The first regular Department of Agriculture presence in the district was provided by a Stock Inspector who used to travel by train from Naracoorte to Bordertown or Keith on market days, stay in the hotel overnight, and return to Naracoorte the following day.
The original office was set up during the 1950s in conjunction with the accelerated land clearance occurring in the post World War 11 period – in particular the AMP Development Scheme. The main thrust of the work was lucerne establishment and built on the discovery of the need for trace elements identified by scientists from the forerunner to CSIRO (Dr Riceman and Dr Powrie). Andrew Michelmore was the first Agronomist and Paul Heap was the first local Stock Inspector. Their office was opposite the Police station. Sometime later a larger office was established next to the current Butcher’s shop.
Peter Marrett replaced Andy Michelmore as agronomist. Peter served for a number of years and was well respected in the local community - particularly as a footballer. Peter was instrumental in fostering the Agricultural Bureau in the Upper South East and in the early 1970s there were branches at Yumali, Coomandook, Coonalpyn, Tintinara, Keith, Willalooka, Lowan Vale, Mundulla, Wolseley and Western Flat. In those days working with the Bureau branches was a key means of spreading messages about new farming practices.
During those years local Department of Agriculture staff were mainly involved with providing extension services in agronomy (crops, pastures and fertilisers) and livestock production (sheep and beef). Irrigated enterprises were also beginning to be developed (lucerne seed, hay and other pasture seeds).
An overview of agricultural production in this period along with the major issues to be dealt with (water repellent sands, soil salinity and weeds) can be accessed at Regional Land Settlement.
The Department of Agriculture staff in conjunction with industry drove the significant increases in wheat, barley and oats production and beef cattle, sheep (for wool and meat) and dairy cattle production. It was also the period of establishment of the district as South Australia's premier small seed production regions.
In 1978 the "new" office was built opposite the Keith Area School.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s three major events occurred that caused significant production losses on local farms. These were the pasture aphid invasions of 1978/79, the flood year of 1981 and the drought years of 1982/3. In response, major technical and community programs were run out of the Keith office.
By the mid 1980s this combination was diagnosed as the trigger mechanism for the salinity problem that had emerged. In turn, this led to what became the Upper South East Flood Management and Drainage scheme. During the 1980s and into the 1990s the Keith office was the main base for the salinity program.
While salinity affected particular lower lying waterlogging prone sandy soils, cropping technologies were providing big increases in production on the heavier elevated soils in the eastern portion of the district. New crop rotations were being developed using alternative pulse crops (faba beans,peas, chickpeas, lentils and vetches) and lupins on the lighter country. Canola was also coming on stream as a third major crop group (oilseeds). Staff from the Keith office worked closely with colleagues from Struan Research Centre and elsewhere in promoting the understanding and expansion of these new crops.
From a livestock perspective the Keith office was a major centre in the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Program (BTEC) for the cattle industry – at one stage employing up to 6 staff.
The collapse of the wool industry in the 1990s severely affected properties in the Upper South East and a number of programs were launched to look at alternative enterprises. The longer term result has been a marked swing to prime lamb production. However at that time a key thrust was the "Property Management Planning" series of workshops attended by many farmers in the region.
In conjunction with TAFE and the SA Farmer's Federation, PIRSA staff from Keith established the first Farm Apprenticeship scheme in the South East and the second only in South Australia.
During the 1980s the theme of "Land Care" was spreading throughout Australia. Today we generally acknowledge this as Natural Resource Management. A number of Land Care, Revegetation, Soil Conservation and NRM staff operated out of Keith conducting projects within the district. This included collaborating on the early clay spreading work being initiated out of Struan. At that time there were no local community structures dealing with NRM matters and staff from Keith (Adrian Barber and Joanne Murphy) set about establishing both the Lacepede-Tatiara and the Coorong and Districts Soil Conservation Boards.
The Keith office also served as a launching pad for staff who represented PIRSA on various overseas missions (Tim Prance to Libya and Barry Bull to Jordan). Read more on these overseas projects.
Providing up-to-date data to the farming community has always been a key focus for staff operating out of Keith, in recognition of the needs for rural and remote communities and the changing information seeking behaviours of clients, the Electronic Information Services project was established by PIRSA in the 1990s incorporating Keith based staff (Bridget Cook and Tammy Creaser). A number of farm software products were developed locally, along with a range of primary industry CD ROMs. The very first PIRSA website was also put on the internet out of the Keith office as a demonstration of the technology for the agency executive.
The Keith District Office was closed in 2010, the result of declining resources available to the agency from Government and external funding sources.
Records show that during the time that the Keith office was open some 93 staff members passed through the doors – all contributing in some way to the advancement of agriculture and natural resource management in the district.
Based on notes prepared by Adrian Barber