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This website aims to develop case studies of the development of farming practices and attendant transformations of local ecologies of defined blocks of land. Through these biographies of particular plots of land we are developing localised analyses of the wider historical trends in the political economy/ecology of the Northern Rivers.


This page contains information necessary to understand the stories that make up the case studies on this site. If you would like to find out more about food production in the Northern Rivers, please visit our further resources and selected bibliography pages.





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Population recovery came with the arrival of ‘alternatives’ from the early 1970s, in particular for the 1973 for the Aquarius festival. Those who stayed on took up the cheap land around Nimbin left by dairy farmers. New communal living and land-ownership arrangements emerged often fostered by a ‘rediscovery’ of the land as a source of meaning and spirituality (Irvine, 2003: 66) which led to a range of different land use strategies, with attendant diversity in food production and consumption.

Many of the concerns over forest conservation and coastal devastation, which had previously attracted only very limited concern in the context of the forestry and agricultural industries, now found political expression through the newcomers in the region (making up the largest alternative community in the country), and in the context of emerging international awareness of the importance of environmental preservation. For example the Terania Native Forest Action Group (TNFAG), formed in the region in 1974, achieved a world first in 1979 when for the first time a direct-action anti-logging was able to halt the progress of timber-getters (Cohen, 1996).

In the 1840s, cedar bought the first European industry into the region. While the cedar-getters were required to obtain licenses from the NSW government to take the timber, these licenses did not authorise them to settle in the area. Nonetheless, they built shelter and sometimes stayed and began undertaking agricultural production (Maize and Sugar Cane being the main cash crops from the 1860s) (Stubbs, 2007: 37). The clearing of the ‘Big Scrub’ rainforest was almost complete by the early 1900s (Ryan & Smith, 2006).

The post-war boom of the 1950s and 60s signaled the beginning of the downturn of the dairy industry along with other rural sectors, as oversupply, international competition, and mechanization began to impact profitability and decrease employment opportunities. While these traditional sectors declined and serious population concerns emerged, the importance of coastal land-use to the region increased in two important contradictory ways. Firstly, the mining of zircon and rutile from beach sands, which had started in the 1930s, began in force amidst concerns over the destruction of the shoreline (Stubbs, 2007: 50-51). Secondly, post-war affluence brought tourism into the reach of the broad population of Australia, bringing new visitors to the region and creating the possibility of a profitable tourism industry from the beautiful natural landscape that had typically been sidelined by concerns with growing primary industries (Ryan & Smith, 2001: 124-126).

The Milk Act of 1931 (NSW) created milk production and distribution zones, centred around Sydney ‘[f]rom Singleton and Dungog in the north to Batemans Bay on the south coast, to Moss Vale on the Southern Highlands and Westward through Picton, Camden, and Penrith and Windsor’ (Murphy, 1949: 16). The Milk Board oversaw this system, and fixed prices for household milk. The effect of this was to gradually erode prices for producers outside the zone, including those in the Northern Rivers. A pronounced division developed between northern dairies producing milk for butter, and southern dairies producing more liquid milk for higher prices.

The 1930s began with a wave of Italian immigrants, who took up cash vegetable cropping and banana farming (Ryan, 1999, p. 122). However, Italian influences had been felt throughout the area at least since 1883, with the settlement of 'New Italy' near Woodburn by a group of Italian families. More information can be found on the New Italy website.

By the 1860s, the increasing population and political conflicts over the rights of squatters resulted in a push for 'closer settlement' in New South Wales (NSW). In 1861 the Crown Lands Alienation Act, the so-called Robertson Land Act, was introduced. It allowed for Conditional Purchase (CP) of 40-320 acre portions of land, which were to be 'selected' before survey from the large tracts of grazing land, held under pastoral licences. It was hoped that this would both increase the productive capacity of the land by moving from broad acre grazing to more intensive farming, and break the dominance of the 'squatocracy' by redistributing the land among a greater number of people.

Conditions included: (i) the area being limited to 40 to 320 acres at £1 per acre; (ii) paying a deposit of one quarter of the purchase price; (iii) adding improvements to the value of £1 per acre; (iv) the selector residing on the land; and (v) occupying the land for three years.

These Acts entitled existing pastoral lease holders to pre-emptively take up CPs in their existing larger holdings. This led to the practices of ‘peacocking’ (taking up the land along the river as much as possible, with the aim of reducing the likelihood of settlement on their holding by monopolising access to water, thereby reducing the desirability of remaining land) and ‘dummying.’ (leases and purchases made in the name of family members, employees, even pets, in order to get access to more land).

By 1906 the major breakup of the big cattle runs was beginning to take hold, and no new CPs were initiated after 1911.

It is worth noting, however, that the first selectors to take up a portion were not necessarily listed on maps, as unsuccessful selectors often abandoned, sold on, or moved portions due to difficult conditions. Those who did not satisfy the conditions of their leases/purchases were not ‘confirmed’ (known as a ‘certificate of conformity’) and often there is very little or no record of their time on the land remaining.

In Australia, ‘squatting’ was initially the occupation of lands without an official grant of land from the colonial government, for the purposes of grazing (usually sheep). Claim was made essentially by being the first European in the area. As the colony of NSW grew in size throughout the early 1800s, and competition for land increased, efforts were made to limit this spread. However, the practice became fairly widespread, with squatters able to amass considerable wealth and political power due to the value of their flocks. In 1936, provision was made for graziers to lease the lands they occupied, and successive legislative changes throughout the mid to late 1800s sought to deal with the issue of squatting. Much of the early European lands history of NSW is concerned with the struggle between squatters and the government, and later squatters and selectors.

Willing Workers on Organic Farms: volunteers on organic farms, often trading accommodation and meals for their work.

When the dairy industry expanded into the region in the 1870s, it quickly became the dominant concern. By the early 1900s, despite Aboriginal people, agriculturalists, forest preservationists, and timber-getters all maintaining active interests in the land, it was responsible for much of the wealth in the area and the flourishing of the small interconnecting towns spread across the region. Religious, commercial, educational, transport, and health services gradually improved throughout this period, but the population struggled with isolation, flooding, and then worsening market conditions as the 1920s came to a close. The seeds for diversification were sown at this stage.