Drawing a Line in the Dirt

David Cook — 24 January 2019

As you head north out of Adelaide the country slowly begins to dry out. By the time you’re around the head of the Gulf it becomes apparent that this is a dry state. Once you are up into the Flinders Ranges, you realise agricultural pursuits are going to be marginal and involve a lot of ground between each head of livestock. 

That’s why, when you pass every ruined house, you have to wonder what it was that encouraged so many people to move into the area during the nineteenth century. There are so many of these ruined houses, almost universally built sturdily of stone, so that the walls still stand and the glassless windows still gaze out over the dusty plains. 

Once, these were the proud new homes of optimistic couples who had moved in with horse-drawn wagons full of life’s treasures, only to be defeated soon after by the inexorable dry, the flies, the dust and the loneliness.

The colony of South Australia was established in 1836, based on the ideals set out by English social reformer Edward Gibbon Wakefield. That meant no British convicts would be involved in its establishment, the principles of religious and political freedom would prevail, and the land would be sold rather than granted to settlers, with the money raised to go to funding the immigration of labourers. SA struggled in its early years, with communications breakdown at the government level and the loss of labour to the Victorian gold rushes, but by the mid-1860s, settlement had spread north into what appeared to be suitable land.


The colony’s surveyor general, George Goyder, was tasked with mapping the area suitable for agricultural pursuits in South Australia. After the commission was issued, Goyder actually did little travelling to draw up his map, relying instead on his extensive travels through the colony over the previous decades (in 1864-65 alone, the 160cm tall Goyder had covered the remarkable distance of 48,000 km on horseback, justifying his nickname ‘Little Energy’). 

The land was in serious drought, but Goyder, having previously witnessed the flooding of some of the colony’s driest lakes, understood the variability of rainfall in the Australian context. He submitted a map with an isohyet – a line joining points of equal rainfall. Below this line there was an average of 10 inches (250mm) or more of annual rainfall, implying crop farming south of it was suitable, whereas pastoral (grazing) pursuits were the only thing appropriate to the north.

Goyder’s Line, as it became known, ran south-east from near Ceduna to Spencer Gulf, up the eastern side of the Gulf to north of Port Pirie, east to near Yatina, south-east to Swan Reach on the Murray and then east-south-east across the Victorian border. It’s a remarkably accurate line – especially considering Goyder’s resources – and is just as applicable today as it was over 150 years ago. Sometimes properties a kilometre or two either side of that line can show remarkable differences in output.


But the problem for Goyder and the South Australian colonial administration was that many of the farmers then taking up property were largely illiterate and either had little knowledge or experience with farming, or had only experienced the fairly steady and well known climatic environment of Europe. They did not understand the great variability of climatic experience in Australia, and were often burdened by unusual theories, such as “the rainfall follows the plough”. In other words, they believed that through some supernatural connection rain would follow them wherever they went. 

In 1872 Goyder’s Line became the law, as part of the Waste Lands Alienation Act 1872, which restricted farmers from purchasing land on credit outside of designated agricultural areas. In other words, settlers couldn’t borrow money from banks or elsewhere to purchase land north of Goyder’s Line. There was much public opposition to the law and even suggestions that the line should be pushed as far north as the border with the Northern Territory. Can you imagine attempting to grow crops around Lake Eyre, or Coober Pedy, or Oodnadatta?

Yet, as if in support of the plough-rainfall prophecy, the gods smiled upon South Australian agriculture, with good rainfall and moderate temperatures for a handful of years. So after having paid Goyder to draw up his line, the government abandoned it and permitted hundreds of settlers to establish properties well to its north. Record wheat crops rolled in from ‘the Golden North’ and life seemed good. Then reality arrived.

Sustained drought in the early 1880s soon ruined those hastily established farms. Farmers walked off the land and returned, bitter and angry, to Adelaide. Goyder, of course, had been right, and this was an early confirmation that Australia’s climate could be fickle at best, and needed a whole new set of rules.


Today Goyder’s Line still broadly applies, though with modern dry land farming techniques and technology it has been stretched a little. Just north of the line, farms often have a split income, between crops and livestock, with that ratio changing as you go north. Eventually, though, the crops run out, even in the good years, and most farmers in this marginal land are prepared to act quickly to adapt to seasonal changes. And it’s not just the amount of rain; it’s when it falls that is of significance. Taken along with large increases in the cost of fertilisers, herbicides and technology, life is often tough at the edges. The elimination of smaller properties and the consolidation into larger holdings has helped farmers keep their operations viable.

Now, however, there are concerns that climate change could force Goyder’s Line to the south, making once good cropping land more marginal. Already there have been meetings of agriculturalists to discuss how they will face such an eventuality. To this end, different crops are being trialled in some areas. Modelling by the CSIRO has indicated that Goyder’s Line may move as much as 120km south by 2070, which would be devastating for SA’s agricultural industry. 


goyder's line beneath the surface south australia farming geology desert