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William Farrer

William James Farrer (3 April 184516 April 1906) was a leading Australian agronomist and wheat breeder.

Farrer is best known for developing the "Federation" breed of wheat, distributed in 1903. His work led to significant increases in the Australian wheat crop for decades to come, and economic prosperity for the wheat industry.

Early years

Farrer was born at Docker, Westmorland in the English north west (now Cumbria), the son of Thomas Farrer, a tenant farmer, and Sarah. He was awarded a scholarship to Christ's Hospital, London where he won a gold and silver medal for mathematics. After education at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where obtained a B.A. in 1868, he emigrated to Australia in 1870. He did this for health reasons - he had been diagnosed as having tuberculosis. Australia's climate was more suited for his condition, and he had friends at Parramatta, in Sydney, with whom he could stay.

Initially, Farrer lived with his friends but then moved to the country, working as a tutor. In 1873 he published Grass and Sheep-farming A Paper: Speculative and Suggestive which dealt with the suitability of various soils for grasses and the scientific side of sheep-farming. After working as a tutor on George Campbell's sheep station at Duntroon, New South Wales (now part of the Australian Capital Territory), he qualified as a surveyor in 1875. Farrer worked for the Department of Lands in wheat growing districts of NSW from 1875–1886. During this period, in 1882, he married Nina de Salis, a member of one of the families that lived in what is now the Australian Capital Territory region.

Lambrigg experiments

In 1886 Farrer bought a property on the Murrumbidgee River, Lambrigg station, near where Canberra now stands. Initially, he tried to grow grape vines on his land. However, these failed because the soil was unsuitable and he chose to try again with wheat.

There had recently been a series of heavy rains that which resulted in the loss of much of the wheat harvest due to Wheat leaf rust. Accordingly, he chose to start developing wheat strains by cross-pollination that were immune to this malady. Initially he used hairpins for the pollination until he could obtain forceps. This went on for the next 20 years, and consisted of long says of planting and developing wheat strains, and noting the results in his notebooks. He used Gregor Mendel's methods in his work. Frederick Bickell Guthrie developed small-scale procedures that emulated a flour-mill and bakehouse; Farrer used these to assess the yield from the wheat strains.

As a side project, Farrer also worked on developing a strain of wheat that could resist bunt or smut-ball, another devastating enemy of wheat. His successes led Farrer to become a wheat experimentalist with the NSW Department of Agriculture in 1898.

Farrer combined varieties such as "Professor Blount's Hybrid No.38, Gypsum", Canadian Fife, Etawah and Purple Straw, aiming to use the advantages of each strain. Success in developing a rust-resistant, high-yielding strain greeted him in 1900, when a satisfactory series of wheat was finally obtained - the Federation strain, named after the imminent Federation of Australia.. He then developed a series of other strains such as Canberra, Firbank, Cleveland and Florence (resistant to flag smut).

These wheat strains led to a major improvement to Australia's wheat industry within a few years. The Federation strain became openly available for farmers in 1903. Between 1900 and 1920, Australia's wheat harvest almost trebled because of this.

Death and legacy

Farrer died at Lambrigg in 1906 from the effects of a heart attack, and was buried on his property at dusk the next day. His grave was at the top of a rocky hill and had to be blasted out using explosives.

In 1911 the Farrer Memorial Trust was establish in his memory initially it providing scholarships for Agricultural studies, in 1936 the trust commenced awarding a medal. The medalist gives an oration on any subject of their choice, the first recipient of the medal was then Prime Minister of Australia and Tasmanian farmer, Joseph Lyons. A statue of Farrer was erected in Queanbeyan by the Federal government in 1935 and another at Lambrigg in 1938.

Since then in Canberra a suburb and the primary school were named after him. With the schools logo wheat and the sports houses being named after his most famous types of wheat. Also an Australian electoral division have been named after him. Farrer was also remembered on the reverse of the Australian two dollar banknote issued in 1966 (now withdrawn). A specialist agricultural high school (Farrer Memorial Agricultural High School, Tamworth NSW) was named in his honour and continues to provide specialist agricultural education.

William Farrer is also remembered in Wagga Wagga with the Farrer Hotel and the Farrer Football League (Australian rules football).

References

Additional sources listed by the "Australian Dictionary of Biography":

A. Russell, William James Farrer, a Biography (Melb, 1949), and for bibliography; E. J. Donath, William Farrer (Melb, 1970); Lone Hand, Sept 1910, p 419; Department of Agriculture (New South Wales), Science Bulletin, 1922, no 22, and for bibliography; RAHSJ, 22 (1936-37), p 406; Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, Journal, 21 (1939), p 208; Records of the Australian Academy of Science, 4 (Nov 1978–Apr 79), no 1, p 7, and for bibliography.

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