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25 Sep 2018 11:50 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Dysfunctional path dependence in mid-century dairy farming on eastern Australia’s subtropical coastlands: case studies at Moruya and Copmanhurst - a perspective on some historical fieldwork

Emeritus Professor John Holmes, UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and RGSQ past-President 1995-97, has long researched aspects of Australia’s rural land use. His dedication to the field Geography was triggered by his BA Honours degree at the University of Sydney in 1950, when travelling by Jeep to the Gulf and Peninsula regions with Australia's first Ph.D. awardee (David Simonett). David undertook a pioneering land systems classification and mapping while John enquired into the challenges of isolation confronting the cattle stations.
The key concept of path dependence seeks to explain how choices made on assets, labour skills and organisational habits shape and “lock-in” patterns of economic action. The fieldwork reported here on the demise of dairy farming in the Moruya and Copmanhurst districts of coastal NSW, was conducted in 1952-54 while John was teaching at Maitland Boys High School. This work was towards an Honours Masters thesis from Sydney University. Some of the challenges of doing geographical work back then included: no funding for fieldwork or higher degrees, lack of technical support for drawing complex maps and diagrams and hand copying large amounts of field data onto foolscap sheets which then had to be analysed without the aid of computers! 

After a gap of almost 50 years, Professor Holmes has been prompted to revisit and publish this work (recently submitted to the journal Geographical Research) by noting that some of his thoughts on path dependence have currently become fashionable among evolutionary economists and economic geographers who have adapted it to explore patterns of regional growth and decline.

The entrenchment and prolonged dysfunctional survival of low-cost, low-income, labour-intensive dairy farming on the subtropical coastlands of eastern Australia was a potent case of path dependence. At both Moruya and Copmanhurst, the dairy industry comprised a core of long-term stable producers, located mainly on the more accessible and productive alluvial soils, together with a fluctuating number of marginal producers. The dairy farmers’ “locked-in” economic activities were founded on: the initial rural settlement imprint; the structure of farm enterprises; lack of alternative income sources; the culture and capabilities of farm families; environmental and locational disadvantages; integration within transport, processing and marketing infrastructure; proactive policy support by state and federal governments and preferential trade to an overseas market. The demise of dairying was delayed in part by the industry’s exceptional survival capabilities and the lack of any viable alternative farming staple. Its exceptionally rapid collapse in the 1960s and 1970s was triggered by its inability to undertake the needed reinvestment in response to on-farm and off-farm technological change which occurred on the more productive dairy lands in cool temperate zones in New Zealand and southern Australia. The two case studies here revealed insights into the dynamics of rural change and evolutionary economic geography.

Fieldwork equipment in 1950s comprised a 1938 Chevrolet coupe sedan, basic gear for camping and sustenance, camera, reporter’s notebooks and biros. Source J.H. Holmes

1952 photo of Bergalia cheese factory (a production-oriented land use) which closed in 1951. Source: J.H. Holmes

2010 John Holmes, with Moruya’s last dairy farmer one year prior to the closure of his dairy. Source: J.H. Holmes

by Professor John Holmes

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