The countryside around the Kiama region is synonymous with dairy farming although there were many other farming endeavors before dairying became the main agricultural enterprise. In the early years of settlement there was plenty of experimentation in a variety of farming and industry.
Sugar cane was seen to be a very profitable crop in the north, however there was much discussion about it’s viability in this region. Two local land owners, John Colley (property at Longbrush) and James Robb (Riversdale) planted and harvested sugar cane over a few years, but it was never taken up by many local farmers. Wheat was also seen as an agricultural staple by 1859, and the municipality had several flour mills to process the crop.
However, the rainfall experienced in this region meant that rust (plant disease) was a continual problem. Regular failures of the wheat crop meant landowners and residents of Kiama, Gerringong, and Jamberoo were very keen to look at other ways to develop the local economy and find successful enterprises. Honey, cabbages, oats, rye and corn were all produced here with varying levels of success and there were regular exports (on the steam ships) of eggs, bacon, wheat, poultry and butter but not a staple agricultural income.
Towards the end of the 1860’s there was a proposal to export butter. In 1869 a shipment of Kiama butter was sent to the East Indies. The butter apparently arrived in good condition, although not so desirable for the table; it was highly salted for preservation purposes and packed in the bladders of sheep. Despite attempts to export local butter to England, the butter did not arrive in a good condition and could not compete with butter from France, Sweden and Germany. Local farmers needed to work on their methods of production and shipping to compete in the world butter markets.
The prospects of dairying looked up with the visits by two prominent men in the field. In 1881, Mr. Harding came to the Kiama region with the intent of setting up a cheese factory. Mr Harding was instrumental in establishing better dairy practice in the region by introducing good dairy design principles, more careful supervision of the cows in the yards, washing teats prior to milking and cooling the milk. The resulting Jerrara Cheese Factory won a bronze medal at the prestigious Amsterdam Exhibition in 1882. Mr. Pateson of the NSW Fresh Food and Ice Company visited Kiama in 1883 and found a keen group of farmers ready to embrace both the new technology and the idea of forming a dairy co-operative, where the profits where given to the producers.
Kiama opened the first co-operative butter and cheese factory in Australia (1884), the Kiama Pioneer Butter Factory. Only one month after the Kiama factory opened came the Jamberoo Dairy factory. Omega launched a butter factory in 1886 and Gerringong in 1888. The Kiama Co-ops were years ahead of the times with the invention of a butter box for transportation, use of refrigeration and pastuerisation and opening up the export market for Australian butter, by proving that Australian butter could compete with European producers. Today farmers are again looking for new enterprises and ways of farming for the benefit of the local economy and to preserve the very farm lands that are associated with our beautiful Kiama.