Richmond River Historical Society
District History  


Downturn at the Dairy (Part 1)

by Margaret Henderson

The Pioneers

The first dairy was set up in New South Wales as early as 1805 and by 1820 Sydney was supplied locally with all its milk, cheese and butter. At this time there was no white settlement on the North Coast of New South Wales.

In the 1840s when squatters moved into the Richmond River District they grazed sheep and, later, cattle. The cattle were mainly for beef production and when prices fell the animals were slaughtered and boiled down for their fat. This was called tallow and was used for making soap, candles, and other such products.

Some squatters kept a few milch (milk), or house, cows. These were usually quietened from the main herd and were used to supply the family with milk, butter and perhaps cheese.

The products, and the quality of the products, were largely dependent on the skill of the people producing them. Usually these were the women in the family.

Land Boom

In the early 1860s the Robertson Land Act was passed in New South Wales allowing small areas of land to be taken up by selectors or farmers under what was called "conditional purchase". On the North Coast farmers initially concentrated mainly on growing maize (corn) or sugar cane.

Some were interested in setting up a dairy as part of their farm but there was only a limited local market, and transport was difficult. It was important to get a quick return, land had to be cleared, and dairying was too slow and time-consuming.

The Big Scrub country on the North Coast was seen as an ideal area for agriculture. It was fertile and it appeared that it could grow anything. At that time, however, most of it was thickly covered in timber heavily laden with vines. It was almost impenetrable.

As part of his "conditional purchase" the selector had to clear several acres of land each year. This was very hard work but had to be done otherwise the land would have been forfeited. In addition, the selector had to build a house.

First Dairy

James Reeves is credited with setting up the first real dairy in the District around 1870. This was at Fairy Hill, a property near Kyogle. Everything had to be done by hand. The cows were milked by hand and the milk placed in flat dishes to set.

When milk is left in this fashion cream in the milk rises to the top and can be skimmed off. This cream can then be beaten or agitated until it too separates into butter and a liquid called buttermilk.

By the 1880s there were farms established all over the Richmond River District and most of the good land, especially near the River, had been taken up. Settlers were also pushing into the Brunswick and Tweed Valleys.

Early Problems

There were many problems in setting up a dairy farm, however. There was no electricity, no refrigeration, and no pasteurisation. Everything had to be done by hand. The milking and the churning were especially hard and tiring work. It was difficult to keep the milk or cream cool so that it would not sour. In summer it was harder to make butter as the cream became very oily and would not "turn" into butter. Getting fresh cool water, which was required to wash the butter, was often a problem.

Because of this some farmers made cheese from the milk in summer rather than separating the cream and making it into butter. This, however, required special skills and experiments were expensive for the average farmer.

And there were other problems! The roads were often only tracks and getting products to the market was therefore difficult. The River was the main transport route and the lifeblood of the District. It was a long trip to the seaport at Ballina, however, to the waiting cargo ships.

Some ships could go up river as far as Coraki, or even Lismore. However, to do this they had to be smaller than the usual ocean-going ships and they had to have a shallow draft. The bigger ships did not have enough room to manoeuvre without going aground. Some could be pulled up the river by tugs, or by their own long-boats, but this was a very slow process. It was not until the use of steam to power larger ships that real progress came in this regard.

The farmers closer to Byron Bay had the choice of taking their produce to this port. Some preferred Byron Bay to Ballina as it was a more reliable destination, especially later after a jetty was built. The Ballina Bar was often too dangerous for ships to enter or leave the port, and produce could be ruined just waiting for the conditions to change.

The early ships had no refrigeration so butter had to be heavily salted to preserve it and so stop it from becoming rancid. The quality of the product was therefore not always very good. However, consumers of those days were not used to very high quality, unlike consumers of today.

Part 2: Dairying Takes Off
Part 3: Overcoming Problems
Part 4: Marketing; The Milk Zone War
Part 5: Defeat in Victory for the North; The End of an Era

Dairy farm, Lismore district (no date)