AGRICULTURE: by Charles BignoldNews Weekly
How government kick-started land settlement
, March 25, 2000
It is now 40 years since the first 24 settlers moved into the desolate landscape of the Heytesbury Settlement - one of the most successful land settlement schemes in the world.
The area of land south of Cobden, to the sea and the foothills of the Otway Ranges was unproductive to the earlier generation of farmers seeking land, in spite of a reliable rainfall of 36 inches.
As early as 1932 experiments began, and found that the soil was lacking some trace elements, mostly molybdenum. With the correct mix of fertiliser, two experimental farms were set up and proved successful.
In 1956, the Rural Finance & Settlement Commission began the mammoth task of preparing 100,000 acres of bush for the purpose of eventually settling about 450 farmers.
The land was cleared, ploughed, fertilised and sown down to permanent pasture. After a period of time, the pasture was grazed by a herd of Hereford cattle run by the Commission - and a Pioneer township was set up as the headquarters, and accommodation for the working crew.
Roads were put through where previously there were none, farms were surveyed, averaging about 180 acres. Dams were built for water storage and the farm buildings were erected.
What made the scheme unique was that the farms were complete with 3 bedroom weatherboard house, garage, utility shed, concrete dairy, dams and windmills - in other words ready to go.
1960 saw the first batch of farms advertised for prospective young farmers - applicants went through a selection panel of Commission personnel who took into account the candidate's experience, marital status, number of children, assets, and general capacity to move into a new area and make a success of the venture. The applicants far outnumbered the farms ready for settlement.
There were critics of the whole scheme. Professor Samuel Wadham had doubts - as did some of the neighbouring farmers - and the first batch met with difficulties of various kinds. Underground caterpillars cleaned out the pastures, and the chemicals used to control the grubs contaminated the milk and it was condemned for human consumption for a long time. Some farms had to wait six months to be connected to electric power. Some of the farms had some areas uncleared and all farms had hugh heaps of unburnt timber.
The first 24 were the trail blazers and, after a few years of hardship, most made progress, which gave heart to the families that followed.
Farms were allocated at the rate of 50 or so a year, and as the numbers grew so did the township, which was officially given the name "Simpson" after the Chairman of the Commission. Churches were built, a hotel, primary school on a generous acreage, public hall and recreation reserve, Guide and Scout hall and so on.
The terms for the settlers were set up by an Act of Parliament and consisted of initial three year temporary lease during which the stocking rate was limited and the farmer had to carry out certain improvements, such as fencing and laying on of water to the paddocks.
Finance was available for necessary equipment, and that was repaid by a deduction of 25% of the milk cheque. This covered the rent first, and any amount left came off the loan. If there was no milk cheque, no money came out. It was a very humane arrangement. At the end of the temporary lease, the land was valued and a Purchase Lease was entered into. Terms were over a period of 40 years at 4% interest. The generous terms enabled the family to gain a foothold in its new enterprise and also help build up a thriving community.
New groups welcomed;
To be allocated a block, one had to be an Australian citizen, but settlers came from many countries. Quite a number came from Holland, and also from Germany, Poland and the UK. Each incoming group was welcomed by the previous settlers in a function at the Cobden Civic Hall. There were many working bees to get things going in the district, sporting clubs, Scouts and Guides.
When the primary school eventually opened it began with 340 children, as the average number of children per family was five. North of the Princes Highway the average number was 2.5. There was a great community spirit. Compared to earlier generations, the Heytesbury settlers had it easy and were nicknamed "Cream Puff" pioneers by some of the locals - but life had its moments and wasn't all beer and skittles.
As the years went by and the township of Simpson grew, so the whole surrounding area prospered, with machinery firms, stock agents, service industries, dairy factories, grain merchants, cartage contractors, veterinary surgeons, school teachers, engineering firms. Bonlac has a huge dairy plant in Cobden employing 300, and three or four other dairy companies operated in the area.
The whole scheme was paid for by the herd of Herefords which the Commission ran and of course is now dispersed, so there was no cost to the taxpayer.
Apart from the great opportunity offered to the 400 or so farming families, the value to the surrounding district is incalculable.