Provisioning Melbourne

By Luan Tian


  • In what ways is food supplied locally to metropolitan Melbourne and its residents?
  • What were the historical origins of agricultural production in Melbourne’s hinterlands?
  • How has urban agriculture featured in the city’s development over time?
  • What were the effects of Melbourne’s urban growth on peri-urban and rural agriculture?
  • How has Melbourne’s rapid urban growth since 1901 reshaped local food production?


Two types of food production take place from the metropolitan centre of Melbourne to its hinterlands for provisioning food to urban residents. First, large-scale agriculture in the peri-urban and rural regions of the state of Victoria emerged as a result of the gold rush in the 1850s but today faces decline as rapid urbanisation absorbs productive farmland into residential developments. Second, urban agriculture within the city has proved resilient throughout the history of Melbourne. Not only does home gardening provide food for domestic and community consumption, it has evolved to embody a range of social meanings and cultural significations. The following discussion traces the origins, continuity, and change in Melbourne’s food regime from the city’s establishment in 1835 to the present day.

Crop-based agriculture in Victoria only developed in the second-half of the nineteenth century. The initial pioneering of the land was intended by “stock farmers” as “fresh natural pastures” for their flocks of sheep and sheep farming “formed the backbone” of the local economy (Ostapenko 2013, 38-9). The first crop to be planted was wheat. By 1850, “twenty-five thousand acres were sown with wheat” near the urban settlements of Melbourne and Geelong because the absence of overland infrastructure only permitted short-distance transportation to provision the urban population (Ostapenko 2013, 40). Contrary to the conventional view that the discovery of gold in 1851 produced a “negative impact…on colonial wheat growing” because the crop could be cheaply imported and farmers abandoned the land to work in the mines, Ostapenko’s article argues that in the long-run, the gold rush enabled both a diversification of agricultural production around Melbourne and the growth in wheat cultivation. The author attributes this to an upsurge in the prices of fresh vegetables in the 1850s due to the demand shock caused by the influx of gold miners (Ostapenko 2013, 45). As a result of the price disequilibrium, it was estimated that cultivating two acres of urban land equated to as much earnings as gold digging, and thus, urban residents in Melbourne’s metropolitan interior established small-scale farms on their properties, operated by family members (Ostapenko 2013, 47). Through this practice, urban farmers generated significant personal wealth in the 1850s, affording them the capital to purchase machinery and larger farms when the effects of the demand shock subsided (Ostapenko 2013, 47).

The origins of Melbourne’s crop cultivation, then, feature a symbiotic relationship between urban farming and rural agriculture. Although rural wheat production declined in the early 1850s with the total acreage shrinking threefold between 1851 and 1854 due to an explosion of mining activities (Ostapenko 2013, 43), vegetable-growing became an attractive opportunity for urban farmers, thereby making the city into the site of crop diversification. Subsequently, wealthy urban farmers expanded their enterprises northward into the hinterlands. This extensification allowed an intensification of wheat production for two reasons. First, cheaper land in Central Victoria relative to urban land in metropolitan Melbourne raised the crop’s profitability and improved the viability of growing wheat (Ostapenko 2013, 51). Second, the consistent humidity of inland farms, in contrast to coastal ones, permitted a uniform process of ripening, thereby allowing farmers to employ harvesting machinery, originally purchased with the profits of urban vegetable farming, to cultivate wheat at a larger scale (Ostapenko 2013, 51). By 1900, this process of agricultural growth that leveraged both urban and rural farming remade wheat from subsistence for Melbourne’s people to Australia’s largest export (Powell 1988, 29).

The shift in national policy from agricultural to industrial production after the Federation of Australia in 1901 also paradoxically encouraged the growth of rural farming. Although Powell’s book on Australia’s historical geography highlights the continued competition between urban and rural development, it notes a complementary relationship in the early stages of industrialisation. Melbourne was the most industrialised city around the time of Federation; in 1909, it housed 30% of Australia’s population but 37% of total factory employment (Powell 1988, 24). At the same time, urban slums were common, many lived in “abject poverty”, and Melbourne was home to the most active “anti-slum” movement in Australia (Powell 1988, 33). In response, the state government looked to the rural hinterlands and undertook the “Greater Western District scheme” which consisted of purchasing 1.3 million acres of land in Western Victoria to settle the urban population, including the urban unemployed (Powell 1988, 46-7). Although Powell’s research finds shortcomings in the government’s plan, this example demonstrates that urban development had not yet overwhelmed rural enterprise.

Furthermore, urban growth in the early decades of the twentieth century encouraged a greater prevalence of urban agriculture in the residential property. Andrea Gaynor’s book traces the prevailing historical importance of home gardening to urban Melbourne during this period. According to Gaynor, industrial manufacturing did not pay enough for families to purchase all their “fruit, vegetables, eggs and…milk” at the market, forcing them to “[grow] their own food” (Gaynor 2006, 11). During World War One, self-provisioning of food freed up 13% of household expenditure (Gaynor 2006, 43) and during the Great Depression, “home food production appears to have been one response to unemployment or underemployment” (Gaynor 2006, 73). Although the economic rationale is a powerful explanation for home gardening, Gaynor’s monograph also complicates the historical development of urban agriculture. The author acknowledges that home food production at this time was also practiced by the rich, most notably at the Rippon Lea estate in southeast Melbourne (Gaynor 2006, 39). Therefore, Gaynor explains urban agriculture not only from the angle of economic choice but also as a result of cultural emphasis on self-reliance, leisure, and health benefits (Gaynor 2006, 40).

After World War Two, the development of rural and urban agriculture diverged as the former was challenged by rapid urbanisation while the latter remained resilient despite major economic and social changes in Melbourne. First, in the economic boom after the war, the peri-urban and hinterland regions of Melbourne shifted “away from the traditional production-based land uses associated with agriculture to places of resource consumption” (Buxton et al. 2013, 155). Just as agricultural production expanded northward from the city in the nineteenth century to displace pasture land, residential and commercial developments in the twentieth century encroached upon Melbourne’s farmlands. Buxton, Carey, and Phelan’s article, from an anthology exploring sustainable strategies of urban growth, provides the central argument that peri-urban agricultural land must be preserved in face of vulnerabilities in the global food regime, such as climate change and water scarcity (Buxton et al. 2013, 154). Their case study on Melbourne helps to trace the city government’s planning policy towards its peri-urban land use. In the 1970s, the government attempted to “integrate the planning of Melbourne metropolitan area with the city’s hinterland” by establishing permanent regulatory zones to prevent urbanisation in the green belt, which occupied half of a 2,400 km2 total planning area (Buxton et al. 2013, 160). Protective policies persisted through the last quarter of the twentieth century, even though property developers lobbied for the subdivision and fragmentation of rural land, but in the 2010s, the government reduced the level of regulatory controls (Buxton et al. 2013, 161). With estimates that Melbourne’s population will double to 8 million by 2050, residential settlements on the urban fringe will continue to diminish the city’s farmlands and its capacity for to produce locally-sourced food (Zainuddin and Mercer 2014, 466).

By contrast, urban agriculture has survived in Melbourne by adopting a wide range of cultural meanings. Immediately following WWII, the centre-right government, led by Robert Menzies from 1949 to 1966, enforced a national vision of frugality, self-contained suburban life, and productive self-reliance, which adopted the home garden as a central trope (Gaynor 2006, 117). In the 1970s, home food production was threatened by consumerism and government legislation. Growing car ownership, from one in eleven Melburnians in 1945 to one in three in 1968, altered the nature of suburban leisure; cars made possible the freedom to get away from the home garden (Gaynor 2006, 131-2). Furthermore, the Health Act of 1969 directly enforced limits on the size of home food production, especially on raising chickens (Gaynor 2006, 133). Although many urban Melburnians began to shun the home garden, it was kept alive by post-war immigrants from Southern Europe, who favoured homegrown fresh vegetables, cultivated in the front yards of their inner-city properties, over the local diet dominated by meat (Gaynor 2006, 138). Finally, as the descendants of immigrant families too abandoned the home garden, a gentrified, suburban elite in contemporary society has turned to domestic food production (Zainuddin and Mercer 2014, 481). In their survey of fifteen home garden cultivators in Melbourne’s suburbs that attempts to capture the major trends in urban agriculture, Zainuddin and Mercer find that the primary motivations include the “environment and ecology”, including ethical means of procuring food, and “food security” (Zainuddin and Mercer 2014, 477). Therefore, urban agriculture persisted as a means of food provisioning in Melbourne by evolving from an economic option, to a symbol of self-reliance, to a dietary solution, to a promise of a healthier and more environmentally-friendly lifestyle.


Buxton, Michael, Rachel Carey, and Kath Phelan. “The Role of Peri-Urban Land Use Planning in Resilient Urban Agriculture: A Case Study of Melbourne, Australia.” In Balanced Urban Development: Options and Strategies for Liveable Cities, edited by Basant Maheshwari, Vijay P. Singh, and Bhadranie Thoradeniya, 153-170. Springer, 2013.

Gaynor, Andrea. Harvest of the Suburbs: An Environmental History of Growing Food in Australian Cities. Crawley, Australia: University of Western Australia Press, 2006.

Ostapenko, Dmytro. “Golden Horizon: Expansion of the Wheat-Growing Industry in the Colony of Victoria in the 1850s.” Agricultural History 87, no. 1 (2013): 35-56.

Powell, J. M. An Historical Geography of Modern Australia: The Restive Fringe. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Zainuddin, Zainil, and David Mercer. “Domestic Residential Garden Food Production in Melbourne, Australia: A Fine-Grained Analysis and Pilot Study.” Australian Geographer 45, no. 4 (2014): 465-484.

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