20 May 2012

Hard years on the farm: 1926 to 1930

The NSWGR’s Weekly Notices is not a publication given to overstatement.  On the occasion of the coming of modernity to Eumungerie – a bulk grain handling facility – on 26 February 1926 it merely stated that the Wheat Silo Siding at Eumungerie was extended 126 feet at the Coonamble end and then connected to the Main Line. 

In the first season of the silo’s operation – the 1926/27 harvest – this new facility would be given a good work-out.  The harvest doubled the previous year’s result, with nearly 200,000 wheat bags being deposited at Eumungerie. This was again approximately half of the total brought to the railway from farms along the entire branch line.

In mid-November 1926 the Daily Liberal noted that Eumungerie’s farmers were fully occupied at the harvest:

The harvest in this district is now in full swing. Wheat is coming in freely, Motor lorries, waggons (sic) and drays are in great numbers. On Monday the silos were opened and over 2500 bags of wheat were placed in them. Some good yields are being harvested, 8 to 10 bags to the acre.

Lest it be erroneously thought that the opening of the silo had an immediate improvement of productivity and efficiency at the point of loading, it needs to be remembered that all wheat continued to arrive in bags at the railway yard.  If the silo was to be used, then the bags would be unstitched by hand and then poured into the silo, one by one.  However, with 200,000 bags to deal with, the majority just went straight into the wheat stack adjacent to the silo.

Eventually this silo would prove inadequate to the district’s needs, but for the next three years it was more than ample.  The harvests of 1927/28, 1928/29 and 1929/30 were extremely poor.

As with most seasons, the 1927/28 year had commenced with optimism, with a tempering of concern.  In June 1927 the venerable Mr Arthur once more stepped in to provide a forecast to the Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate that the ‘1927 wheat season has commenced in earnest now, and the greater percentage of area to be put under crop this year had been sown.’

Mr Arthur noted that:

The month of May, except for a few isolated showers early in the month, has been exceptionally dry. Consequently the preparation of the soil, which was mostly in good order after the April rains and seeding operations, have proceeded uninterrruptedly throughout the whole of the month…

Much seed has been sown dry mostly, on stubble ground, and now lies in the soil awaiting rain to germinate it.  Crops sown during April and early this month are well up… A general fall of rain in the near future would be welcome to all farmers, and would relieve a slight feeling of tension as to future prospects, but there is no cause for alarm or pessimism at present, as experience of past years is that serviceable rains can be looked for during June.

He concluded his comment by noting that ‘other centres such as Eumungerie, Gilgandra, Armatree, Baradine and Coonabarabran received less rain, and conditions are not so favorable. However, all would be well served by 'immediate steady rains’.

Perhaps in the knowledge of these difficulties, every effort was then put into making a success of the 1927/28 harvest.  The NSW Government’s Better Farming Train made its first visit to the west of the State in August 1927. 

In launching the train the Minister for Agriculture stated that no effort had been spared to make the various sections of the train interesting and helpful in the most practical way to primary producers in the western areas.  After being available in Dubbo on 17 and 18 August 1927, the train moved to Eumungerie on 19 August, Gilgandra on the next day and then to Coonamble on 22 and 23 August 1927.  While a hand bill was released by the administration to advise farmers of the coming of the train to Dubbo, no similar document was issued to educate the farmers along the Coonamble branch line. Perhaps the bush telegraph was considered sufficient to bring those needing instruction to the train?

Indeed, for a time al this effort seemed to work.  By 3 November 1927 the Liberal could announce under the byline of Crop Prospects: A General Improvement:

A more optimistic tone, engendered by the recent bounteous rains throughout the State, pervades several of the reports for October submitted by Instructors attached to the Department of Agriculture.

In the western district (Dubbo centre), Mr. B. M. Arthur reports the alleviation of a serious position, and states that at least sufficient wheat for seed purposes has boon assured. In the Dubbo, Eumungerie, and Wellington districts there are prospects of a medium harvest, although in those areas it is only the early-sown crops on well worked land, and particularly those crops assisted by superphosphate, which will give any reasonable return.

This fertiliser, Mr. Arthur states, has made a wonderful difference this season to crop development, due to the early stimulation of root growth, enabling the roots to get in touch with moisture reserves in the lower regions of the soil. These crops will probably yield from two to ten bags to the acre. The failure of later areas, however, is expected to reduce the average district yield by 50 per cent. The total area sown to wheat, Mr. Arthur states, will not exceed three to four bushels to the acre.

Despite the informed predictions, the advice available from the Better Farming Train and the use of superphosphate, the 1927/28 harvest was next to a complete failure. Eumungerie shipped a mere 24,400 bags that year – about 12 per cent of the previous harvest.  Worse still, this location accounted for two-thirds of the entire wheat production along the line.

A virtual autopsy of the 1928/29 harvest was printed in the Sydney Morning Herald at the very time men should have been in the fields, harvesting the grain.

In that portion of the western district of which Parkes is the centre, weather conditions during October were unfavourable to securing the high wheat yields anticipated earlier in the season. 

The conditions of September continued throughout the greater part of October -dry windy days with occasional gales. Some tipping occurred, but the greatest limiting factor was the tendency for the stem and ears to "hay off" before the grain had hardened. The dense, heavy patches of crop suffered most, as also did many of the more forward crops, particularly during the cyclonic gale of October 7. Such conditions, associated with premature ripening, have resulted in an early harvest…

Grasshoppers are numerous throughout the district, and in many places are causing a loss of crops. Oat yields have stripped satisfactorily, probably up to I0 bags per acre.

In that portion of the western district of which Dubbo is the centre, although the position could have been a good deal better, reports Mr. B. M. Arthur, there will be a considerable quantity of grain of fair to good quality harvested, provided it does not rain for the next few weeks. Harvesting is in full swing in many centres, particularly districts north and west of Dubbo.

Rain averaging about 60 points in two falls was recorded in most centres during October, but this was too late to be of any benefit to the greater majority of the crops on the western plains, though it would largely assist those on the western slopes.

Crops on the western plains have ripened and filled their grain without rain of any consequence since July 23. Much of the grain is slightly to badly pinched, but has great colour, and probably it will nil be f.a.q. (fair average quality – ed.), provided rain does not fall to bleach it before it is in the bags or the silos.

In the Gilgandra district the harvest… will average better than two bags, and it would undoubtedly have been considerably higher if it had not been for the damage done by grasshoppers to the germinating crops last autumn…

North and west of Dubbo, including Eumungerie, Terramungamine, Coboco, and Talbragar, will also go over three bags for the area stripped. But in all these localities a fair area, mostly late sown, was fed off.

Haymaking is mostly completed in the early districts, though many farmers have had to leave that work uncompleted owing to the abnormal early ripening of crops, which must he stripped as expeditiously as possible, as much of the straw is weak, and the grain is shelling.

In spite of fairly good efforts in many centres by individuals and concerted action to poison grasshopper -with good results in most cases-and also the enormous destruction by predacious birds, ibis, wood swallows, and starlings, the pest is fairly numerous in many parts. Quite a fair percentage is now fully adult, and on the wing. 

There is not much for them to eat that is green, and they must go elsewhere if it keeps dry.  Rain would not benefit many crops now, and it is to be hoped that it will hold off so as to ensure a f.a.q. sample of grain, and the departure of the hoppers.

Pastures are not good, and in many places food is becoming scarce. Tank water is also very low, and several landowners who have not artesian supplies are carting water for stock and domestic purposes.

The following year was only slightly less grim.  While Eumungerie managed to quadruple its production from 1927/28, this was only to 81,700 bags.  And again, it was the only significant collection point along the entire branch line.  Apart from Gilgandra, no other site recorded a contribution of any note.  The entire branch line produced a mere 108,000 bags of wheat.  By this time, those sitting at their desks in the State’s Treasury may have come close to doubting the wisdom behind the Department of Agriculture’s advice to situate the silo at Eumungerie.

If the Treasury officials were doubting the decision at the close of the 1928/29 harvest, within six months all doubt had been removed.  Sadly, there was not an affirmation of the soundness of the decision to locate a silo at Eumungerie – in fact, the opposite would have been the case.

Any Treasury official visiting the west of the State on 29 August 1929 would have woken to the following sobering article from the Daily Liberal under the eye-catching byline of Western Wheat: Prospects in Dubbo District: Gloomy official report.

“Prospects for a satisfactory harvest are extremely poor, and it appears probable that the yield for this portion of the western district will be the lowest for some years, and possibly as low as the returns for 1919."

With these words Mr. B. M. Arthur, senior agricultural instructor for the northern half of the western district, with Dubbo as its centre, prefaces his report on the crop conditions and prospects at the end of July.

Continuing, he said that the position had been temporarily relieved by the advent of light falls of rain throughout his district, varying from 65 points at Trangie, 79 points in the vicinity of Dubbo, to less than 30 points in the Wellington district, where it was perhaps most needed, as the germination of seed on the heavier soils in the eastern part of the district had been most unsatisfactory.

The light, soaking rain, Mr. Arthur said, would undoubtedly revive crops considerably, especially those growing on the lighter types of soil, but, owing to the comparative dryness of the upper soil and the prevalence of frosts, which were severe on soil moisture, its benefits would not last long, and it would have to be followed by early further rains to ensure lasting results.

Practically all seed which has been lying in the ground for six weeks or more had been destroyed either by mould or by various types of wire worms, but the majority of the seed sown later (during June and July) would still be sound, and would probably give satisfactory germination results where the moisture obtained had been sufficient.

Many early-sown crops, which germinated well, the report proceeded, wore tending to spindle rapidly. Steps had been taken to try and check this spindling by feeding with stock. Frequently, however, this had not been very successful, owing to the poor root hold of the wheat plants, and much had been pulled up and destroyed.

Early maturing varieties sown out of season were tending to come out in ear, and much damage had been done by the succession of severe frosts.

Germination results were best and most uniform in the Gilgandra, Curban, and Balladoran centres, and poorest on the heavier soils to the east and south of Dubbo, particularly around Wellington, Cumnock, Yeoval, and Geurie. Unsatisfactory germination results were, however, common in all localities to a greater or less extent, and the environs of Dubbo, Narromine, Trangie, and Eumungerie were all somewhat similar, especially on the heavier types of soils.

"Summed up," Mr. Arthur adds: "The position is that it will need an extraordinary change of seasonal conditions from now on to ensure anything approaching an average crop. But there should not be any reasonable doubt about obtaining sufficient wheat to guarantee at least adequate seed supplies for future requirements."

Those Treasury officials lucky enough to evade the disappointment in the Daily Liberal’s article received an abridged but just as depressing report from the Sydney Morning Herald that day.

Referring to that portion of the western district of which Dubbo is the centre, Mr B M Arthur states that the rains though patchy and inadequate for future requirements… much seed which has lain in the ground for months has now germinated, and there has also been a good germination of all the late-sown areas or those put in during June and July any areas however, especially those of the heavier types of soils, in the Narromine, Dubbo, Eumungerie, Geurie, and Wellington districts, are still too patchy in appearance and growth to be of any commercial value because the seed has either rotted or been destroyed by insect pests.

By 2 October 1929 the situation had deteriorated considerably.  The Sydney Morning Herald noted that:

Judging from the reports of the agricultural Instructors located in various parts of the western wheat belt, the position in regard to the crop is somewhat more serious than many city people imagine. It is considered that in the district of which Dubbo is the centre, with half a million acres under crop, only about 500,000 bags will be available for sale…

Referring to the Dubbo district, Mr. B. M. Arthur said that the spell of rainless weather, accompanied by drying winds, which was experienced over most of the district since the last useful fall of rain, played havoc with the greater part of the area under crop. It not only burned off large areas beyond recovery, but also caused crops to spindle badly and produce very small ears, which are too low to be economically handled by binders or headers.

The absence of any harvest at all except in a few isolated cases appeared to be a distinct possibility before the general rain, aggregating from 55 points to over an inch, and this altered the position considerably. 

Whilst the greater majority of the wheat areas had gone beyond recovery, and in most instances had been or were being fed off to save stock, there would still be, Mr. Arthur considered, a fair area which would benefit materially. A considerable number of farmers should now be able to obtain their seed requirements, while a few would have crops of varying areas which would return payable yields and allow a fair surplus for sale as seed and also to supply the local mills.

"It is very doubtful," he says, "whether there will be any wheat in this district to go into the silos or to be handled by the railways, except in centres remote from country flour mills.

Crops round Dubbo, including Eumungerie, are very patchy, but may return a one to two bag average, and the same applies to Gilgandra.

In amongst all this gloom, there was evidence of wheat boosterism – almost as if to reassure politicians, policy makers and farming communities that their faith in the golden grain would be restored at some time.  The Herald ran an article at the end of October 1929 – in the midst of the Wall Street Stock Market Collapse to almost spruik what the wheat industry could be in a normal season, under the title A Million Tons by Rail.

If all the wheat carried by the State's railways in a good season could be suddenly changed into loaves, many, many goods yards would overflow before the 1,148 millions of them could be accommodated.

Every year, when the crops are up to expectations, more than 1,000,000 tons of grain travel by rail. This represents nearly 800,000 of Hour, and from every pound and a half flour one 2lb loaf can be made.

But that never happens, of course. Probably the first truckload of the new season's wheat, which has already arrived in Sydney to be milled and baked here; but there will many more truckloads, and export must be considered.

No one knows yet just what the harvest will be, but already the railway department is in its annual task of conveying the wheat to the seaboard or the milling centres, and there are hopes that there will need for the additional engines and trucks which were not used last year, though £70,000 spent in their preparation.

With the harvest, too, comes the Government's responsibility to provide silo accommodation for bulk grain, and evidence of the official view of things may be found in the additional plants to be opened for the first time.

This year, eighty-four silo plants are available in the wheat belt, and these will
hold 15,030,000 bushels at one filling, in Sydney the terminal silos may take 6,750,000 bushels at a filling, and no one knows how many times they may need to be filled.

Officially, then, the handling season will begin to-day, when the first and most northerlsilo, at Gilgandra, will open. This will be followed on November 5 by plants at Peak Hill, Trundle, Bogan Gate, Narromine, Eumungerie, Geurie, and Wellington.

Other centres there will be a tremendous bustle to clear out what little grain remains from last season. Chutes and elevators will looked to and everything put in readiness that greater  bustle expected early in December, when the full rush will occur.

By end of next week, all country silos will been emptied, though a small stock will still remain in the terminal plants.

About 30 per cent of each season's harvest through the silos, and about half the
Wheat exported from New South Wales shipped from the terminal plants. Five
thousand tons a day may be poured into these before their intake capacity is reached, and tons can be discharged into ships in eight hours.

This description of the theoretical logistics underpinning the NSW wheat industry was an exercise in publishing cruelty at this particular point in time.  By mid-November 1929 the same newspaper was publishing the last rites for that year’s harvest along the Coonamble branch line.

Arrangements have almost been completed for the opening of the country silos for the coming harvest. Old season's wheat still remains in seven of them, having been held there at the request of the owners. Most of it, however, will be disposed of before the new season's wheat arrives. 

The Minister for Agriculture (Mr. Thorby) stated yesterday that owing to local crop failures it had been found unnecessary to operate the plants at Dubbo, Eumungerie, Forbes, Garema, Geurie, Narromine, Peak Hill, Quandialla, Wellington, and Tomingley.

In short, the modest predicted harvest which eventually produced just over 54,000 bags of wheat at Eumungerie – even obviated the necessity of opening the near-new silo at that location.  And thus it was so – three of the first four harvests under the shadow of the silo at Eumungerie were so miserable that the railway was not taxed by the transshipment of wheat bags. 

As the world headed full-long into the 1930s depression era, with collapsing prices for wheat domestically and internationally, one wonders if the citizens of Eumungerie gazed at the large concrete silo dominating their horizon and only saw a large white elephant.

14 May 2012

Saluting Sir Neville

While my pain-staking efforts to piece together the grain transport along just one branch line continues, others seem to do it just a bit easier.  One such person is a certain Mr Neville Pollard, whom I have never met; just read.

The January 2012 Australian Railway History arrived earlier this year with a tightly-written, yet comprehensive description from Mr Pollard of the great wheat glut of 1917 - something I have touched on less eruditely in earlier posts.  If you are looking for this publication, judge this magazine by its cover.

And then a few weeks ago, the May 2012 issue of the Australian Railway History arrived.  In just two articles, Silo to Seaboard and Striving to Keep Up, Neville Pollard's pen strides across five decades of history.  Good sense, economical writing, unique and challenging insights litter his prose.  In my very humble opinion, quite possibly the finest piece of Australian railway writing in the last decade.  And great background to assist readers through the detailed morass of my postings.

My next blog post and every one hereafter will owe some debt to Mr Pollard, so I might as well just acknowledge it now.  Thank you, Mr Pollard, wherever you are.  

As Molly Meldrum says... if you haven't already, do yourself a favour...

Enjoy the read!

12 May 2012

The artist and the water tank

Last Father's Day this scribe's mother chuckled at a gentle ribbing given to the Senior Train Hunter on this blog.  It reminded me to head into the archives to see what derogatory material could be suitable for publication this Mother's Day in relation to the chuckler.

Well, I certainly have nothing as embarrassing as a pyjama-wearing photographer to write about today, but I do have the following snap of Dearest Mother.  

Any dreams of fine-tuning one's artistic skills by drawing bowls of fruit and babbling brooks must have seemed a remote prospect on that autumnal afternoon in Eumungerie in the early 1970s when sketching ancient locomotive watering facilities.  Still, its the sort of things mums do.....so.....

Happy Mother's Day, Mum!