The township of Boort is on the south-east fringe of the Mallee, midway between Swan Hill and Bendigo.
Boort is an Aboriginal name meaning, “ smoke from the hill”. The town is situated on a lunette and on the edge of a lake. The area around Boort and east to the Loddon River was a regular camping area of the Jaara Aborigines. Many middens still exist today; some, in the lake-bed of the Big Lake Boort are very well preserved.
Any history of Boort, however brief, must include acknowledgement of the Jaara people and the way they lived in close harmony with their environment and the respect they had for the entire ecosystem.
Major Mitchell who travelled through the area in 1836 wrote,“My experience enables me to speak in the most favourable terms of the Aborigines. They are never awkward, in manners and general intelligence they appear superior to any class of white rustics
Their shrewdness shines through even the medium of imperfect language and renders them very agreeable companions”
In early 1840’s white squatters began bringing flocks into the Loddon area which earlier had been given very glowing reports by Major Mitchell . In 1843 Henry Godfrey moved to Boort and took over the Boort Station.
The Boort Township was founded in 1871 to service the growing agricultural, pastoral and dairying industries of the district. In those early years there were some industries other than agriculture that contributed to the local economy. In the early 1900’s gypsum was mined and employed up to 60 men. A clothing factory provided employment for 18 women in the early 1940’s.
In 1947 the population of Boort was recorded as 711. The population grew steadily until 1976 when it reached 878. It then levelled out and started to fall until 1986. Since 1986 the population has remained fairly stable at just over 800.
Whilst population remained reasonably constant since1986, a major change was taking place in the economy. Profitability had declined significantly in much of the districts agricultural industries and farmers' terms of trade fell severely. During this period, quality of life was an important social goal and rural communities strove to keep up. In Boort a new Secondary College was built, a new Hospital, a new Hostel for the Aged, new sporting facilities, a new medical and Dental Clinic. Parks and gardens and streetscapes were improved.
On a superficial level the town looked to be progressing well. Outstanding services and amenities were available, but the district economy, based solely on agriculture was shrinking. Also Governments and big business were rationalizing their community contact points. What was then the State Rivers and Rural Water Corporation closed their Boort office and consolidated in Pyramid Hill. The then Lands Department closed its Boort office and moved staff to Kerang. Westpac Bank closed its branch in Boort. The Ford garage closed, together with several shops in the main street. The local paper, the life-line of any community, closed after many decades of producing “The Boort Standard”. It was very evident to all that what was once a busy thriving town was now in trouble.
The town was still a beautiful and idyllic haven with a strong and growing tourism industry and a very efficient and high producing tomato industry and a lucerne -cubing mill. Whilst these industries were very important and contributed much to the local economy, much of their contribution was seasonal.
The major dilemma facing Boort was that if the town population declined any further it would not have the mass to sustain the excellent services it provides as in Secondary college, hospital, doctor, dentist, veterinary clinic, etc.
The Shire of Gordon recognized the situation facing both Boort and Pyramid Hill, the two towns in the Shire, and sought to stem the decline and to grow the economy. The Shire appointed Development Committees in both towns and they set in place some goals and strategies. In 1989 the Shire visited Donald, a town that had determined it would fight back and seek to survive and grow against the odds. Following the visit to Donald the Shire purchased industrial land in Boort and employed a Facilitator under the then R.E.V. scheme. The Development Committee was successful in attracting an Oaten hay processing company from South Australia to come and set up on the industrial land that had been serviced with the help of the State Government The mill not only provided employment but also increased the agricultural enterprises available to local farmers who wished to grow Oaten hay for the mill.
The Facilitator employed by the Shire, Mr., John Chapman had a vision of changes in land use in the Boort irrigation district from the traditional crops and grazing to high value crops such as vegetables and horticulture, as had happened years before with tomatoes.He saw Boort as the Shepparton of the 21st century.
Tomato production was introduced into the Boort district in the early 1970’s by Mario Brunelli and his son, Kevin. It has grown to be one of our nations premium tomato growing area in both quality and yield, with financial and social benefits flowing to the whole community.
The Boort Water Services committee of Goulburn Murray Irrigation were also concerned that with transferable water rights there was a risk that much of the districts great asset, water, could be transferred out of the region going to areas of high value crops. The Boort district needed to increase the area under high value crops to ensure that water would not be transferred out limiting options for the future. The move from traditional crops and pasture to high value crops require suitable land, available water, new skills, a large financial investment plus courage and determination. The Boort district had the first two requirements- good land and water. New skills can be learned or purchased. Large financial investments needed to be attracted in.
At this time Shire amalgamations took place and Boort Township was dealt a severe blow with the closing of the Shire offices and reduction of staff at the Shire Depot.
The new Shire of Loddon was unconvinced that assisting to grow the district economy was a core part of Local Government responsibilities. However, after constant pressure and a change in personnel, the policy changed and the Loddon Shire adopted a very positive attitude to macro-economic initiatives. The Shire supported this policy with a large financial commitment , and combined with the City of Greater Bendigo, Gannawarra Shire, Goulburn –Murray Water, Lower – Murray Water, D.N.R.E. and Loddon – Murray 2000 Plus to form the Loddon – Murray Agribusiness Initiative. This group subsequently employed an Agricultural Development Officer to work with the Loddon Shire Economic Development Officer, Peter Kulich. The Loddon C.E.O., Craig Neimann has a strong commitment to economic development and to rural communities and was instrumental in the establishment of this iniative.
When facing a fight for what is seen as a fight for survival the question we must ask is this: Is it worth fighting for? Why resist the inevitable? Is this where I want to draw the line in the sand? Up until about two years ago this is where I believe most politicians and bureaucrats were. It is a fact of life small towns are going to die. People don’t mind travelling now for better prices and wider choice. Things don’t stay the same. Don’t live in yesterday’s world. Anyone would be forgiven for feeling I don’t want to burn up all my energy on a lost cause. I think many politicians and bureaucrats felt much the same. We feel sorry for small towns, but their decline is inevitable. We don’t want to get involved in a struggle we can’t win. You can’t stop the tide with a shovel.
Why do we need a town every 50 kilometres with our modern transport?
Some environmentalists would tell us it would be more desirable for us to live in more defined, higher density blocks. Our ecological footprint would be smaller. From a sustainable energy point of view, it would be more efficient. The only justification that I am aware of that compels me to maintain the struggle for small town survival is that these towns are needed to service the industries that surround them. To me that is justification enough. Justification enough to move a nation to change its thinking to start to value and encourage small towns.
Whether the industry is agriculture, tourism, forestry or mining, it is an important part of our nation’s economy and the people who are involved in that industry deserve to have at least some of the services that are available to most other Australians. And these services need to be within their own community, not an hour or two hours drive away!
Whether a town declines or grows it is increasingly evident that much depends on the vision and determination of the leaders in that town, or that community. I think it is hard to separate town from community. I may live 20 kilometres outside the town but it is still my town.
Governments can help and should help more, but the desire to survive and grow must come from within the community.
A study many years ago from the New England University, Armidale concluded that the quality and attitude of the leadership in the town was the dominant factor as to whether that town grew or declined. Whilst outside factors and the local economy have a strong influence on the future of a town, the strength of that town’s desire to survive and manage its own destiny is a major determining factor.
John Croft from the Department of Commerce and Trade, W.A. likens a small town’s economy to a three layered cake with icing on the top. The three layers of the cake are:
1. 1.Natural ecology
2. 2. Social capital
3. 3. Financial capital
Whilst the Government contribution may be only the icing on the cake, it is still very important and can make an appreciable difference to the taste of the cake .
In the past Governments have lacked commitment to small towns, believing their demise is inevitable. During the past two years the political climate has changed, the rural voice is being listened to. Governments appear to be more willing to support rural areas. No one knows how long this situation will remain. The ‘bush’ will not always be the flavour of the month. I believe we need some State and Federal legislation that offers affirmative action, positive discrimination in support of less densely populated areas. Without that we will always be at the mercy of the benevolence of the rest of Australia. We will be limited to ‘the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table’ There will be no icing on the cake, if indeed there is a cake.
An example. A few years ago the Country Fire Authority decided to build a training centre for volunteer and full-time officers of the C.F.A. in North- Central Victoria similar to the training centre at Fiskville near Ballan. Our Development Committee put forward a well-prepared submission for that centre to be in located on the edge of our town. We offered cheap land and local Government financial support. Several small towns such as Boort, Wedderburn, Charlton, Inglewood would have been well situated to provide that facility. Land was available, accommodation was available. In turn the C.F.A. training centre would have made a significant contribution to the economy of any of these small towns. The decision was made to build that facility just out of Bendigo. Bendigo is a growing city. It did not need the C.F.A. training centre.
Somethings have to be located in major centres for economic or social reasons but this facility, in my judgement, was not one of them. I believe we need State Government legislation that makes it easier for small centres to attract business opportunities that are suited to their location. The situation could be compared with affirmative action which assists women to be better represented in higher paid jobs and in parliament.
The effort to attract capital to Boort, pursued strongly by the Loddon Shire, has been very successful to the point where all the available irrigation water is quickly being snapped up. A large vineyard has been established by two N.S.W. investors. Timbercor is establishing what will be Austalia’s biggest Olive grove. Other investors are following this lead and other crops are being investigated. The reality of the size of the investment, to date over $60 million, is starting to flow through the community and the changes our town will experience over the next few years are being anticipated both with unbelief and excitement.
It is now evident Boort has an exciting future. The assets of good soils and low cost irrigation water have attracted new investments and new enterprises. These new enterprises have given Boort a wide diversity in agricultural and horticultural production.
The challenges now facing Boort are to attract value adding processing industries to capitalize on the investment in production now under way, and secondly, to upgrade the infrastructure including town sewerage so as to house and service the increase in employment that is growing rapidly.
Country towns do have a future. They are a vital link in the rural economy. They are the social heart-beat for rural families.