The Australian Army and farming in the Northern Territory
When we think of fertile faming lands, the Northern Territory is generally not the first place that springs to mind. Yet it was here, during the Second World War, that the Australian Army established the 1 and 2 Farm Company as part of the Australian Army Service Corps.
On 11 September 1940, approval was given by the Minster for Army to acquire land. An area of 107 acres was purchased at Adelaide River. The land was only partly cleared and the farm commenced with a small area of 2 ½ acres in 1940. The Adelaide River Farm Section became the 1 Australian Farm Company. A small garden at Wycliffe Well ushered in the 2 Australian Farm Company in January 1942. Towards the end of 1942, approval was given to establish a further 7 farms at Adelaide River, Hayes Creek, Katherine and Mataranka.
So, why did the Army decide to set up farms in the Northern Territory?
Firstly, these areas were known for deficiency diseases caused by inadequate vitamin intake and there were concerns for the health of troops. During May 1939, the Chief Medical Officer advised that up to 25% of personnel at the Northern Territory garrisons had been on sick parade on one day. Dengue fever was also rife. It was recommended that fresh fruit and vegetables could assist in reducing the occurrence of these diseases.
This revealed the second problem which was the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. At the time, the policy was to purchase food supplies from civilian contractors. In the Northern Territory, local production of fresh vegetables and fruit could not even sustain the local population. An influx of 40 000 troops and their dietary requirements needed to be met another way.
Thirdly, there were transport problems. Fresh vegetables forwarded from Adelaide had to endure a train journey of 3 or 4 days to Alice Springs. This was followed by 4 days or longer of transportation via trucks for distribution to areas around Darwin. During this time, 50% of the food stuffs were lost through the natural deterioration of food. The remaining 50% was edible but had lost most of its nutritional value and appeal.
The priority was on the production of salad and leafy vegetables. This included tomatoes, beans, cabbages, lettuce, silver beet, cucumbers, beetroot, marrows and pumpkins. Root vegetables had a lower priority. One problem that also had to be overcome was the way in which to cook certain vegetables that not been seen before. It was only after the practice of boiling sweet potatoes ceased that this vegetable joined the ranks.
The first commanding officer was Captain Henderson who depended on convalescent patients from the nearby camp hospital for labour to plant vegetables. During this time, watering was conducted by channel irrigation from shower overflow and manually with a bucket brigade of volunteers.
The struggle for farm labour and equipment continued under the command of Lieutenant Nielson in March 1941. The tide began to turn with the arrival of Warrant Officer Campbell on 23 May 1941. Campbell obtained additional labour from 2/40 Infantry Battalion who detached platoons for a week or so to clear 30 acres. An irrigation scheme was also established and men from a nearby RAE unit supervised the construction of a 20 000 gallon iron tank.
By November 1941, the war establishment for a Farm Section AASC was approved and the personnel rose to 1 officer and 54 other ranks. Lieutenant Campbell was sent to a training camp in Brisbane to select suitable farmers and these men were sent to Wycliffe Well. Central Australia also had several unit gardens and one of these was located at Elliot. One soldier reported that they had to keep raising the height of the brush fence that they constructed around this garden. The problem was not with local wildlife, but people interested in seeing what was behind the fence. It was hoped that the higher the fence got, the less inclined people would be to climb over and have a look.
During 1944 and 1945, a 16 acre area at Katherine was developed as an experimental farm by army personnel with agriculture specialist qualifications. The work that they did helped establish what varieties of fruit and vegetables were likely to be successful. This work was largely based on recommendations from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research after a visit in September and October 1944. This also called for further training for Major Campbell, Captain Kjar and Lieutenant Scott-Young to study modern methods in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area and the vegetable research station in Canberra.
It is unclear what happened to the farms after the end of the war. A report, written shortly after the end of the Second World War, indicates that there were discussions during 1944 and 1945 about the future of the army farms once the Northern Territory returned to civilian control. Unit war diaries exist for 1 Australian Farming Company until the 6 August 1946 when Captain J C MacDonald moved to 7 Military District. By this time the posted strength for 1 Australian Farm Company had been reduced to 1 officer and 1 other rank.
AWM52 10/26/2 August 1940 to July 1945. 1 Farm Company Summary of Farm Activity
AWM54 337/7/5 [Farms and Gardens - Farming Units:] Inspection report on 1 Australian Farm Coy, Australian Army Service Corps, Northern Territory by Lieutenant N A M Kjar, August 1943
AWM54 337/7/12 Part 1. [Farms and Gardens - Farming Units:] Data relating to Australian Army Service Corps, Farm Coy project and associated farm activities (1939-1945)
AWM54 351/1/3 [Food - General:] History of nutrition in Australian Army. Nutrition and food, requirements and catering. System of dieting. Rationing of hospital patients.
AWM254  Army Farms AASC [Australian Army Service Corps report, photographs and newspaper clippings relating to 1 Australian Farm Company in the Northern Territory, 5 Australian Farm Company in Queensland, 3 Australian Farm Company in New Guinea, and 9 Australian Farm Company in New South Wales]