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AMONG THE FREE SELECTORS
(BY OUR SPECIAL REPORTER)
The period seems now to have arrived when it is desirable to make some inquiry into the success of the measures devised by the Legislature for the purpose of settling agriculturists on the land and making the colony a large producer of grain. At the end of the present year the Land Act of 1869 will have been 11 years in operation. During the last six years selection has been very active, and a vast extent of land, previously unoccupied by farmers, is now fenced in and under partial cultivation. An investigation into the affairs of the free selectors may be regarded as possessing the deepest interest, for they are engaged in solving the problem whether wheat growing - either by itself or combined with stock breeding - can be made a permanently profitable industry in this colony. This year the quantity of grain produced has been largely in excess of the requirements of our own market, and heavy shipments have taken place to England.
At present the area under cultivation cannot amount to more than one sixth of the land in occupation by selectors. Most selectors, in their ploughing, have exceeded the minimum of one tenth required under the conditions of licence, but are still only in the beginning of their enterprise. What then we have to look forward to is a vastly increased product in the course of the next few years. While it may not be possible, at this stage of the inquiry, to arrive at a definite conclusion as to the prospects of the selectors, a good deal of information can be given showing how they are living, and what sort of privations they have to undergo in the probationary period of their occupation. There is a wide extent of territory lying between the Dividing Range and the Murray and spreading from the North Eastern Railway to the remoter parts of the Wimmera district. All this broad expanse of country is comparatively level and blessed with climate and soil peculiarly favourable for the production of grain crops. An inquiry into the circumstances of the farmers throughout so extensive a region would involve much time and labour, and could only be undertaken by a department of state. It has therefore been decided to take certain typical or illustrative cases in each district, and to make a beginning where free selection seems to have been completely carried out under the Land Act of 1869.
THE BENALLA DISTRICT
Selection in the Benalla district has been active since the North Eastern Railway was opened to Wangaratta four or five years ago. To the westward of the line and the Ovens river very little land now remains unoccupied. On the eastern side of the railway the work of selection has been less complete, and the reason why much territory has been left untouched there is that the country is hilly, or even mountainous. A line drawn northwards from Euroa to the Murray River would roughly indicate the western boundary of the Benalla district .Two thirds of the territory lie between this line and the North Eastern Railway, from Euroa to Wangaratta and the Ovens River, from Wangaratta to the Murray. The surface is for the most part flat.
The Warby Ranges, near Wangaratta, however, cover a long and broad white stripe on the survey office map; and in other places there are patches of white indicating similar unavailable areas, but nearly all the rest of the space is coloured blue or brown. The brown represents purchased land, and the blue selections. The blue tint preponderates in the proportion of about ten to one. Until the Land Act of 1869 carne into operation, the district must have been very thinly populated. Five years ago we could have driven from Benalla to Tocumwal, on the Murray, and not seen a single homestead; now the area is almost entirely occupied and the road connecting the two places runs between fences nearly the whole way. It is not necessary to describe the boundaries of the district minutely. The character of the selections is stated to be much the same east and west of the railway. Of course there are diversities of soil and climate and differences of level but the eastern selectors are stated to be in the same condition of prosperity or adversity as the western selectors. The eastern portion of the territory takes in the "Kelly" country, which is very thinly populated, and of a mountainous character. The total number of selectors in the Benalla district is 11,480, viz:, lessees 5,200, licensees 6,250. The arrears of rents are as follow -
1,798 lessees £30,903
2,6l18 licensees 45,208
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