HISTORY: How the Tatiara became sustainable for crops

PROUD SONS: Hugh Robinson Jr (left) and Bill Riceman visited Bordertown to discuss the impact their fathers' had on the Tatiara.
PROUD SONS: Hugh Robinson Jr (left) and Bill Riceman visited Bordertown to discuss the impact their fathers' had on the Tatiara.

The Tatiara might be known to many as a strong agricultural area, but cropping didn't always thrive here.

IMPORTANT: Dr David Riceman's work was important for the Tatiara.

IMPORTANT: Dr David Riceman's work was important for the Tatiara.

Dr David Riceman and Hugh Robinson Sr were pivotal in transforming the area into the productive farmlands seen today.

Bill Riceman, son of David, visited Bordertown last month and discussed how his father's work changed the history of the Tatiara area.

"The CSIRO gave him a job to look at the problem they were having with sheep grazing in the Robe area, which were suffering from 'Coast Disease'," Bill recalled.

'Coast Disease' caused sheep to lose their appetite and their wool to become 'steely'. It was discovered that sheep caught the disease due to deficiency of copper and cobalt.

Dr Riceman, along with two other agronomists, introduced trace amounts of copper and zinc to the coastal soil, which produced immediate results.

Fresh off completing experiments at Robe, Dr Riceman was entrusted to conquering the Ninety Mile Desert, which covered most of the Tatiara.

The Ninety Mile Desert, also known as Coonalpyn Downs, was an infertile wasteland due to being deficient in trace elements in the soil.

Dr Riceman conducted countless field experiments on properties around the Keith area from 1944-50, hoping to replicate the success he produced in Robe.

"He set up land plots around the Keith area and over a period of nearly 10 years, they discovered that the entire area was copper and zinc deficient, much like that seen in Robe at the time," Bill said.

"What would happen before in the Tatiara area, was that people would try and grow lucerne and clovers and it would grow for about a year and then die.

"They added trace amounts of copper and zinc to the area and the soil would then sustain grasses.

"In a period of a few years, the entire Tatiara area would become sustainable for the crops that we see today, but most of the land was still mostly uncleared."

LAND: Mixed pasture sown with Superphosphate and trace elements.

LAND: Mixed pasture sown with Superphosphate and trace elements.

In 1949, the AMP Society launched its 'Land Development Scheme' in the Ninety Mile Desert. The scheme was unique as it was the first time a project of this type had been attempted by a financial institution in Australia.

Hugh Robinson Jr explained the role his father played in convincing the AMP Society to clear the land, thinking it would be suitable for large scale farming.

"The AMP Society were granted leases of almost 200,000 hectares and cleared large parts of the land," Hugh said.

The clearing of the land was done by two crawler tractors pulling a large anchor chain, a technique commonly known as "chaining".

"The clearing didn't mean that everything was destroyed, they would leave all the young gum trees, which were dying for help with fertility. If there was a tree they didn't want to bring down, they would drive inside of it," Hugh said.

"The idea was then to get young people who returned home from the war to work on the cleared land for five years," Bill added.

"After the five years, they were then eligible to win ownership of the land via a ballot. They'd pick a lot number out of a hat and that would be their land.

"They were then given a loan from the AMP Society, under very advantageous rates, so they could farm on the land. The farmers were looked after very well."

Today, Keith is recognised as being the lucerne capital of the southern hemisphere, a far cry from the days where countless crops and grasses failed to grow due to deficiency of key trace elements.

Countless individuals put in copious amounts of hard work to help transform the Tatiara into the area we see today.

The work that Dr David Riceman and Hugh Robinson Sr conducted decades ago laid the foundations for the Tatiara to produce strong agricultural output for years to come.