In March 1930, my father, who had grown up and worked on wheat farms in Victoria and South Australia, leased a farm two miles east of Doodlakine, 135 miles east of Perth in the Central Wheatbelt. My elder brother and I grew up on this farm until 1949 when we moved to a larger farm eight miles north of Doodlakine. I can recall my father working with horses in the 1930s and ’40s. When my father retired, my brother and I continued to work the farm and, apart from my time in the Senate, I have been a wheat farmer all my life.
The farm had 750 acres (300 hectares) of arable land of which about 300 acres (120 hectares) was cropped each year. It was leased, with farming plant and horses in- cluded, for 300 pounds a year. Almost all farms had sheep, my father had about 300.
Soon after my father took on this lease the Great Depression arrived and the price of wheat crashed. The benign landlord, a World War I Veteran named James Fingland, halved the rent for the 1931 and subsequent crop year. Without that concession my father would probably have become insolvent and been forced to abandon farming.
During the 1920s, many farmers replaced horses with tractors which were inadequate for the job. Their design was primitive and prone to serious mechanical failure. Steel wheels, ubiquitous in the twenties, combined with parallel roller bearings—instead of tapered and adjustable roller bearings now in use—often literally fell to pieces. Such mechanical breakdowns delayed planting the crop and were unacceptably costly. Chaff for horses was grown on the farm, whereas kerosene for tractors required cash. A typical farm would require 40 per cent of the farm output to feed the horses.
In many cases the banks, to which most farmers were heavily indebted, put pressure on farmers to go back to muscle-powered horse farming. This boosted the demand for horses and therefore their market price. To my knowledge there is no comprehensive evidence of the size of the price increase, but farmers who lived through this period say a young and fit draught horse would cost 25 to 30 pounds or more. I recall my own father telling me he paid 50 pounds for such a horse around 1934. Fifty pounds was a lot of money in the thirties, half a year’s income for workers on the basic wage, but the horses were in time replaced by much improved rubber-tyred tractors. In the 1950s only one farm in the Doodlakine district was dependent on horses.