Sydney is geographically landlocked by mountain ranges and gorges. The Sydney Basin, as it is known, has limited arable land and much of it is not easily accessible from the main population centre. As the city grew and the demand for milk increased in the late nineteenth century, it was clear that the Sydney Basin could not produce enough forage to feed cows for milk production to meet the expanding population and demand.
The Hunter Valley is a large navigable estuary with a fertile hinterland to the north of Sydney, an overnight trip by steamships. There are deep alluvial soils within the tidal navigable reaches of the Hunter River and its tributaries: the Williams and Paterson. These lands were invaded by Europeans from 1812. In the 1820s large parcels of land were given to wealthy British immigrants who could demonstrate that they could bring capital to the Colony and develop the land. They were allocated convicts to work the land but by 1840 the convict system was coming to an end, so many large estates changed to operation by tenant farmers. The size of the tenant farm was equivalent to what a man with a horse and a plough could manage. Initially these tenant farmers grew wheat. Most farms had a small frontage to the river – maps of the estates show long thin blocks of land emanating from the river across the flats. Huts and farm buildings were constructed on the river bank or levee where the land was deemed to be the least prone to, but not immune from, floods.
Lucerne (Medicago sativa [ed.note: also called alfalfa]) is first recorded as being locally grown in the 1830s, but until the wheat industry was decimated by rust in the late 1850s, lucerne remained a minor crop. It seems that Lucerne-growing took over much of the land formerly used for wheat around this time.
D. Sim and Sons were blacksmiths and machinery manufacturers in the adjacent town of Morpeth. It was also the river port, at one time accommodating overseas vessels. Sim and Sons built large hay presses to press bales of lucerne which were then strapped up with timber battens and wire. At first, the presses were operated manually but later, a Mr. March invented a gearbox which enabled the press to be operated by a horse works. It is interesting to note that these presses were also used to press broom millet. Broom millet was grown in the district and some was processed locally but it was also transported to Sydney and beyond. In addition to the hay presses, Sim and Sons also made ploughs, hay rakes and other farm machinery.
The thin timber slats that secured the bales were cut from local Australian hardwood trees, the most readily available was spotted gum (Corymbia maculata). A few farmers in the hill country supplied these slats as one of their main occupations.
Each tenant farm had a large hay shed on the river levee where the pressing took place. The pressed bales were slid down to the river bank where there may have been a makeshift jetty to load them onto the boat. Specially designed vessels, droghers, had a flat front which enabled them to slide onto the bank and load using a derrick lift where there wasn’t a jetty.
Hay was cut and baled on a daily basis, so it was sent to market with little drying and it had to be used very quickly. However, dry hay was also baled and stored for the winter supplies when lucerne was dormant.
At Morpeth, the bales were transshipped from the droghers and travelled to Sydney overnight by steamship to be delivered to Sydney’s Darling Harbour and sold at Sydney’s Haymarket. At that time Sydney was supplied with milk from suburban dairies so the dairymen would regularly purchase the hay from Haymarket. The bales were designed to fit into a dray drawn by a single horse and could be easily transported to a suburban dairy. Transport by steamer to Sydney ultimately gave way to rail transport, including a branch line to Morpeth with a regular service to transport hay.
The production of these bales of lucerne continued until the mid-twentieth century. Lucerne remains an important crop on these lands but now it is mainly used to feed horses owned for recreational purposes.
This illustration shows the unique operation of the Valley’s lucerne hay industry – the rich alluvial flats linked to the tidal river for ready transport to Sydney. The top frame shows a farmer cutting his lucerne with a two-horse mower; this equipment became common on the Valley’s farms in the late 19th century. The middle section of the illustration shows the farmer pressing his lucerne hay with a Sim and Sons hand-operated hay press. He is then trimming the bale with a hay knife, preparing it for market. The bottom frame shows the steam-powered riverboat laden with stacked bales of hay.
Author: Cameron Archer Agricultural Historian and Author
Editor’s Note: Article originally published in AIMA Newsletter N°17, reproduced here with permission of the author.