Making a living off the land
Opening up the land
Whitewells Station plan
Leases
Beekeepers
Sandalwood
Eucalyptus oil
Pastoralism
Shepherds to sheep stations
Fencing the hay paddock
Making hay
Mining
Tourism
Vermin
Wells

Escaping the plough

Whitewells pastoral lease was almost cleared and ploughed for wheat farming twice, once in the 1920s and again in the 1970s. A set of large blocks were surveyed for subdivision into farms in 1931, based on soils and vegetation mapping done in the late 1920s. The blocks remain on the State land title maps, and many of the original timber survey pegs can still be found. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Depression and World War II intervened. In the 1970s political enthusiasm for more land releases over Whitewells and Mt Gibson was eventually outweighed by concern for the marginal rainfall and the threat that new farmers would not be allocated wheat quotas considering the economic conditions of the time.

Open for selection: Conditional Purchase Leases

In 1903, the Western Australian Government opened up land for selection for farm blocks out to the northern end of what is now Charles Darwin Reserve. Under the Land Act 1898, Vacant Crown Land was made available for farming under Conditional Purchase leases. Their purchase and conversion to freehold blocks was conditional upon clearing, fencing and cropping a certain proportion of the lease over a number of years.

All the land of the former Jibberding Station was converted to farms by 1908, out to the present edge of the wheatbelt just 13 km south of the reserve boundary, but no-one applied for the land further north, which became the White Wells pastoral lease in 1919.

Valuing the land: 1920s

By the 1920s the ‘Wheatbelt’ had been settled east of the railway between Wubin and Perenjori, to Mongers Lake, and it was popularly and officially held that farming could keep expanding northwards and eastwards into what is now regarded as ‘marginal country’ where rainfall is lower and less certain. The soils and vegetation types on the White Well land (by then owned by T.Barr Smith and known as ‘White Wells) were mapped in 1927 by surveyors of the Surveyor General’s Office in the Department of Lands and Surveys in a process called ‘land classification’ to determine its suitablility and value as farmland. This was a precursor to subdivision for farming in the region.

This set of maps lay unused in the Lands Department until the 1980s when the Department of Agriculture undertook a new program of soil mapping to address agricultural land conservation problems such as erosion, salinity, acidity and protection of remnant native vegetation. A digital Geographic Information System to manage the Department’s mapping was introduced under Greg Beeston who oversaw the collection and digitising of all the old mapping. These old hand drawn maps derived from arduous field work are of inestimable value in the new management of the land for nature conservation as they provide the earliest detailed descriptions of the vegetation and a record of fences, tracks, wells and other disturbances of that era.

 

The area from the homestead north to Mongers Lake in the 1927 land classification Plan 404 shows an early stage of White Wells Station development: the original pine post fence along the South Track from the homestead; the present day track to Monger Well as a ‘cut line 16 ft wide’ before the well was dug; the Dalgary-Whitewells track heading south-west across the granite rise west of the homestead; and the dark areas of ‘yorrel [York gum] red soil’ east of the homestead, at the top rating of ten shillings per acre.  This is the area cleared about 1925 for the hay cropping paddock on ‘Ninghan Farm’.

Classification 444 on the base map of Plan 96B/40 of the Department of Lands and Surveys, with cadastral overlay in red.  Digital image courtesy G. Beeston, Department of Agriculture, Western Australia

Farm subdivision: 1930s

The land classification surveys of the late 1920s found enough soil with the potential for wheat cropping over the area from Karara Station to Wanara and Whitewells Stations, to inspire the government to subdivide the country into farm blocks.  The successful clearing and cropping of oats on a 1,000 acre block of York gum country on White Wells (the Ninghan Farm) from about 1925, and on another block near Warrdagga Hill on Ninghan, and the early results of an experimental farm on Karara Station was demonstrating that the country could grow wheat on winter rains in ‘good years’.

 

Surveyors fron the Lands and Surveys Department subdivided the land stretching from Karara Station south and east across Mongers Lake , through Wanarra and into the north-western part of Whitewells Station. The blocks of up to 3,000 acres were to be divided into wheat farms. Although never released for farming, these surveyed blocks remain on the State’s cadastral (or land tenure) plans with their Location numbers and a network of roadways.

Many of the original locally cut Callitris pine and hardwood survey pegs have survived despite being in the ground for over 70 years and exposed to termites, fire, rain and sun.

The 1930s world-wide Depression followed by the World War II put a temporary end to the expansion of farming, and the surveyed land was never released and White Wells had its first escape from the plough.

The Dampawah State Farm

The Department of Agriculture conducted wheat cropping trials at Dampawah State Farm on Karara Station from 1929-39 to determine the best wheat varieties and cropping methods for the York gum and acacia shrubland soils of the region. The Aboriginal name Damperwah is also given to three other features, a spring, a hill and a well at Karara. The name was also given to a spring west of Perenjori, and its has been spelt with variations such as Damperwarra, Dampawah and Damperwar.

The area lies some 40 kms to the north-west of Charles Darwin Reserve but it has featured significantly in the history of the region. Damperwah Spring and hill were key points for Aboriginal movement across the region and they played an important role in Cooke, Monger and Forrest’s explorations of the region in 1868 and 1869. The first pastoral lease in the region was based around the spring, taken by Brockman in 1869, then J.H.Monger in the early 1870s. The research farm was the centre for the proposed expansion of agriculture which almost reduced much of Charles Darwin Reserve to wheat paddocks in the 1930s. The purchase of Karara Station for nature conservation by the Department of Environment and Conservation in 2002 was an important link in the chain along the edge of the Avon Wheatbelt and Yalgoo Bioregions

The Superintendent of Wheat summed up the agricultural imperative of the day in his memo of ‘8/11/39’ to the Under Secretary for Agriculture on the closing of the Dampawah Farm :

In 1926, during a period of heavy world demand for wheat, the Dampawah Research Station was established by the Hon. M.F. Troy, then Minister for Agriculture, to ascertain, in advance of settlement, whether rainfall and the other conditions were such as to render possible profitable wheat production in a belt of country east of the Wongan Hills - Mullewa railway.
Lands and Surveys file Agriculture Research Station Perenjori 1388/1926 V1 folio 106-109. State Records Office of Western Australia Cons 3640 Item 1926/1388

This ‘belt of country’ included the White Wells Pastoral Leases.

The superintendent then refers to the 1927 mapping across White Wells Station:

At the same time, officers of the Lands Department conducted a land classification of the area represented by the Dampawah Research Station and commenced work on subdivision for closer settlement. ………. Surveyor Hicks of the Lands Department, who has been associated with the classification and subdivision of the area, advises that generally the soils of this belt which was intended for closer settlement, are shallower than on the Research Station. This means that the returns from Dampawah may be a little more satisfactory than would be obtained by good farming methods throughout this belt if opened up for wheat growing. Ibid.

The tentative conclusions drawn from the wheat trials were that wheat could be grown satisfactorily in the district. The rainfall was sufficient but that drought conditions must be expected for two or three years in each ten, and :

…the average wheat yield on soils similar to those of the research station over a period of years should approximate the State average if sound farming methods are adopted. Ibid.

Wheat yields from the one to two hundred acres cropped over eleven years from 1929 to 1939 ranged from 20.1 bushels per acre in 1933, down to around three bushels in the drought years of 1936 and 1938 when no rainfall was reported. In an ironic piece of misappropriation of Indigenous culture, the most successful wheat variety was named “Nyoongar” after the Aboriginal people from further south.  The Nyoongar people had already lost their land, because it had been cleared for wheat. 

The superintendent goes on to explain the impending closure of the research station:

In view of the fact that the present outlook for wheat does not justify any further extension of settlement for wheat production, and in view of the demands on the State finances for war purposes, the advantages of longer and more complete records may be outweighed by the necessity for State economy with respect to agricultural development. Under these circumstances I can agree to the suggestion of the Under Treasurer that this station be closed. Ibid.

The Agriculture Department relinquished the farm in 1940 and the reserve was leased back to K. Samson & Co of Karara Station.

A million acres a year: The 1960s-70s

Expansion of the wheat growing area of Western Australia became a high priority of governments following World War II. Wheat and wool were seen as a basis for the State’s prosperity. Premier David Brand summarised the policy in the 1960s' catchcry of releasing ‘a million acres a year’ of new land for farming. The discovery by Professor Eric Underwood at the University of Western Australia that crops could be grown on sandy soils with the addition of trace elements enabled ‘light country’, the sandy shrublands or ‘sandplains’ such as the majority of Charles Darwin Reserve, to be cleared and cropped. In this period the Goodlands area was settled up to the southern boundary of Mt Gibson Station. This renewed enthusiasm for farming almost saw Whitewells Station also released for farming.

Soil surveys were planned to cover country as far north as Yalgoo and across to the north and east of Lake Moore. A soil survey of Whitewells Station was done in 1966 and a map prepared by Hitchen and Myers in 1970.

 

After the wool boom of the 1950s (fuelled by the Korean War) subsided, the small Whitewells Station with a carrying capacity of only 3,400 sheep became unprofitable in the 1960s and 1970s. Successive lessees Denis Mason and Bruce Boucher asked to be allowed to clear sufficient land to grow wheat as their main income. Before purchasing Whitewells in 1972, Boucher held a grazing lease over the block to the south which had once been part of Whitewells. He applied to convert it to cropping but was refused. In 1973 he sought a special lease for cropping on Whitewells, and in 1975 requested 4,000 hectares of freehold farmland to create two blocks for his sons to farm.

Boucher had the enthusiastic support of his Federal and State Members of Parliament (John Hyde MHR and Margaret McAleer MLC), and the Minister for Lands, Alan Ridge, who wanted to go further:

It is apparent that the Minister’s desire is not to view this merely as the release of an isolated parcel of land under C.P.[Condtional Purchase] Conditions, but rather to envisage a general and coordinated land release.  Other cases such as that involving Remlap Station have recently been dealt with and in order to rationalise the matter and enable the Hon. Minister [to] provide Miss McAleer with a firm reply, it is now necessary to investigate the practicality of a general land release taking into consideration, climatic, topographic and economic factors.

Surveyor General to Deputy Surveyor General, 2 December  1975 , folio 55, file 660/75 Whitewells Station, Department of Agriculture, Western Australia.

The Department of Agriculture had been providing general but cautionary advice that the land was technically capable of growing wheat, but was ‘marginal’ and economic conditions were unfavorable. The Minister for Lands was not put off:

…I am encouraged by the comments of the Director of Agriculture, and beaing in mind his department is inclined to be super-cautious in such matters, I wonder if it is fair to describe the land as “marginal”  I agree with the Acting Assistant Administrative officer that it is inevitable that the area will be opened up for development.

Minister for Lands to Undersecretary for Lands, 26 November 1975 , folio 54, ibid

Experienced officers in the Surveyor General’s Office did not share the Minister’s enthusiasm, and contacted their colleagues in the Department of Agriculture to ensure they provided compelling advice. Eventually, after much correspondence and clarification, the ‘super-cautious’ Agriculture Department had the last word, citing the cost to government of ‘roads, communication etc’,  and stating that:

…very few farmers appreciate the enormous costs involved in developing new land other than those who are already in a financial plight as a result of having attempted to do so and The other issue is that while wheat prices have been buoyant for the last two or three years, it would only need good crops in the United States, Russia and China to cause a spectacular slump in wheat prices. This would place any new land releases in a very awkward financial situation with restrictive wheat quotas likely. ... In essence, while from the technical point of view there is considerable land within the agricultural areas which could be released for farming, current inflation trends in Australia would make it desirable to approach any large scale releases with extreme caution.

Deputy Director of Agriculture to Surveyor General, 5 March 1976, folio 56-57, ibid

Thus the woodlands and acacia shrublands now managed for conservation in Charles Darwin Reserve escaped the plough once again, to be preserved by community choice, for the time being at least.  History suggests that some time in the future, someone influential may well disregard both science and history and once again believe the land should be ploughed for agriculture.

 
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