Intensive production of high-value or perishable produce has been concentrated on the urban fringes of Melbourne. As the city and its suburbs have grown, agriculture has shifted further and further out. Consequently agricultural establishments have seemingly had little permanence, though many suburbs still retain faint echoes of a farming past.
Melbourne was established as a commercial city servicing a hinterland dominated initially by pastoralism. Its inhabitants intended to be merchants and artisans, not farmers, and especially not subsistence farmers (though John Pascoe Fawkner partly based his claim to be the founder of Melbourne on being the first to plant crops and fruit trees). From the beginning, feeding the city was achieved by imports; there was no need for the first settlers to grow their basic foodstuffs. A pattern was established which continued without interruption - Melbourne was foremost a commercial city which never produced more than a small percentage of its own food supply.
Those who ventured into farming had the enormous advantage that many of the problems of adapting European farming to Australian conditions had already been solved. The initial difficulties with farming experienced at Sydney 50 years earlier were not repeated, while Tasmania was a particularly valuable source of capital, livestock, seed and expertise.
Agriculture in Melbourne has tended to be dominated by specialised or niche products which were usually high-value, perishable and required intensive production methods. These were activities that had to be carried out near to the market and could generate returns to justify the higher cost of farmland at the urban fringe. From the middle of the 19th century Melbourne was the chief centre for market gardens in Victoria, mainly because it was the chief market. Indeed, much of the soil around Melbourne was relatively infertile, but the proximity of so many consumers made it feasible to purchase huge amounts of fertiliser. Strangely, the success of vegetable-growing in Melbourne's sandy soils led Edwin Brady in Australia unlimited (1918) to argue that such an activity could be extended to the sandy regions of Australia's interior.
Other major sectors have been orchards, dairying (particularly for fresh milk), livestock fattening, egg supply and poultry, wholesale and retail nurseries, livestock stud farms, and cut flowers. In contrast, wheat-growing, which required cheap land and did not need to be near its market, disappeared from Melbourne by the 1860s. Wineries and vineyards, widely found in many suburbs in the late 19th century (perhaps more as playthings of the wealthy than as viable enterprises), all but disappeared with rapid urban expansion. Unlike other agricultural activities, winemaking did not reappear on the expanded fringe, probably because of its enormous capital requirements, changes in fashion and a market glut in the late 1890s.
As Melbourne grew, its agricultural fringe was constantly pushed further out, often in bursts corresponding to suburban booms. Farms in Brunswick, Moonee Ponds and Prahran were swallowed up by the gold boom of the 1850s. The new farming fringe, which included Coburg, Hawthorn, Caulfield and Brighton, lasted until the boom of the 1880s. The farmlands of the Yarra Valley, less than 10 km from the city, were the subject of many of the works of Heidelberg School painters in the 1880s and 1890s and provided the location for the film The story of the Kelly Gang (1906).
Despite slower growth, farms in Preston, Murrumbeena, Box Hill and Camberwell were gradually claimed in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the flavour of Melbourne's agricultural fringe in the early 20th century was captured in descriptions of rural walks in Doncaster, Vermont and Diamond Valley in R.H. Croll's On the road in Victoria (1928).
The great postwar boom was at the expense of farms in Doncaster, Waverley, Frankston, Ringwood, Moorabbin and Epping. In the 1980s and 1990s suburbs pushed into areas which had been agricultural for 100 to 150 years, such as Bacchus Marsh, Melton, Sunbury, South Morang, Berwick, Cranbourne and Langwarrin.
Agriculture was not just displaced by housing. The building of the Yan Yean reservoir resumed farms and the reduced flow of the Plenty River ended the use of water-driven flour mills. Regulations designed to reduce disease limited small holdings and allotments in urban areas and stopped the use of human waste as a manure. The very success of agriculture encouraged suburban developments. Rural railways, roads and bridges were converted to commuter use. Swamp drainage and vegetation clearance reduced costs for later developers. The Carrum Swamp was drained to unlock its rich soils, but in the 1970s and 1980s it became the site of a new suburb, Patterson Lakes, with its drainage channel converted for pleasure craft access to Port Phillip Bay.
Farmers on Melbourne's fringe were fully aware that they were but sojourners. No agricultural product was valuable enough to resist the push of the suburbs. Their time was limited; they could plan on farming on the fringe for no more than a generation. However, money made close to the market could finance a bigger and better farm further out. The ideal of the family or yeoman farm, passing from generation to generation, so popular in the 19th century, could not be achieved in Melbourne, but a farming sojourn in Melbourne could help achieve the dream elsewhere in Victoria. An example of this process was James Quinn, grandfather of bushranger Ned Kelly. Arriving in Melbourne in 1841, he rented a few acres at Brunswick. Within a few years he moved to a larger farm at Broad-meadows and in 1849 he had part bought, part leased a 640-acre (256 ha) farm at Wallan, 50 km from Melbourne.
Most of modern Melbourne was sold and farmed before the Land Selection Acts of the 1860s. Its freehold owners were usually keenly aware that its ultimate value lay in housing. Agriculture was a temporary measure, while land speculation matured. Many simply leased the land to farmers and waited.
Reaping the rewards of the urban niche markets required intensive methods. Market gardens, orchards, dairy farms and other speciality ventures were all highly labour-intensive. Economic viability substantially depended on unpaid family labour. Melbourne was a high-wage city and the variety of work on offer meant that agricultural labour was more expensive than in the country. Large landowners found it uneconomic to farm with paid labour. Subdivision into smaller farms for sale, lease or sharefarming was more attractive. Though some wealthy families, such as the Clarkes and Chirnsides, unsuccessfully attempted to establish vast English-style estates and tenantry, most opted for simpler, more flexible and more commercial arrangements.
The rewards arising from intensive agriculture tended to attract certain minority immigrant groups. The quest for economic betterment had led them to seek out a new land with a different culture. Part of the invisible baggage they brought with them was the propensity to seek out new opportunities and to experiment. Often lacking capital, intensive farming offered the best opportunity to accumulate capital. Many came from countries with a strong small-farming culture. In the 19th century Irish, Chinese and German farmers filled the gaps in intensive farming around Melbourne, while English and Scottish migrants looked to the country for larger, less intensive farms. The Chinese were especially active as sharefarmers in market gardening along the Merri Creek, Darebin Creek and in the 'sandbelt' around Moorabbin and Oakleigh. The Germans were widely spread, but particularly apparent in dairying at Westgarthtown near Thomastown (where their distinctive stone farmhouses still remain) and in fruit-growing around Doncaster and Mitcham. In the 20th century intensive farmers were often Southern European and they were especially concentrated along the fertile alluvial flats of the Werribee and Maribyrnong rivers.
In the 19th century Melbourne's farms were typically small and held on lease. Farmers aimed to maximise family labour and minimise wages, often relying on seasonal casual workers. Methods were labour-intensive and the use of machinery limited. Income was supplemented by contracting (especially transport) and sometimes by seasonal work in the country. Many aimed for a wide range of intensive high-value produce - such as vegetables, milk, poultry and fruit. Farmers were mobile, flexible and commercially minded. In the 20th century there was more of a tendency towards specialisation and the use of machinery. Nonetheless, farming around Melbourne remained far more intensive than in country Victoria.