So I guess we have all heard of the expression, “riding on the sheep’s back”, when it comes to describing Australia’s economy and prosperity. Wool and gold have always been seen as the two main income earners for our nation but there is another and its significance cannot be understated. It is of course wheat. Maybe we should have been singing, “Bringing In The Sheaves”!
More foods are made with wheat the world over than with any other cereal grain. A family of four could live ten years off the bread produced by one acre of wheat.
Australia’s first wheat was grown at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney. The first farmer of wheat was a convict by the name of James Ruse. Soon others started growing wheat too. Wheat was first shipped to England from Australia in 1883. From pasta to bread to biscuits to everything else made with flour, wheat is it and there was one person in Australia whose contribution to the development of wheat-growing earned him his rightful place on the Two Dollars banknote.
William James Farrer was born in England in 1845 and was a notable agronomist and plant breeder. He emigrated to Australia in 1870 due to his health as he suffered from tuberculosis and the drier climate was far more agreeable to his well-being.
He was a studious man and acted as a regional tutor around New South Wales. He later turned his hand to surveying and after qualifying he worked for the Department of Lands in the wheat-growing districts for 11 years.
At one point he tried to begin a vineyard but it failed due to the poor soils where it was located so he turned his attentions towards bettering the cultivation of wheat. The one goal that he had set himself was to produce a better loaf of bread than that which was available at the time.
After some initial trials he recognised that wheat leaf rust disease was affecting both the yield and the quality of the crops and applying his scientific knowledge to the task he started to develop hybrids using cross-pollination to develop a rust immune strain. These experiments continued for over 20 years and all his work was careful recorded in notebooks.
Along the way he created strains with names such as, Professor Blount’s Hybrid No.38, Gypsum, Purple Straw, Etawah and Canadian Fife. Developing a rust resistant, high yielding strain was the his main aim and in 1900 he was rewarded for all the years of hard work with the success of a strain that was to be called, “The Federation Strain”. It was released for general use around the country in 1903 and this in turn saw a three fold increase in crop yields over the next 20 years. It also guaranteed Australia’s future as a major wheat exporter.
Sadly Farrer himself never got to see the fruits of his labors as he died from a massive heart attack in 1906 but his legacy lived on. The Farrer Memorial Trust which provides scholarships for agricultural studies was established in his memory in 1911. The trust also began awarding medals for contributions to agricultural sciences in 1936 and the very first recipient of this was the then Prime Minister of Australia, Joseph Lyons.
Today, wheat is Australia’s most important grain crop. Over the five-year period to 1995, wheat exports averaged about $2.3 billion. By world standards, Australia is a relatively small producer of wheat, accounting for only 3% of annual world production. However, about 80% of our wheat is exported. This means that Australia contributes between and 8 and 15% of world trade, making it the fourth largest exporter after the United States, Canada and the European Union.
Australia has long prospered from the endeavours of this man. The time and effort, the diligent science and the thoughtful meticulous insight he provided, were invaluable to our growth as a nation.
We have a great deal to thank James Farrer for and this goes all the way to that slice of toast or crumpets for your Vegemite or jam in the morning. Let us all raise our morning cuppa and make a toast to the toast maker supreme himself! Alternatively, you could drop in to the pub in the picture here below and raise a ice cold glass of beer to his memory.