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Despite the great expansion in mining and manufacturing after 1940, the prosperity of much of the country continues to reflect the historical importance of livestock raising and crop farming. Even in the late 1950s agricultural products accounted for some 80 percent of the value of Australia’s exports. This proportion declined markedly thereafter, principally because of the rapid diversification of the national economy. Unlike most of its closest international competitors, Australian agriculture does not rely on government subsidies and protection.
The livestock industry was established in the early days of settlement, when the first Spanish merino sheep were introduced from South Africa. The industry was a significant factor in Australian economic and historical development. The relentless decline since the 1970s has generally been in line with international trends. Nonetheless, Australia remains the world’s largest wool producer and exporter, particularly of fine merino types. Australia usually produces more than 25 percent of the world’s yearly output of wool. Income derived from wool exports has been eclipsed, however, by several other agricultural and nonagricultural products. In 2006 the annual production of wool was 519,660 metric tons. About half the country’s wool is produced in New South Wales and Western Australia.
In many areas, infestation by rabbits has hampered livestock grazing. Although rabbits accompanied the First Fleet that arrived in Australia in 1788, their first significant arrival occurred in 1859 at the behest of a landowner, Thomas Austin. The shipment of two dozen wild rabbits was released on his property near Geelong, Victoria. Within three years the rabbits had assumed the proportions of a potential pest. Subsequently, the rabbit population was estimated to have reached some 500 million, or about 50 times the human population of Australia. The viral disease myxomatosis, which attacks rabbits, was introduced as part of an eradication program in the early 1950s; except for in the drier inland areas, it proved a reasonably effective control for decades. The rabbit population increased markedly beginning in the 1980s and again became an economic and environmental threat. Biological control efforts included the release of the rabbit calicivirus in the mid-1990s.
Queensland is the leading cattle-producing state, containing more than 40 percent of the estimated 28.6 million head of cattle in Australia in 2006. The country produces both beef and dairy cattle. Dairying is now mainly concentrated in Victoria and Tasmania.
Although only 6 percent of the total area of Australia is under crop or fodder production, this acreage is of great economic importance. Wheat crops occupy about 50 percent of cultivated acreage, and barley, grain sorghum, oats, rice, maize, and grain lupines occupy about 27 percent. The bulk of the wheat crop is grown in the southeastern and southwestern regions of the country. Production in 2006 was 9.8 million metric tons. Hay and fodder crops also are important. Rice and cotton are grown in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (in New South Wales) and in the Northern Territory. Sugarcane production is mainly confined to the fertile coastal fringe of Queensland, the Ord River Irrigation Area in northwestern Western Australia, and the Richmond River district of northern New South Wales. Some 38.2 million metric tons of sugarcane were produced in 2006. Many types of fruit are grown, including grapes, oranges, apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, and a wide array of tropical fruits, including bananas and pineapples.
Australia has been an important wine producer for many years, and locally produced wines have captured many prestigious international awards. Major wine-producing areas are found in South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, and southwestern Western Australia. The Barossa Valley in South Australia and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales have many well-established vineyards and wineries. Special varieties of grapes are grown, especially in the Murray Valley of Victoria, for the production of raisins.
Many of the fruit-growing and dairying regions of Australia rely heavily on irrigation. Over wide areas, the rising incidence of soil salinization threatens production. Experiments with more adaptive farming practices and biotechnologies—including tree plantations to help stabilize water tables, the introduction of salt-tolerant plants, and the extraction of salt from saline water aquifers—may reduce the impact of salinization and the use of expensive water resources.