‘A Summer Evening in the Pentland Hills’ by artist Louis Buvelot, 1878. SOURCE: Gallery of NSW

From chops and damper to lettuce and apples

From chops and damper to lettuce and apples

“Chops and damper, damper and chops with tea for breakfast, dinner and supper which forms all our variety for the table.” Thus Henry Wilsone describes the squatters’ diet to his relatives in England in 1838. Through various land reform acts in the 1860s the government tried to promote smaller landholdings with more intensive land use such as the growing of wheat and potatoes. The squatters saw their holdings reduced and disparagingly called the small landholders scratching a living ‘cockatoos’, a term in use today when referring to farmers as ‘Cockies’.

Young Bacchus, no longer young, and now known as William Henry, had left ‘The Marsh’ and in 1852 was living in a rambling homestead on his Peerewerrh run near Gordon, past Ballan. By 1862 his run, which included the high rainfall volcanic country around present-day Bungaree, had been partially sold off by the government to the “cockatoo gentry.” This country was highly suited to growing oats and potatoes and attracted many Irish free settlers, ex convicts and female famine orphans. Finally, the miners had an alternative source of calories apart from damper and whiskey. The oats fed the pit ponies and the horses pulling the stagecoach between the Ballarat goldfields and Melbourne, which stopped at the inns in Ballan and Gordon. They also fed the bullocks that were dragging the timber out of the giant forests on the Great Dividing Range.

In ‘The Marsh,’ closer settlement had started in 1842 with prime land given out to retired soldiers. In an 1877 feature article in the Bacchus Marsh Express, a tour around the valley showed the enormous diversity of produce grown at that stage: oats, barley, carrots, potatoes, wool and dairy mainly for the district market, as well as hay and straw for the Melbourne market. Extensive levies were built to reduce flooding, but this in combination with land clearing in the volcanic hills caused the main channels to become wider and deeper. The water table dropped and summer productivity decreased.

Small private irrigation schemes were developed by farmers, among them the Pearce family who grew chicory to be used as coffee replacement. Their crop was watered by a pump powered by waterwheel in the Werribee River. The chicory drying kiln, constructed in 1885, still stands in Taverner Street and is the largest in Victoria. Extensive survey works for a public irrigation scheme were carried out in 1867, but the plans were not realised due to cost. In December 1868, A.G. Scott, a trained engineer and lay minister at Bacchus Marsh Holy Trinity Church, delivered a lecture on hydraulics and its role in irrigating the basin. With great foresight, he recommended construction of a weir on the Werribee; unfortunately, he is best known as the bushranger Captain Moonlite. In 1889, 700 acres in the basin were covered by a public irrigation scheme, which was extended to 3,325 acres in 1910 by constructing a diversion weir on the Werribee River.

Increased irrigation and the opening of a railway between Bacchus Marsh and Melbourne in 1887 particularly benefitted the dairy industry since fresh milk could be transported to Melbourne quickly. Peak production was reached in 1891 when 3,449 ‘milch’ cows produced more than 4.5 million litres of milk. On 12 November 1910, the Bacchus Marsh Express announced the establishment of the Bacchus Marsh Dairymen’s Cooperative:Pure milk for family use, and particularly for children, is the great topic of the day, and this Co-operative Company will enter that field of usefulness as a leading feature.” The cooperative that was formed to obtain a fairer price for farmers operated until 1967 under various owners.

Today agriculture competes with urbanisation for land and water. Gabe Dellios, an 89 year-old apple grower, came to Australia from Macedonia in 1948 as a 14 year-old, together with his mother Anna and brothers Peter and Angelo. They arrived with a debt of two gold pieces, borrowed to pay – in addition to his mother’s only gold earrings – for an operation to save Gabriel’s infected eye. This debt was soon worked off and today the Dellios family grow 500 acres of apples across the dozen farms that they have accumulated in ‘The Marsh’ over 75 years of hard work. Gabriel thinks he will go out as he came – in debt. Farming has become a capital-intensive business with high land values, and ever-changing technology and varieties. Supermarkets are powerful and margins are tight. To him Australia will, however, always remain heaven; no men with guns stopping you, no soldiers to requisition your house and the rich Bacchus Marsh soil will continue to turn out the most glorious produce.