As settler colonists dependent on primary production, Australians early developed a print media that promoted the interests of farmers. By the end of the 19th century, a profusion of journalism, digests, published reports and proceedings reflected a literate if dispersed readership. Whether as technical advice, market reports, accounts of policy and politics or expressions of solidarity, these publications registered the dynamics of industries at local through to colonial, national and international scales. They served the phases of Australian farming: from adaptation, expansion and closer settlement, to intensification and specialisation. As print was joined by electronic media in the 20th century, agricultural journalism advocated for the sector but also reflected its increasing strains, in declining economic returns, marketing pressures, heightened social marginalisation and the impetus for innovation in response to environmental impacts.
Advice on the adaptation of farming practices to unfamiliar conditions was central to almanacs compiled from the earliest days of each colony, and tailored to specific regions. Initially informed by imported astrology and folklore, these marked transitions in awareness of Australian seasons, climate, soils and animal husbandry. The proceedings of early agricultural and horticultural societies were similarly concerned with adaptations to a new land. Rapid population growth in the 1850s boosted readership. The Victorian Agricultural and Horticultural Gazette (1857–61), for example, undertook the systematic coverage of the ‘science of agriculture’, calling for experimental farms, the provision of roads, bridges and railways in rural areas, reformed land laws, and improved processing industries.
From the 1860s, policies of distributing the land more widely among settlers were accompanied by an expansion in subscription-based journals and newspapers, promoting yeoman-based models of farming. Some, such as Webster’s Tasmanian Agriculturist and Machinery Gazette (1888–90), relied on advertising and reprints. Most developed their own content in more expansive literary styles, adopting modern formats for features ranging from breeding stock and the cultivation of crops, to the combat of diseases and efficient ‘domestic economy’. Frequently, their coverage included the impact of government policy on farmers, with Adelaide’s Pasquin: Pastoral, Mineral and Agricultural Advocate (1867–70) drawing readers to a clever, sustained satirical analysis of South Australia’s land-settlement schemes.
Among the more prominent journalists and editors developing specialisation in agricultural reporting were Queensland’s William Boyd (1842–1928), who combined writing with his own experimentation in crops; South Australia’s Albert Molineux (1832–1909), gaining influence as an advocate for fertilisers and insecticides; and in Western Australia, William Grasby (1859–1930), who wrote agricultural columns for many newspapers in conjunction with work on educational reform. Advice was often consolidated in annuals and handbooks, such as Angus Mackay’s Australian Agriculturalist (1875).
The creation of departments of agriculture (the first in Victoria in 1872, and in all colonies by 1900) and agricultural colleges led to the regular publication of official gazettes. By 1899 Queensland’s department was pioneering documentary film to promote settlement and improved farming practice. Journalism reflected the transformation of agricultural production through state-sponsored research and outreach, combined with advances in techniques, crop varieties and railway construction. The Sugar Journal and Tropical Cultivator (Mackay, 1892–1905) pledged to follow ‘the stern law of commerce’ in increasingly competitive international markets, while calling for import bounties. The Rural Australian (1875–98) was re-launched in 1892, offering reports on conferences and ‘correspondence’ with ‘learned’ societies alongside columns directed to a farming ‘household’ conceived as a family business. Even in market gardening, it declared, the entrepreneurial ‘white man’ could now compete with the Chinese in producing food for metropolitan consumers.
From 1870, the Sydney-based weekly Australian Town and Country Journal fused these two identities, drawing on weekly reports from a wide network of correspondents. In Victoria, the Weekly Times (1869– ) thrived on a similar model. At the same time, farmers were developing a more organised political identity. The Pastoralist’s Review (Melbourne, 1891–1977) combined news on the wool clip and overseas prices with campaigns against the ‘aggressive and arbitrary’ rise of ‘new unionism’. The Australian Tropiculturalist and Stockbreeder (1895–1900), renamed Queensland Country Life (1900–10), repeatedly condemned the ‘sorry bargain’ of Federation, which had left the state’s farmers prey to ‘the greed and caprice’ of the south.
Such agendas increasingly characterised agricultural publications into the 20th century, formulating and popularising an ideology of ‘country-mindedness’. The Farmer and Dairyman (Perth, 1909–67) was the ‘official organ’ of seven state-based growers’ associations. The Land (1911– ) began similarly. From 1926, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the growth of extension services further professionalised agricultural research, while a new phase of closer settlement and the formation of the Country Party enhanced the political influence of rural interests. In 1927, the Bulletin launched its regular ‘Man on the Land’ page, reflecting the same trends.
The development of radio broadcasting through the 1920s highlighted the appetite for a full range of programs—news, weather and entertainment—beyond the cities, but also the limitations in its provision. By the mid-1930s, metropolitan and regional stations, such as 2UE (Sydney) and 2GZ (Orange), were offered agricultural and veterinary advice and talk segments. The NSW Department of Agriculture established a ‘women’s section’. But often poor transmission and relay services meant that that there were far fewer radio licences and listeners in the country than in the cities.
In the 1930s, economic strains began to sharpen an awareness of social needs beyond the cities. In 1945, the ABC introduced the first national daily rural radio program, The Country Hour, to address such issues. From 1951, the ABC’s Rural Department had its own network of ‘extension officers’, who became advocates for the development of new agricultural industries and communities. The 1950s also saw campaigns to increase ‘community service’ programming from non-metropolitan radio stations. With the advent of television, the ABC’s Rural Department developed programs ranging from advice for rural ‘housewives’ (To Market, To Market, est. 1957) to a short film magazine format (Australia Unlimited, est. 1956) and, in 1963, Country Call, featuring updates on production and marketing news.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, agricultural publications served a fresh phase of agricultural expansion, spurred by mechanisation and pas- ture improvement. The Queensland Agricultural Journal (1895–1989) was supplemented by field days, school programs and its own official radio features. Even Radio Australia instituted agricultural programs in the 1960s, providing commodity reports in Japanese, talks for producers in under-developed countries and stories reflecting the initiative of Australia’s ‘democratic’ farmers. At the local level, the Gippsland Farmer (1958–62) promoted a sense of regional interests and specialisation. The South Australian Dairymen’s Journal (1962–2001) was ‘purely industrial’ in its coverage, informing readers on trends in prices and markets, legislation and representations to government. Rural journalism refined its own sense of professionalism, reflected in the formation of state-based rural press clubs, beginning with Victoria and New South Wales in 1966.
By the 1970s, as markets and prices became less assured, a series of regular ABC national television programs, including A Big Country (1968–91), Landline (1975– ) and Countrywide (est. 1979, and later a radio program) adopted ‘human-interest’ perspectives and more investigative journalism, covering the pace of change and adaptation in rural areas.
The Cattlemen’s Union of Australia’s Cattleman (Rockhampton, 1976–97) sought a fusion of populist and expert commentary in debating agendas of industrial deregulation and political representation. The National Farmer (Perth, 1977–89), edited by Julian Cribb, offered a fresh, expansive, critical, economically and politically informed perspective on topics such as innovation in production, aggressive marketing and environmental awareness. The formation of the National Farmers’ Federation in 1979 confirmed the need for high-level, coordinated and often controversy-seeking political lobbying, just as government agencies directly targeted long-term restructuring in many rural industries. Agricultural media turned more to questions of adjustment and viability than themes of community and solidarity.
Several publications reflected emerging interests in conservation, but also tensions within that trend. Acres Australia: A Journal of Sustainable Farming emerged in Hindmarsh, South Australia as a technical journal, but soon adopted a newspaper format appealing more to ‘health and well-being’ interests. The Australian Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (1988– 97) sought an equal representation of research, government and landholder-informed features, but ‘science’ dominated ‘practice’. Sustainable Agriculture (1996–97), appearing in association with Australian Farm Journal (1991–2012, one of several successors to National Farmer, and sponsored by the Land and Water Resources Research and Development Corporation), lasted a year as a voice for ‘profitable’, environmentally aware farming before becoming Australian Landcare (1998– ).
Opportunities for new ‘niche’ industries were canvassed by Alternate Farmer (1996–2002), and adaptation and diversification featured prominently in the format of ABC Radio National’s weekday Bush Telegraph. The sector continued to produce dedicated and creative journalism, represented by figures such as Sue Neales, and recognised nationally since 1984 by the Australian Council of Agricultural Journalists. Several much-publicised awards highlight individual achievement in rural industries and communities. But farmers increasingly turned to official research and industry bodies for expert guidance on production and management, and processes of syndication narrowed opportunities to hear a ‘local voice’ in rural media. Australia’s rural press has become dominated by large-circulation papers published by Fairfax Regional Media.
Progress in addressing the ‘rural digital divide’ might assist agriculturalists to make effective use of online media, and popular programs such as Radio National’s Australia All Over, as it has evolved since 1969, encourage expression of the ‘lived experience’ of rural Australians. Yet there remains little to redress the transition away from the profusion of media that characterised the sector up to the 1970s.
REFs: D. Aitkin, ‘Countrymindedness: The Spread of an Idea’, in S.L. Goldberg and F.B. Smith (eds), Australian Cultural History (1988); J. Black, The Country’s Finest Hour (2005); E. Morrison, Engines of Influence (2005).