27 March 2012

The golden grain: 1919 to 1922

Previous posts have dealt with the rail transportation of wheat prior to and during the Great War.  This edition will focus on the four years immediately following the cessation of hostilities, which was a period of great progress for Eumungerians in the transition to bulk transportation of wheat from that location.

The end of the Great War brought the promise of peace and prosperity to all Australians, including those residing in the village of Eumungerie.  Part of this promise was that scarce public resources which had been needed for the war effort could be instead turned to improving the lot of the citizenry and in particular the industrial and transport links needed to promote economic growth. 

In New South Wales, these resources were indeed being channeled towards this end.  In May 1918, even before the close of the war the Sydney Morning Herald could report on the great plans for improvements in the handling of wheat and other grains through the move to bulk handling.  And, quite startlingly, the humble village of Eumungerie was in the vanguard of progress!

In the matter of bulk handling New South Wales has completely out-distanced the other States. While a start has yet to be made Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia, it is anticipated that in New South Wales out of a total storage capacity of million bushels in the emergency country grain elevators, between seven and eight million bushels storage will be ready before commencement of next harvest, and the balance before the conclusion of the season.

In the course of an official statement, Minister for Agriculture, Mr. W. C. Grahame, said that contracts were accepted at the of December at a price which averaged 9½d per bushel for storage. One of the bins that at Peak Hill-is now ready for the roof, while various stages of progress have been reached at 15 separate stations, including The Rock, Uranquinty, Lockhart, Temora, Peak Hill, Narromine, Milbrulong, Boree Creek, Oaklands, Stockinbingal, Combaning, Ariah Park, Dubbo, Eumungerie and Gilgandra (emphasis added).

When the working houses in connection with the elevators are erected later it is anticipated that the total cost per bushel will be about l½d… While work in this State is actually in progress and in some cases approaching completion at the 18 places mentioned – the contracts already entered into provide for total of 71 emergency country grain elevators, the average price for the whole of them being less than 9½d per bushel.

In addition, to country elevators work is proceeding apace with the excavation of the foundations the Sydney terminal elevator at Glebe Island... When the excavations are complete, a start will be made at once with the construction. work, giving a storage accommodation of over six million bushels.

Despite the promise of peacetime prosperity, the reality for most of the first dozen post-war years was otherwise.   The total wheat harvest for all farming districts along the Coonamble line exceeded the level achieved in 1918 just three times between 1919 and 1930 (1921, 1925 and 1927).  In four years (1919, 1920, 1923 and 1928) the crop failed almost entirely. The first four years after 1918 were a microcosm of this patten - two crop failures, one fair result and one spectacular success.

Overall, the median harvest for first 12 years after the Great War’s end was just two-thirds of that achieved in the six years of the Great War.  All things considered, these first dozen years of peace were a wretched time for farmers along the Coonamble branch line.  Still, it would seem however that the wheat farmers around Eumungerie were better treated than elsewhere, keeping median annual wheat production to within 92 per cent of those earlier halcyon days.  Other districts, notably Gilgandra and Curban, experienced decreases closer to 40 per cent of their earlier levels.

Median annual wheat production (bags)
1912 - 1918
1919 - 1930
Total: Coonamble line

This period started on an ominous note when farmers across the State commenced a large-scale political campaign in April 1919 against the Government in light of the 4s 4d it offered for every bushel of wheat grown.  The regional press was full of articles complaining about low level of the guaranteed payment.  

The subsequent failure of the 1919 wheat crop somewhat resolved the issue of low wheat prices.  By October of that year the western organiser for the Farmers and Graziers' Co-operative Co., a Mr Percy V Harrison, toured the western NSW wheat areas between Cowra and Dubbo. He reported through the Dubbo Liberal that:

the crops between Welling ton and Dubbo can be written down as failure. One Wellington grower with 1400 acres under wheat hoped, if the weather turned favorable, to get some thing off about 600 acres, but the balance he was letting for agistment, asking £1 per acre.

A month later the same paper could report:

fortunately, the wheat crops have not been a total failure everywhere. The Gilgandra district was most favoured in regard to isolated rains, and many showers fell there which did not extend beyond limited areas. Reports of good hay crops come from many parts of the district, while one farmer, in addition to a good cut of hay, will harvest about 1000 bushels of well developed grain suitable for seed. The farmer who can harvest seed for next year will find himself in a fortunate position when the planting season comes around.

And thus it was so.  The 78,000 bags of wheat lifted from 1919 wheat harvest by farming communities along the Coonamble branch line was less than a quarter of the bounty  reaped the year previous. 

And if 1919 was bad, the 1920 harvest was catastrophic.  Just over 20,000 bags of wheat were transported from the region that year – 1/19th of the level achieved two years previous.  Rains in December brought the districts undone.  Still, as shown in the following extract, at least one farmer held a positive view:

The time was when Dubbo district was regarded as purely cattle country. That was years ago. Then someone raised sheep with success, and people said, "Who'd a' thought it." No, the district would- never grow wheat, was an opinion generally espoused. Someone started to grow wheat, and the district has become a noted wheat centre… 

A few statistics given by Mr. Thomas Bragg to the "S.M. Herald" are most, interesting, and food for reflection when wheat-growing possibilities in the West are contemplated. This is what Mr. Bragg told the "Herald" representative:

"The rains in December spoilt the quality of much of the wheat this year. I estimate that I lost 10 bushels to the acre as the result of the weather. The total area I had under cultivation in 1920-21 was 2523 acres…

Continuing, Mr. Bragg said; "I went to Mungeribar 34 years ago, and I was told it was really no use to try to grow wheat there. Later on 1 grew wheats for the late Mr. William Farrar when he was experimenting in cross-fertilisation. I had as many as 800 varieties in for Mr. Farrar, but I had to give it up.

Despite these doomy results, at some stage in the 1919 or 1920 harvests the new silos would have come into operation at Eumungerie.  A description of how these bins were operated will be provided in due course – when all the mysteries are solved!  

It was in 1921 that the Railway Commissioners also acted to uphold their part of the bargain to improve the capacity of the railway transportation task in the area.  In 1919 the Commissioners’ Weekly Notices recorded a smorgasboard of locomotives were permitted to operate to Coonamble - locomotives of the A, B, C, CC, CG, D, E, H, J, I31, L, O and Z classes may be run singly or double-headed on the Coonamble railway line with a maximum of 20 miles per hour. 

Unlike most pioneer lines, the heavier J483 classes were also permitted to travel over the branch line.  By 1921, these superheated behemoths were permitted to haul a maximum of 900 tons between Coonamble and Gilgandra and a minimum of 790 tons on the remainder of the journey to Dubbo.

Better days were brought by the 1921 harvest.  By November of that year the Dubbo Liberal reported about the ‘Busy Wheat Station’ at Eumungerie:

Yesterday Eumungerie was a busy spot owing to the arrival of wheat at the railway station. Seventeen teams were unloading, including three station teams from away down near Warren, which are engaged hauling wheat in the Eumungerie district. Each of these teams carried 150 bags each. A few motor lorries are also engaged carrying, and they bring as much as 40 bags to the load. Something like 1700 bags were received at the station yesterday.

The silo was opened on Friday, which will facilitate the reception of wheat. The F. and G. Co. (the Farmers and Graziers Co-operative Co – ed.) have a stack of between 15,000 and 18,000 bags at the station, which the Company received prior to the silo being opened. The crop in the district will average from 5 to 6 bags to the acre, the wheat being of excellent quality.

The very positive 1921 harvest resulted in over 650,000 bags of wheat being transported by the NSW Railways, including 200,000 from Eumungerie alone.  This new record level of production drove optimism to a new high for the 1922 harvest:

In the Eumungerie district, so it is stated, more land is prepared for wheat this year than has ever been prepared in the past history of the district. New ground has been broken, and a large amount, of fallowing has been done. Farmers have a large area ploughed, and ploughing operations are going on with a view to having the land ready for seeding as soon, as rain comes. Even with the unfavorable season last year a large amount of wheat was delivered at Eumungerie station.

This enthusiasm had been tempered by September 1922.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the 5th of that month that:

Light to moderate rain was recorded over the north-east quarter of the State during the week-end, and some heavy falls were reported on the north-west slopes and plains… (in Dubbo) rain fell last night. It was light in Dubbo, but some of the outside centres report good falls, notably Eumungerie, where rain was badly needed.

The need for rain halved the eventual result in 1922 – both at Eumungerie and along the entire branch line.  

Thus ended the first four post-war years of wheat production, handling and transportation.  It seemed a period free from parochial interests complaining about the incapacity of others (namely the Railway Commissioners) to assist farmers to prosper.  

Perhaps the absence of this criticism was due to the significant investment in infrastructure and capacity by the Grain Elevators Board and the Railways.  Perhaps it was also due to a more mature approach to life, with a society just thankful for peacetime and glad to have survived the war?  I think I would like to attribute both explanations some degree of recognition.

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