In the nineteenth century few people risked agriculture on the inland plains. Farming had been abandoned for mining and pastoralism. Even those who did have smallholdings had to supplement their incomes by labouring for the pastoral industry as fencers, shearers, road carriers and station hands. The close of the century saw a ‘renaissance’ in agriculture due to a conflux of political class warfare, the desire for increased state revenue through land sales, and anxiety to bring civilisation to a socially and environmentally unstable frontier.
In the 1880s the New South Wales Colonial Government began sinking bores on main stock routes to try to attract traffic away from Queensland and South Australia. The water that gushed out was far more than livestock required. The Government and advocates for agriculture saw an opportunity to try inserting small artesian irrigation agricultural settlements into the dry interior. They wanted to bring civilisation to the frontier.
The Pera Bore, northwest of Bourke, was a market garden in the rangelands. It was probably the world’s most remote agricultural experiment station. Settlers began arriving in August 1895 to find their twenty acre blocks were surveyed on a ‘depressing, gidgee-covered waste’.
The detractors of the experiment farm scheme described Pera Bore as ‘a howling desert, the water of its bore as malignant as a fountain of corroding soda, as devastating as Vesuvius, as bitter as Marah to the Israelites, as fatal as the Red Sea to the Egyptians’. Men were being ‘lured to their destruction by the mirage of outrageous misrepresentations’.
Many of the plants settlers grew at Pera Bore had only been well-known in Europe for a few hundred years. They were not creating a little England in the desert; they were creating a farm for England. It was a New World garden made possible by imperialism and global trade.
The limits of agricultre
The red ground turned to ‘cement’, the water was too alkaline for shallow sandy soils, and the flow from both the old and the new bores had stopped and could only be raised by pumping. The settlers left over a period of ten years. By 1920 the government had leased the old farm site at the Pera Bore to the Fort Bourke Pastoral Company.
Agriculture is shaped by complex cultural desires and anxieties. It was was not simply about producing food, achieving an economic return for the state, or other utilitarian functions. Its social purpose was at least as important as these.