As levels of gold production rose in the colony, levels of domestic food production fell. Victorian Year Book figures suggest that between 1851 and 1853 the area of land under cultivation in Victoria was reduced by about 40 % as agricultural labour left for the diggings. The production of staples such as wheat fell dramatically. This left the colony heavily reliant on imported food. As historian Geoffrey Blainey has written, ‘the diggers were fed from afar.’ Flour for their damper or bread was imported from Chile and the United States, their sugar came from Mauritius and the West Indies, and their tea from China. Most of the beer, ale, and port, (sold on the sly on the diggings) was imported from England.
It was difficult and expensive transporting foodstuffs to the goldfields. As a result, the dietary staples of flour, tea, and sugar were expensive and could fetch exorbitant prices during shortages. Fresh meat was the only significant foodstuff of which there was a local supply. Thousands of the colony’s sheep were driven to the goldfields, so the digger’s fresh meat staple – mutton – was relatively cheap. But fresh vegetables and fruit had to be carted from Geelong or Melbourne and were considered expensive luxuries. Only reasonably successful diggers could afford other foodstuffs such as dairy goods or dried and pickled food.
Lack of variety, and the expense of other fare, meant that in the early days of the rushes most miners survived on mutton and damper. The difficultly of obtaining land, and an itinerant lifestyle, made it hard to supplement this monotonous diet with fresh, homegrown produce. Still, some people persisted in the attempt to create a domestic plot. Owen Jones is said to have planted the first vegetable patch in Castlemaine, in 1852. Like other gardening pioneers on the Victorian goldfields, he had to send away to Melbourne or Adelaide for seeds and cuttings, which often arrived in bad condition. But he overcame this difficulty, as well as that of other diggers nicking his fruit and vegetables, to create a little ‘green patch in a wild desert’ on the banks of Forest Creek.
The difficulties associated with producing food locally were gradually recognized. An 1853 Select Committee recommended to the Victorian government that the mining licence ‘allow the miner to cultivate a garden near his claim.’ Historian Suzanne Hunt observes that this was a landmark decision because it ‘was the first step towards granting miners a residence licence.’ As miners were granted greater residential tenure over Crown lands and stopped to settle in particular areas, vegetable plots like Jones’ became more tenable.