Territory RiceFifty years ago "Humpty Doo" was a place that seized Australian imaginations.
The dream was that the place with the amusing name was going to become an immense granary and so transform the nation. Rice grown at Humpty Doo was going to feed the starving millions in Asia. The Northern Territory could become the world's food bowl - and the post-war world desperately needed food. With new skills, new markets, big money, and big ideas, northern development would become a reality, not just a hollow cliché.
Certainly there had been failures before, the optimists admitted. But things were different now, they reasoned. Past failures were attributed to bad luck, bad judgment, inadequate capital investment, and similar reasons. Now, all these limitations and reasons for failure could be swept aside by a new wave of large scale capital development. And the Territory's coastal plains would at last live up to all the hopes which had been held for them since explorer John McDouall Stuart in 1862 said of the area "it could be the finest colony under the Crown - capable of growing any and every thing."
It didn't quite turn out that way.
Until the early 1950s the area around Humpty Doo had only been used intermittently by pastoralists and buffalo shooters. In the 1880s it had been part of Fisher and Lyons' huge but unsuccessful pastoral empire. Then Bill Lawrie established a buffalo shooting station which was called Umpty Doo. Lawrie also used the area as a depot for his Darwin butchery and he ran pigs there which subsequently went wild on the coastal plains. Goats were also introduced.
Suddenly, in the 1950s, the area became the focus for national ambitions to develop the north. The spectacular failure of these ambitions made the name "Humpty Doo" part of Australian folk lore.
In 1946 scientists had begun land assessments in the Katherine / Darwin region and had identified several areas as suitable for rice production, including the Adelaide River flood plains near Humpty Doo. Trials began, and then the government sought to interest private developers in starting large scale plantation agriculture.
In 1954 the junior Menzies government Minister Harold Holt infected the American mega-millionaire Alan Chase with enthusiasm for rice growing at Humpty Doo. Chase formed a grand plan for planting half a million acres to make the NT the world's biggest rice producer. Chase declared that the Territory would be a food bulwark against communism. "Hunger in Asia breeds communism, and I believe that we have here the means of removing that hunger." A specially commissioned film, "The Miracle of Humpty Doo" was produced and widely shown.
Chase formed a company Territory Rice which began experiments and plantings. By 1959 there were 5,500 acres under cultivation. It was proposed that the rice growing area would be subdivided in to 400 small farms, with housing and townships.
However, as early as 1956 there were signs of trouble when magpie geese destroyed a large area of rice. Even without the magpie geese there were ominous signs that growing rice at Humpty Doo might not be as easy as the visionaries had imagined.
In 1961 the company discontinued its own field operations, but it kept going with share farming. However, the company bailed out in 1962 and the project fizzled out.
Magpie geese got the blame, but there were many more fundamental reasons - the project was always undercapitalised; no allowance had been made for rainfall and sunshine variability; soils were poor and drainage unsuitable; costs were high and poorly controlled; and marketing was never properly organised.
Humpty Doo was left to develop as a semi-rural satellite of Darwin - but it stayed in the Australian imagination as the place where the geese ate the rice.