William Farrer

From Academic Kids

William James Farrer (April 3 1845 - April 16 1906) was a leading Australian agriculturist 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). He was awarded a scholarship to Christ's Hospital, London where he won honours for mathematics. After education at the University of Cambridge, finishing in 1868, he emigrated to Australia in 1870. He did this for health reasons - he had been diagnosed as having consumption. Australia's climate was more suited for his condition, and he had friends at Parramatta, in Sydney, with whom he could stay.

Initially, he lived with his friends but then moved to the country. After working as a tutor on George Campbell's sheep station at Duntroon, New South Wales (now part of Canberra), 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 he 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 rust. Accordingly, he chose to start developing wheat strains that were immune to this malady. 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.

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

Success in developing a rust-resistant strain greeted him in 1900, when a satisfactory series of rust-resistant 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.

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 aftermath

He 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.

There was a long delay in orgaising a memorial for Farrer. A statue of him was erected in Queanbeyan by the Federal government in 1935, and another at Lambrigg in 1938.

Since then , a Canberra suburb and 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 provided specialist agricultural education.

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