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VGA Beginnings

Tom M. Farmilo, Senior Horticultural Adviser - Vegetables
(first published in the "Victorian Vegetable Growers' Digest", summer, 1970)
ships on the yarra
Standing on Port Melbourne pier among the large ships of today it seems incredible that in 1846 the great grandfather of two of the older present day vegetable growers disembarked from a small ship not far from here.

In his pocket was a letter from his brother who had arrived in the colony in 1842, and who had chosen ten acres of land for which he paid £5 an acre. In that letter were directions to enable him to find the property. He was told to walk so many miles south along the coast line, then turn due east for a further number of miles, and he would arrive at the block of land. He followed his brother's instructions and arrived at what is now the corner of Tucker and Patterson Roads, Moorabbin.

What a task, when one considers that the only way to measure each mile was to count the number of paces. To keep a record of the miles walked he placed a piece of twig in his pocket at the end of each mile until the given number of miles had been travelled.

The early growers
Of course these brothers were not the first vegetable growers. Small lots were already grown at Emerald Hill, now South Melbourne.

In December, 1836, the population of the Port Phillip settlement was 224, and by December, 1840, it had reached 10,291. At that time the emphasis was on growing grain and vines, with a view to exporting to England. Grapes were growing at South Yarra, Prahran and Hawthorn.

Collins Street 1839By 1844 the population had risen to 26,734 and the demand for products from the land began to increase. Farmers had moved to Brighton, which included all the surrounding area for many miles. Orchards and vineyards were planted, oats, wheat, grazing, dairying and vegetable growing became established.

1845 saw the punt over the Yarra replaced by a wooden bridge, simplifying the river crossing for horse vehicles. Gradually the different types of farming moved to more suitable areas, but vegetable growing remained in the sandy loam area until a few years ago, when increasing land prices caused a move in a south-easterly direction.

To reach Melbourne from Cheltenham and the outlying Brighton area one had to walk to Brighton, where transport to Melbourne was available. Needless to say Aborigines were often seen and spoken to by the early settlers who had to make such walks.

Hard going

Market trading was done in the early hours of the morning, so to be there in time vegetable growers had to travel overnight and return to their farms the following afternoon.

In the early years growers carted their produce by horse and dray over roads or bush tracks often so rough that the drivers had to walk ahead with lanterns to find the holes and fill them in so the load could get through. Many times the going was so tough that an extra horse was needed to haul the load up steep rises or through loose patches.

When the bad patches had been negotiated the extra horse was unhitched, turned towards home, given a pat on the rump and sent on its way. If the horse was new to the road it was taken home by the wife or one of the children who had accompanied the load. The going was hard enough but when they reached the better road, now Point Nepean Highway, a toll had to be paid before they could travel on that road.

Toll gates
A toll was collected at two points, one on entering the main road on the way to Melbourne, the other at a point near the Shrine of Remembrance on the return trip. A son of the early Cheltenham pioneer mentioned left home with a dray load of cabbages for Eastern Market. On arrival at the toll gate the only money he had was a sixpenny coin on a watch chain which was accepted by the collector.

It turned out to be one of those markets where cabbage were unsaleable. The load was finally sold and delivered to a dairy farmer in Fitzroy for sixpence a dozen. This family still has the iron plough that turned the first sod in the Cheltenham district.

Roads were gradually improved. Many of the older growers still remember the steel plates that were laid in Point Nepean, Centre, South, and Centre Dandenong Roads, which they said gave them an armchair ride and made the lot of the horse much easier. In fact there is still a section of these steel plates in Centre Dandenong Road opposite the Moorabbin Airport.

The first fruit and vegetable market was established in 1841, four years before the wooden bridge was erected over the Yarra to replace the punt which crossed near the present Princes Bridge. It became known as the Western Market and was situated in Market Street. Eight leading citizens were elected by householders as Market Commissioners to control the market. In the year 1842 Melbourne was incorporated as a town and authority to conduct the market was transferred to the Melbourne Town Council.

Following a fire at the Western Market in 1853, the fruit and vegetable growers' section was transferred to the Eastern Market in Exhibition Street where growers sold their produce until 1878. The growers' section of the Eastern Market was transferred to the Queen Victoria Market in 1878.

Queen Vic MarketAfter rebuilding, the Western Market continued as the merchants' section of the Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market until being transferred to the Queen Victoria Market site in 1930.

Clearing and draining
When the pioneers first saw their land it was thickly covered with eucalypts, wattle, banksia, ti-tree, wild cherry and many other smaller native species. Some areas were almost impenetrable. Those who ventured into these forests in which possums, native cats and snakes were plentiful had to mark trees with an axe to enable them to find their way out again.

Clearing was done by hand with such aids as the axe, pick and shovel. At first the timber had no value other than for building houses, sheds, fences and drains. In later years the timber was cut into firewood and carted to the Balaclava area where it was hawked around the homes.

Carters wanted 12 shillings a load, but sales were not easy. They were mostly offered ten shillings for a load but would hold out for twelve. When they decided that they could not get their price, they would go to a paddock or common, where St. Kilda Town Hall now stands, tip off the load, restack it over a hollow centre and return to accept ten shillings for it.

ploughing with horseAfter clearing, the land was broken up with an iron plough drawn by two horses. After further ploughing and harrow­ing the ground was ready for cropping.

When time and labor were available the ground was drained by digging to a depth of two or three feet, placing six to twelve inches of timber or ti-tree in the bottom then filling in again.

The manure and fertiliser used was fairly well balanced. Stable manure supplied nitrogen, potash and organic material. Blood manure was a source of nitrogen and bone dust supplied the phosphate and calcium.

As the roads improved so the vehicles changed and gradually became larger. The dray which was a high wheeled, springless and almost unbreakable thing gave way to the spring dray, a lighter version with springs attached between the axle and the body. This in turn gave way to the four wheeled wagon with fixed sides and drawn by either one or two horses.

Further road improvement saw the end of high wheeled vehicles. The lorry having four small wheels and moveable sides, supplanted the other types and enabled carting of larger loads, although still small by today's standards. Although the vehicles changed in type and size, the horse was still the means of pulling them.

Cart loadedMany of the old timers still love the horse and tell stories of just how important it was for them to have good strong animals. Their survival depended on it.

In fact, the horse always had pride of place on the farm. Gardeners were often judged by the horses they kept and this is reflected in an old saying, 'If you can't keep a good horse in good condition, you are no damn good yourself.

The discovery of gold brought not only prosperity but problems to the industry. By 1852 the population was 168,321, but by 1859 it had increased to 521,072.

Such a rapid increase caused a heavy demand for vegetables and prices rose fantastically. Before gold was found, wages were three to four shillings a day or ten shillings a week and keep. But when laborers and some growers decided to try their luck with the pick and shovel, labor became scarce.

Competition for labor pushed wages up to 18 to 20 shillings a day. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was forced to pay stonemasons 21 shillings a day to enable the Yan Yean reservoir to be completed in 1857.

Vegetable prices showed a similar story. Prices of cauliflowers and cabbages rose from sixpence to 24 shillings a dozen, carrots from twopence to 2 shillings a dozen bunches, and potatoes from £2 to £150 a ton. One farmer tried to grow potatoes nearer the mining towns. He paid £10 a bag for 40 bags to use as seed.

The following year was very dry and not one bag of potatoes was harvested. That year saw chaff make £160 a ton. Gold became scarcer by 1870 and people began to drift away from the gold fields to take up land in Mordialloc, Mentone, Heatherton, Dandenong, Burwood and Doncaster.

Chinese market gardenersAt the same time many Chinese left the gold fields to begin vegetable growing. They took up land on creek or river flats around Melbourne, as well as in the eastern part of the Brighton district.

The last community of Chinese vegetable growers in that area was in Mackie Road, Bentleigh about 1920.

The early 1890s saw the bottom fall out of everything. The easy money from gold ceased to flow, the land boom crashed and banks closed their doors.

The country was plunged into depression. More and more people tried to eke out a living by growing a few vegetables or milking a few cows.

Men who had taken up gardening just before the crash found it very difficult to hang on. They had bought on a high market and were forced by adverse circumstances to sell on low markets. In many cases the older, established grower helped the beginner, or battler as he was called, by giving him seed potatoes, helping to sow a crop or lending equipment.

Quite a few still tell of how they were given help from which they never looked back. There were also other established growers who rubbed their hands in glee and said 'I will soon have that paddock' when they saw a battler in trouble.

Vegetables were plentiful but few people had money to buy them because wages were so low and hundreds had no work at all. The following prices tell their own story. Potatoes 15/- to £3 a ton, onions unsaleable to £3 a ton, jam melons 7/6 to £1 a ton, cauliflowers and cabbage 6d to 3/- a dozen, lettuce 6d to 1/- a dozen, peas 1d to 3d a lb, carrots and parsnips 2d to 8d a dozen bunches, swedes and turnips 3d a dozen bunches, tomatoes 3d to 2/- a bushel case.

Wages for skilled laborers were four shillings a day or ten shillings a week and keep. Stable manure could be had for the carting, in fact, from 2/6 to 10/- was often paid to growers to cart it away. Chaff £2 to £3 a ton. Blood manure was £3 a ton, bone dust £4 a ton; potatoes were dug and onions trimmed for 4d a bag.

Veg to Sydney Flinders Street Station  ca. 1900Water supply and usage
The Yan Yean reservoir was completed bythe newly formed MMBW in 1857 but little, if any, of that water was used by vegetable growers.

It was not until about 1920 when more water became available from storages in the high areas east of Melbourne that irrigation became possible in market gardens.

In 1880 growers in the Brighton district had to cart water long distances from stand pipes near Brighton to save the seedlings of cabbage and cauliflower.

After strong agitation by farmers and vegetable growers the water main was extended to South Road, but again water was only available from stand pipes at fourpence for 200 gallons.

The first record of irrigation was from the Keilor plains where Mr. David Milburn, who had arrived from Yorkshire in 1853, installed three hydraulic pumps, each capable of lifting 50 gallons a minute to a height of 50ft, to water his 115 acres of fruit and vegetables from the Maribyrnong River.

When reticulated water became available, some 50 to 60 years ago, growers found that by using it judiciously they could spread their planting season over much longer periods. Transplanting became easier, seed could be sown irrespective of rainfall, two crops could be taken from the one area each year and there was an improve­ment in quantity and quality.

Survival of the fittest
The period between 1890 and 1910 really put growers on their metal. Times were hard and in many cases survival depended on their own efforts. In those days vegetable growers often kept a few cows and poultry. 1896 was a year when vegetables were almost unsaleable, particularly cabbages which formed the major part of the crop in the Cheltenham district.

One grower had as much as six acres, others smaller areas. They all had a cow or two, so they decided to start a butter factory. More cows were purchased and fed on the unsaleable vegetables. A creamery was erected in Centre Dandenong Road, east of Warrigal Road, where butter was made under the brand name 'Gilt Edge'.

Cutting the butter into one pound pats was a problem until one of the chaps invented the first butter cutter, a series of wires which became known as the 'Invicta Butter Cutter'. The old building is still standing, it is the one blocking the service road on the south side of Centre Dandenong Road.

Raised bedsLegacy
The most important legacy handed down from the early vegetable growers is the narrow raised bed of land which is common practice throughout the industry today. The origin of the narrow bed, I am told, arose out of desperation.

The old system was a bed 12ft wide on which four rows of cabbage or cauliflower were grown. One very wet year the whole district was water-logged and all crops were at a stand-still.

In desperation one cauliflower grower ploughed a furrow between every second and third row of plants. Those extra furrows helped to take away the excess water more freely, the crop recovered, and quite fair quality cauliflower were marketed.

Seeing is believing
This move did not go unnoticed by other growers who were quick to copy the example.
So began the narrow seed bed which is the reason why Victoria is able to produce vegetables throughout the year, even in the wettest year.

Early vegetable growers sold mostly on a buyers' market. Occasionally however supplies were short and the advantage then went to the seller. They were proud of the industry which they had developed. They sold in open competition with each other, always striving to produce something better than the opposition.

Growers began a tireless search for improvement in varieties and in production methods. They had to grow without water and above all they had to win out. They de­veloped powers of observation that helped to overcome many problems.

It was largely due to that competitive spirit and independence that they formed an association to handle their own produce for the Sydney market in the early 1900s. It was also that accumulated knowhow and drive that enabled them in 1941 to increase their output for both overseas forces and home consumption.

Such is the beginning from which the majority of the present day growers came — a group of hard working, self-reliant men who achieved what they set out to achieve with little assistance and no subsidy.

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