in Van Dieman’s Land as a 10 year old in 1840, including spending two years at the Cape of Good Hope during the journey from London. Websters then diversified in 1900, supplying generators, pumps, and refrigeration equipment for the dairy, energy and paper-making industries. Then in 1960 they branched into bearings and engineering supplies with Webster Trucks and Machinery; and Webster Bearings and Engineering Supplies. In the 1990’s Websters diversified further into horticulture with the purchase of Vecon; Clements and Marshalls; and into aquaculture with the purchase of Salmon farmers Aquatas. The Webster family remained involved until 1976 and Websters is the fourth-oldest surviving company in Australia.
The best place to end this article, is where it began, in Kimberley where my McCormack Grandparent’s dairy farm was and where my brothers farm currently is. He purchased the most amazing little hobby farm, in the tiny village of Kimberley, on the banks of the mighty Mersey, just over the river from Bloomfield’s dairy farm. He has a small acreage that stretches down from his house to the river. We can go fishing like old times, plus he has cows, chickens, goats and horses. He regularly takes a cow to the butcher to slice up for dinner, just like we used to take kangaroos to the butcher to mince the meat for patties. We recently spread my fathers ashes on his property, on the banks of the Mersey, because he really loved it down there as well. A small slice of Tasmanian farming paradise, in the McCormack homebase of Kimberley.