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).

Throsby Park
Throsby Park (1834) - a country squire's residence favoured by Governor Macquarie on his visit.


These earliest settlers - mostly smallholders - 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. Later holdings were expanded by clearing the scrub - in particular to the east after the Robertson Land Acts in the 1860s.

Wheat was first grown commercially by Dr. Charles Throsby but was not successful in the climate. Throsby had a large estate stretching from Moss Vale to Fitzroy Falls and built the first of substantial homesteads (Throsby Park 1834).

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.

Another significant early homestead was the Oxley brothers' Wingecarribee House near Bowral (1850s) on land they had first farmed since the earliest days.

As the first towns were beginning to grow another wave of settlers settled around today's Robertson and Burrawang where they cleared the dense scrub to establish small farms in the last half of the 19th century.

A later wave of pioneering smallholders came in the beginning of the 20th century to set up orchards in the area around Penrose.


Under Governor Macquarie, due to the outward pressure of settlement from Sydney, Berrima was established as a county seat on the English model (1831), with a magistrate, police, and organs of government to control the area. It replaced an earlier smaller government settlement at Bong Bong.

Various town dwellers followed, as did further grants of land to settlers.

The government laid out plans for a village at Sutton Forest in the 1830s (to the east of the current centre) but this was not successful. Settlers there tended to have larger holdings and preferred to live as country squires in the Georgian and Victorian mansions they built in the area.

The history of the Highland's towns only really begins with the coming of the railway in the 1880s.


Although some of the earliest settlers from Macarthur area acquired land for sheep runs, he land and climate were unsuited to sheep, and these moved on to the Goulburn area and further inland where the tablelands and grasslands were more suitable.

The area was much more suited to cattle grazing. The cattle industry took a turn for the worst in the middle of the nineteenth century with an outbreak of "blackleg" disease (soil-borne bacterial infection affecting young beasts), 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.

The Kangaroo Valley to the southeast was in fact opened by enthusiastic dairy farmers from where butter and cheese were exported to the Sydney markets.

Local producers almost came to grief until lobbying opened a railway line to Robertson so that they could take their goods to market. A cooperative cheese factory was built in Robertson in 1936 but had closed by the end of the century.

Dairy farming remained a major industry in the Highlands up until the 1960s, mostly based on the shipment of whole milk to Sydney by rail. (An original milk factory still stands at Bowral, now re-purposed.)

Milk production was tightly controlled by the marketing authority, but by the end of the 20th century deregulation and competition from interstate (particularly Victoria) meant that most farmers switched to beef cattle or other production.

Few traditional dairy farms remain in the Highlands today and despite a long tradition of cheese making, the area has not produced the artisan cheese makers which have appeared elsewhere in dairy country. Local production had always been of the cheddar variety.

Dairy at turn of century, Burrawang area

Taking milk to dairy
Taking milk to Bee Hive Factory, Robertson, early C20th

Roberstson Cheese Factory
Cheese factory, Robertson (1936)

Modern dairying
Modern dairy farm - Wildes Meadow.

Haymaking on Johnson's Farm
Wildes Meadow, 1890s

Butter Factory
Berrima District Farm & Dairy Co.s butter factory Mittagong, turn of century.

Moss Vale Show
Moss Vale Agricultural Show, 1933


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, and intensive pasture improvement in the mid 20th century was largely devoted to dairy and beef production.

But apart from fruit trees, and potatoes - which are still a successful crop in the Robertson region - and for some years, cabbages - the Highlands were not to become the market garden of the city due to competition from market gardens and orchards in the Hawkesbury and Wollondilly areas which were closer to the city.


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 which were shipped to market from railway sidings in the area. The orchards too did not survive competition from more productive areas, many being abandoned by the 1970s.

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 a popular although somewhat anachronistic reminder of former agricultural days.


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

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. The owners of large estates filled their gardens with exotic specimen trees, shrubs and bulbs typical of cool climate. Home gardens are much more a feature here than in the city. The hedges that gave Exeter its English character have now spread to the suburban areas of major towns.

Nursery growing is still a major local industry, albeit directed at the homeowner market. A specialist nursery at Colo Vale has provided native plantings which line the freeway through the area.


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 (now closed).

An offshoot of King Ranch, Texas, opened at Milton Park 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.

Angus cattle have largely replaced other meat breeds today and fetch high prices. Local producers are much in demand for stud farms, feedlots and export overseas.

A regular regional saleyard for cattle is held at Moss Vale.

Yates nursery
Yates Seed Farm, Exeter (1900)

Milton Park Sale
Sale at Milton Park (1974) Source NLA

Angus cattle
Angus cattle near Moss Vale


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. Small, traditional farming is not as viable today in an era of farming on an industrial and scientific scale, but a new generation of "lifestyle" farmers have been succesful in new ventures on blocks under 100 acres.

By the end of the 2Oth century younger generations had been lured away by the attractions of city life and the older generation of farmers retired.

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

Much valuable agricultural land has thus been alienated and absorbed into the ever-growing spread of the metroploitan area. This may create a problem for the future as the Highlands may survive the ravages of climate change and had been identified as an important area for food production.

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 and which depend on higher expenditure for development.

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. They are not of course, used for farming, although were still being used in the middle of last century and haymaking is pursued only for cattle.

Alpacas from South America - suited to cooler climates - have made a significant appearance, largely restricted to small hobby farms 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 or sheep for coloured wool.

A new market is opening for the production of cider, preserves and other foodstuffs. Mushrooms are being grown in the old railway tunnels in Mittagong for shipment to major markets.


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 and lavender.

In recent years farmers have found that the Highlands is suitable for growing a wide variety of olive trees, and some tens of thousands have been planted. Harvests and pressings have already begun although local farmers will have to compete against industrial scale production in the Riverina.

A more recent development is the successful trial of truffle growing - one of the largest specimens ever found grown at Robertson.

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


Interest has been expressed in recent years in wine growing.

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 was declared an official wine region in 1999. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown.

There are currently 52 registered vineyards from just a few acres to hundreds and 12 wineries are in production and wine is being exported to markets in Asia.

Alpacas, High Range

Vines at Eling Forest
Vines at Sutton 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 although of a different character to the past.

An educated public is now much more interested in the provenance of their food and the future of local farming will much depend on the the interest of its progress from farm to plate. Hence the appearance of farmer's markets in the towns.

The abundance of water here give the Highlands an ongoing important place in food production.

Last updated 5/6/15

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