Project shines light on abandoned Werribee State Research Farm

It is a place where mice were milked for cancer research and 60 radioactive cows were found buried beneath the soil.

But also where early developments were made in spreadable butter, flavoured yoghurt, powdered milk, cereal, heart valve transplants and IVF.

The location is the State Research Farm, and the scientific breakthroughs that happened there in the 20th century have largely been documented.

The State Research Farm buildings are in a shape of the letter H.(Supplied: Monika Schott)

But there has¬†been no effort to record the lives of people who lived there ‚ÄĒ until now.

Researcher Monika Schott has embarked on a project to interview the people who lived on the farm and¬†document its social history to discover “what made the place tick”.

“People are so carried away with all the research and the breakthroughs, they forget about the people,” she said.

A woman wearing glasses and a yellow checked coat in a shed slightly smiling at the camera. Monika Schott is documenting the social history of the State Research Farm.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

An abiding link to the community

The research farm was set up in 1912 to explore ways of improving agricultural production in Victoria.

It was initially used for cereal, wheat and grain investigation and later introduced dairy and livestock research.

Dr Schott estimates about 200 researchers, farm workers and their families lived on the land at any one time in cottages.

But in the 80s, research at the farm began to wind down, and homes were demolished.

A black and white photo of sheds, with vintage cars parked in front. The State Research Farm was a research hub in the 20th century.(Supplied: Monika Schott)

Dr Schott said she became interested in the people who lived on the farm through her research and subsequent book about the community who lived at the Werribee Sewage Plant.

She discovered the¬†State Research Farm had its own cricket team, a Women’s Land Army ‚Äď the female farm workers who replaced the men when they went to war ‚Äď and a vibrant social scene.

And despite being less than 2 kilometres from Werribee, the people who lived there had very little to do with the suburb.

A woman wearing a white coat working in a lab. A woman working at the State Research Farm lab.(Supplied: Monika Schott)

“People learned to rely on one another, and they became very tight,” Dr Schott said.

“You’ve got this beautiful synergy between people because they’ve only got each other.”

A photo from the 60s of weatherboard houses in a suburban street with a wide green nature strip with trees planted. Cottages at the State Research Farm where workers and their families lived.(Supplied: Monika Schott)

But the research conducted at the farm is entwined with the lives of those who lived there. 

Through interviews, Dr Schott has found the connection between early heart valve and embryo research with modern-day heart surgery and IVF breakthroughs.

“I was talking to someone who worked in pig research, and she said there’s so many things from that pig research [at the farm] that are in our lives today, such as the use of heart valves when they do heart surgery,” she said.

“Other people have been talking about how there are links between the artificial insemination research and IVF technology.”

A vintage photo of a smiling young woman, hair tied up, wears a white blouse and white printed skirt, in grassy fields. A young woman in the fields at the State Research Farm.(Supplied: Monika Schott)

Push to raise the farm’s profile

Jan Goates lived on the farm from the age of four and remembered the research her dad did as a butter and cheese maker.

“I remember Dad bringing us home some yoghurt¬†and thinking, ‘Oh my God, that is so awful’,” Ms Goates said.

“But then they added boysenberries and made it wonderful.”¬†

She described the research farm as a satellite town where they lived a simple farm life, had fancy dress nights in the shearing shed, and welcomed visitors from afar for field days.

An older smiling woman inside a tin shed, wears a blue and black printed shirt with a hoodie over her head. Jan Goates hopes the abandoned building will be turned into a community centre.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

Ms Goates left the farm as a teenager but now lives in Werribee and is the chair of Arts Assist, which offers funding support for arts and culture projects in the City of Wyndham.

She hopes the new research into the town will lead to the abandoned buildings being turned into an arts hub.

A photo of a large shed with a dead tree lying outside. The State Research Farm shearing shed.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

“Our bigger picture is to bring some stakeholders together to make sure the site is preserved and has community use, potentially for markets and artist workshops,” Ms Goates said.

“We’d like to raise the profile of it.”

But she also hopes the former farmland surrounding the buildings is developed into something of use to the community.

“The land has been sitting there stagnant,” Ms Goates said.

Old wooden machinery with a wheel and a belt wrapped around it. The research farm’s machinery is largely preserved.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

Development has stalled

While future use of the State Research Farm buildings has not been determined, the Victorian government has plans to develop the remaining site into an employment precinct.

According to the East Werribee Employment Precinct Structure Plan from 2013, the 775-hectare area ‚ÄĒ the largest parcel of undeveloped state government land in metropolitan Melbourne ‚ÄĒ¬†will be developed into commercial, health, learning and business precincts, creating more than 58,000 jobs.

While Victoria Police, Mercy Hospital, Victoria University and the CSIRO have sites on this land, a precinct has not yet been built.

A close-up of a machine with hay caught in it, a torn and used hessian cloth hangs from one of the planks. Hay remains caught in the machinery at the State Research Farm.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

The Victorian government chose Chinese-backed Australia Education City to build a $31 billion education precinct on the land in 2015, but that deal was scrapped in 2019.  

However, $2.8 million was allocated in this year’s state budget to develop a road map¬†for the planned precinct.

Wyndham Mayor Peter Maynard said the development of the precinct had been the council’s “number one advocacy priority for some time”.

“There’s not enough local jobs,” he said.

“The more people we have working locally, that’ll reduce congestion on the roads.

“I think it’s good planning for an ever-growing suburb.”

Pastel coloured posters depicting different grains and a picture of a male scientist in an abandoned shed. Wooden posters about grain remain at the State Research Farm.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

A Victorian government spokesperson said the focus for the precinct was job creation.

“We are working closely with local government, businesses and communities in the area as we progress this work on the precinct.”

A pink and green painting of grain on wood. The State Research Farm remains a time capsule, with many features preserved.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

Research into people a rewarding pursuit

Dr Schott said she would also love to see the abandoned buildings and the surrounding site developed into something representative of its productive past.

But for now, she said she has plenty of research to do before she puts together the social history of the farm.

By the end of the year, she hopes to have launched a 10-minute film at a community event.

And Dr Schott said next year, she planned to write a literary non-fiction book based on the stories of those who lived on the farm.

Two women, one with a stick, walking on a rundown farming property with tin sheds. Dr Schott and Ms Goates have been working together to document the history of the farm.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

While there are plenty more discoveries to be made, Dr Schott said it had been so far rewarding speaking to the people who lived there.

“When I spoke to someone who worked with the Women’s Land Army, she started off really tentatively and said, ‘I don’t really know much,”‘ Dr Schott said.

“But two hours later, we’re still talking, and she’s beaming.

“It’s really heartwarming.¬†I’m lucky I get to do this work.”

If you have a connection to the State Research Farm in Werribee, you can contact Dr Monika Schott via email at soup@netspace.net.au.

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Posted 12m ago12 minutes agoSun 10 Jul 2022 at 11:42pm, updated 10m ago10 minutes agoSun 10 Jul 2022 at 11:44pm