Downturn at the Dairy (Part 1)
by Margaret Henderson
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
Part 3: Overcoming
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)