William Farrer

William Farrer, meanwhile, was taking artificial selection to new levels, using the humble wheat seed. Farrer was a Cambridge University graduate who came out to Australia in 1870 when he was twenty-five. He made his way to Canberra, where he was tutor to the children of prominent land-owner, George Campbell at Duntroon. He moved to Parramatta, where he worked as a surveyor for a time, and then eventually returned to the Queanbeyan district after marrying Nina de Salis, the daughter of the Hon. Leopold Fane De Salis, a prominent landowner and Member of the Legislative Assembly, in 1882. Farrer settled on a farm he called “Lambrigg”, among his in-laws, at Tharwa, near where Canberra is today, and began experiments in growing wheat.

British colonists had been trying to grow wheat in NSW and Victoria since they landed on the continent but without success. The wheat that had been brought to Australia was used to British conditions – endless cold. Australian farmers needed a wheat strain that could take the heat and lots of it. The wheat had to be able to withstand long periods of drought, be able to take humidity without rusting and it had to be ready to harvest early.

“No problem,” said Farrer, and within twenty years of the NSW Department of Agriculture saying “Let there be drought resistant, rust resistant, early maturing, high yielding wheat”, he had created “Federation”, a strain that became the grain of our daily bread for decades.

At the time Farrer was one of many who were experimenting with wheat strains and “Federation” was one of several developed by him and others. However, it was generally recognised that Farrer was one of the first to systematically study the development of wheat strains suited to specific conditions.

By 1905, Farrer’s work on what was by then the NSW Department of Agriculture’s Government Experimental Farm at “Lambrigg”, had become nationally and internationally significant, but was only modestly recognised through the local agricultural shows and in the press. During his early experiments on wheat seeds, he ran advertisements about them in the local paper and they won some prizes at the local shows. Farrer’s later work was mostly published in scientific journals and the major metropolitan papers, with little reportage in the local Queanbeyan press…

…Farrer died in 1906 at the age of sixty, well recognised for his work and breeders and farmers then boasted prolifically of being able to supply the strains developed by the now celebrated Mr Farrer. On Wednesday, 18 April, 1906, Farrer was buried on “Lambrigg”, but within a few years, Australia was reaping the harvest of his research. The best known of his strains, “Federation”, was being widely used, but more importantly, his work opened the doors on research methods that, following on MacArthur’s wool-bearing lode, firmly “planted” Australia’s agricultural industry at the forefront, making the country not only largely self-sufficient in its cereal needs, but with the increased yields, securing it as one of the biggest exporters of wheat in the world…