Project shines light on abandoned Werribee State research farm

It’s a place where mice were milked for cancer research and 60 radioactive cows were found buried under the ground.

But also where the first developments were made in spreadable butter, flavored yoghurts, powdered milk, cereals, heart valve transplants and IVF.

The location is the state research farm, and the scientific breakthroughs that occurred there in the 20th century have been widely documented.

State Research Farm buildings are shaped like the letter H.(Provided: Monika Schott)

But no effort has been made to record the lives of the people who lived there – until now.

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

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

A permanent link with the community

The research farm was established in 1912 to explore ways to improve agricultural production in Victoria.

It was first used for grain, wheat and grain research and later introduced dairy and livestock research.

Dr. Schott estimates that hundreds of researchers, farm workers and their families were living on the land at any one time in cabins.

But in the 1990s, research on the farm began to run out of steam and houses were demolished.

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

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

She discovered that the State Research Farm had its own cricket team, the Australian Women’s Land Army – the female farm workers who stood in for the men when they went to war – and a vibrant social scene.

A woman in a white coat working in a laboratory.
A woman working at the State Research Farm laboratory.(Provided: Monika Schott)

“You have this beautiful synergy between people because they only have each other.”

A 1960s photo of wooden plank houses on a suburban street with a wide swath of green nature with planted trees.
Cottages at the State Research Farm where the workers and their families lived.(Provided: Monika Schott)

But the research conducted at the farm is closely linked to the lives of those who lived there.

Through interviews, Dr. Schott discovered the connection between early heart valve and embryo research, modern heart surgery, and breakthroughs in IVF.

“I was talking to someone who worked in pig research, and she said there’s so much going on in this pig research [at the farm] that are part of our lives today, such as the use of heart valves in heart surgeries,” she said.

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

A vintage photo of a smiling young woman with her hair tied up, wearing a white blouse and a white print skirt, in the grassy fields.
A young woman in the fields of the State Research Farm.(Provided: Monika Schott)

Push to raise the profile of the truss

Jan Goates lived on the farm from the age of four and remembered the research his father had done as a butter and cheese maker.

“I remember dad bringing home some yoghurt for us and being like, ‘Oh my God, this is so awful,'” Ms Goates said.

“But then they added boysen berries and made it wonderful.”

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

A smiling senior 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 center.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

Ms. Goates left the farm as a teenager but now lives in Werribee and is president of Arts Assist, which provides financial support for arts and cultural projects in the town of Wyndham.

She hopes the new research on the city will lead to the abandoned buildings being transformed into an arts hub.

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

“Our overall vision is to bring together certain stakeholders to ensure the site is preserved and has community use, potentially for markets and artists’ studios,” Ms Goates said.

“We would like to raise its profile.”

But she also hopes the former farmland surrounding the buildings will be turned into something useful for the community.

“The earth remained there, stagnant”, Ms Goats said.

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

Development is stalled

Although the future use of the State Research Farm buildings has not been determined, the Government of Victoria intends to turn the remaining site into an employment area.

According to the East Werribee Employment Area Structure Plan of 2013, the 775 hectare area – the largest undeveloped plot of state government land in metropolitan Melbourne – will be developed into commercial areas, health, learning and business, creating more than 58,000 jobs.

Although Victoria Police, Mercy Hospital, University of Victoria and CSIRO have sites on this land, no neighborhoods have yet been built.

A close up of a machine with hay caught in it, a torn and worn burlap hangs from one of the boards.
The hay remains caught in the machinery of the State Research Farm.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

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

However, $2.8 million has been allocated in this year’s state budget to develop a roadmap for the planned precinct.

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

“The more people we have working locally, it will reduce congestion on the roads.

“I think it’s good planning for a growing suburb.”

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

A Victorian government spokesman said the purpose of 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 compound.”

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

Research on people, a rewarding activity

Dr Schott said she would also like to see the abandoned buildings and surrounding site become something representative of her productive past.

But for now, she said she has a lot of research to do before putting together the farm’s social history.

At 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 plans to write a non-fiction literary book based on the stories of those who lived on the farm.

Two women, one with a stick, walking across a dilapidated farm property with tin sheds.
Dr. Schott and Mrs. Goates worked together to document the history of the farm.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

Although there are still many discoveries to be made, Dr Schott said it has so far been rewarding to talk to the people who live there.

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

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

If you have a connection to the State Research Farm in Werribee, you can contact Dr Monika Schott via email at [email protected]

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