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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 1

I Groping In A Strange Environment: 1788-1851

II Farmers Take The Initiative: 1851-1888

III Enter Education And Science: 1888-1927

IV Agricultural Science Pays Dividends: 1927-1987

V Examples Of Research And Development 1928-1988
i Land assessment
ii Improving the environment
iii Adapting to the environment
iv Improving farm management

VI International Aspects Of Agricultural Research

VII Future Prospects

VIII Acknowledgements



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Water research

The major factor limiting crop and animal production in most Australian localities is a shortage of water, at least at certain times of the year and, therefore, the most important change that has been introduced in many environments has been irrigation. Many irrigation techniques have been learned from the USA, particularly from California, but their adaptation and use in Australia has frequently been beset by controversy.

On the one hand the controlled storage and supply of water for crops and pastures has led to the growth of many rural communities who have been responsible for important local industries based on the growth of grapes, citrus fruits, rice, cotton, oil seeds, vegetables, and pastures for prime lamb and milk production. The development of technically successful methods of water collection, storage, distribution and application are described in Chapter 3, as are the increasingly serious problems of drainage.

The main criticism of irrigation schemes in Australia is economic.[55] It has been argued that the increased productivity resulting from irrigation has been insufficient to cover the capital costs. Because Australia lacks large snowfields which can act as natural water storages, expensive reservoirs have had to be built. Also, irrigation schemes are essentially labour intensive and are therefore unsuited to countries like Australia where labour is relatively scarce and labour costs are high. Nevertheless for about 100 years irrigation schemes have appealed to successive State and federal governments, particularly those in which 'farmer parties' (i.e. the Country and National Parties) were represented.

Since the end of the Second World War, two particularly ambitious schemes have captured the imagination of politicians and the community, and both must now be judged to have failed. The 'Humpty Doo' rice scheme in the Northern Territory was largely unsuccessful because of the predations of vast numbers of wild duck which ate the rice.[56] The Ord River Scheme, in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia was more ambitious, more complicated, more costly and more controversial. Originally predicated as mainly a cotton growing scheme, and well-supported by the research, demonstration and extension activities of both CSIRO and the Western Australian Department of Agriculture, the costs of production, marketing, and particularly the costs of insect pest control, proved higher than the income received from the sale of the product. Although the technical problems of growing alternative crops (e.g. kenaf and sugar cane) were successfully overcome, serious economic and marketing difficulties remained. In retrospect it is possible to see how and when decisions were wrongly made during the development of the Ord irrigation scheme and the quality of the research undertaken at the Kimberley Research Station (KRS) has been vigorously defended.

It is ironical to note that Dr. B. R. Davidson the only economist who, for both right and wrong reasons, predicted the failure of the Ord Scheme, came to this conclusion while employed by the Division of Land Research to study the economic implications of its research in northern Australia.[57] It is unfortunate that CSIRO declined to publish his findings because of their largely speculative nature and because of the embarrassment which this information could have caused to Commonwealth-State relations.

The main objective of pre-development research is to provide information for development decisions. Negative results can be as valuable as positive results if they prevent waste of community resources on unsuccessful ventures. Unfortunately negative results are less acceptable, particularly if politically unpopular.

Early research findings at KRS had been insufficiently promising to warrant pilot scale development. In fact by the end of the 1950s, the stage had been reached where there was little value in continuing the research in the existing commercial agricultural vacuum. However, it was soon apparent that the single pilot farm, initially established to provide researchers with commercial feedback, was not sufficient because results were too dependent on the managerial efficiency of the one operator. The construction of the Diversion Dam and the establishment of additional farms could, and should, have been regarded as a further extension of the pilot-scale operations. Unfortunately, for political reasons, the development did not stop at this stage, when costs were still only some $12 million, and subsequently it proceeded too fast and too far.

Could research at KRS have led to successful commercial development or was such development doomed to failure from the beginning? The task given to KRS researchers was particularly hard. Firstly, they were required to develop an entirely novel agricultural system, initially without any feedback from a farming industry. When the establishment of the first commercial farms revealed a host of problems, which did not arise on experimental plots, the time available to solve these problems before they led to demise of the infant cotton growing industry was extremely short. Secondly, the disadvantages of the Ord area, particularly its remoteness and lack of infrastructure, could have been overcome only by exceptionally high levels of productivity and farming efficiency, which would have placed correspondingly high demands on researchers as well as farmers. Very high levels of productivity and efficiency were achieved by some cotton growers, but their efforts were unable to save the industry.[58]

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Kimberley Research Station

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