highlands.nsw.tourinfo Past & Present:
Agricultural Land Use


The original inhabitants found the Highlands abundant in wildlife and natural foods. Not so abundant as to cause them to proliferate - early evidence suggests they were in the hundreds rather than thousands. But if that is the case, they were no different from the settlers who supplanted them.

The earliest "settlers", as has been suggested, were probably itinerant herders, then squatters and graziers. Real settlement did not occur until almost 20 years after discovery, as the colony at Sydney was kept artificially smaller by Governor's decree, so that he could control the population.

After initial "official" explorations - by Wilson, Throsby, Meehan, Hume and others - the first land grants were made in the Highlands. These were for the purpose of grazing sheep and cattle. Hence these were the first uses of the land by European settlers.

Early settlers house
Typical settler's home, with timber slab walls
and shingle roof. Style similar to earliest
homes (except for glass windows).
Gardiner family, Burrawang 1880s.
The Homesteaders.

These settlers built homesteads on more favourable open land (Mittagong and Bong Bong).

Around these homesteads they established farms on the European model, growing mostly subsistence crops, trees, and gardens to meet the needs of existence.

Wheat was first grown commercially by Dr. Charles Throsby. Later holdings were expanded by clearing the scrub.

Close in their wake came other enterprising individuals who set up inns and taverns for the travellers who started passing through the area, plus farm workers, timber cutters, and tradesmen.

First Towns.

Under Governor Macquarie, due to the outward pressure of settlement from Sydney, Berrima was established as a county seat on the English model, with a magistrate, police, and organs of government to control the area. Various town dwellers followed, as did further grants of land to settlers.

The land and climate were unsuitable to sheep, and these moved on to the Goulburn area and further inland where the tablelands and grasslands were more suitable.

The Cattle Industry.

The cattle industry took a turn for the worst in the middle of the nineteenth century with an outbreak of "blackleg" disease (whatever that was), but recovered to become the dominant industry of the Highlands.

Beef cattle were droved to Sydney for the live meat trade until the invention of refrigeration opened up exports to England after the 1880s.

However, the high rainfall and lush pastures were more favourable to dairy cattle, and this dominated local agriculture for almost a century.

Before refrigeration, cheese and butter making had been important farm activities since earliest times - the product being shipped down to the coast on horseback.

It wasn't until the railway reached Mittagong in the 1860s that it became feasible to transport dairy products in large quantities to the markets of Sydney.

Not surprisingly, many cheese and butter factories opened quickly thereafter, and an enterprising individual invented the first mechanical cream separator - at Mittagong.

Dairy at turn of century, Burrawang area

Taking milk to dairy
Taking milk to Bee Hive Factory
Robertson, early C20th
The Kangaroo Valley to the southeast was in fact opened by enthusiastic dairy farmers.

They almost came to grief until lobbying opened a railway line to Robertson so that they could take their goods to market.

Dairy farming remained a major industry in the Highlands up until the 1960s, mostly based on the shipment of whole milk to Sydney.

Early Crop Growing.

The earliest settlers planted crops, vegetables, and fruit trees around their farms. Surprisingly, wheat was also planted (non-rust varieties) - but not to last. Notwithstanding, there were several flour mills in the area in early days, one at the Throsby estate at Bong Bong.

Imported grasses were sown for grazing, replacing the native vegetation.

But apart from fruit trees, and potatoes - which were later to be a successful crop in the Robertson region - and for some years, cabbages - the Highlands were not to become the market garden of the city.

Haymaking on Johnson's Farm
Wildes Meadow, 1890s


Butter Factory
Berrima District Farm & Dairy Co.s butter factory
Mittagong, turn of century.
Dairying flourished also in the first half of the twentieth century, with milk collection centres and cheese and butter factories established in a number of centres.

These contracted to larger factories in Robertson, Moss Vale, and Bowral.

Then they also closed as milk was transported directly to the city in refrigerated railcars.

For several decades orchards producing apples, pears, and nectarines thrived in Penrose and Wingello. These too have not survived competition from more productive areas.

From the late nineteenth century, agricultural shows were part of the social calendar in the region

(Burrawang had its own from the earliest days of settlement).

Today the Moss Vale, and Robertson Shows remain as an anachronistic reminder of former agricultural days.

Moss Vale Show
Moss Vale Agricultural Show, 1933

The Great Nurseries.

At the turn of the 20th century, a number of nurseries were established in Exeter by Yates, and Searles, major seed growers in Australia.

For many years seeds were produced here for sale in the Sydney market.

Mittagong, which had had a major nursery in the mid 19th century, also was home to Ferguson's, which specialised in raising seedlings.

The Highlands' obsession with gardens owes a great deal to these industries.

Beef Cattle.

Competition from other dairying areas, running larger herds and more modern equipment, forced many local cattle growers into beef raising in the 60s.

More enterprising farmers moved into raising stud cattle. A meatworks at Moss Vale processed local beef until it closed down recently.

An offshoot of King Ranch, Texas, opened near Bowral in the 60s, breeding Santa Gertrudis cattle (widely used as bloodstock in northern Australia), and one of Australia's earliest ventures in artificial insemination (Bovine Semen, Bundanoon) established a valuable export industry.

Today most cattle in the area are raised for beef or breeding purposes, dairying being confined to the eastern area. The milk and cheese processing plants at Robertson, Moss Vale, and Bowral have long since closed down.

Horses were part of the nineteenth century landscape, and many were raised on farms in the Highlands. In the last 30 years farms for resting horses, and stud farms, have appeared - a trend which seems to be increasing.

TODAY - From the Decline of Traditional Farming to a New Era:

Much of the traditional farming land of the Highlands, after 150 years (and in some cases cleared less than 50 years ago), has been closed down.

Near the towns it has been subdivided into suburban residential lots for the growing population; once handsome estates further out are being subdivided into hobby and boutique farms for affluent city emigres.

However, this does not mean that the rural ethic has been lost. Supplanting earlier attempts are new enterprises based on more intensive agriculture - something not possible in earlier days.

Alpacas, High Range
Exotic Livestock.

Alpacas from South America - suited to cooler climates - have made a significant appearance, and their potential remains to be realised.

Emus are also being farmed, and many farmers are specialising in the production of specialist breeds of cattle, and sheep for coloured wool.


The most successful horticultural pursuits in the past were the market crops of the Robertson area earlier in the 20th century (although potato farming remains important), the orchards of Penrose, and the nurseries.

Today a number of small holdings have been successfully established growing berry fruits.

In recent years "hobby farmers" have found that the Highlands is suitable for growing a wide variety of olive trees, and some tens of thousands have been planted.

First harvests and pressings have already begun, and if the early successes are any indication, the traditional farmlands of the Highlands may see a multi-million dollar industry of a new (but very ancient) crop.

Today also, there is a new generation of dozens of nurseries - from large commercial concerns, to small private ones, which produce seedlings and plants.

Of these, lavender growing is one of the most significant.

Wine Growing.

Interest has been expressed in recent years in viticulture.

Spurred by the enormous success of wine exports from the traditional wine growing areas of Australia (most of it on hot, dry, irrigated land in the interior), attention is now being given to cooler climate vineyards.

The Highlands is now sharing in this, with about 250 acres under plantation and successful wineries already established at Joadja, Mittagong, and Sutton Forest. Acreage is being extended every year.

Vines at Eling Forest
Vines at Eling Forest.

As time goes by, and the population in the area increases, traditional broadacre farmland will be lost. Luckily much of this will be replaced by smaller boutique and intensive farming.

So far, also, the Council has been conservative in opening bushland and floodplains for development, which - the lure of pecuniary interest notwithstanding - will see much of the character of the landscape retained for future generations.

Last updated 12/8/00