William James Farrer

(1845—1906) wheat breeder

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(1845–1906), often called ‘the father of the Australian wheat industry’, was born of yeoman stock in the English Lakes District. Farrer excelled at mathematics as a young man and graduated from Cambridge University in 1868. He began studying medicine, but migrated to Australia in 1870 after contracting tuberculosis. He gained ‘colonial experience’ while tutoring at George Campbell's farm at Duntroon, NSW. The backwardness of Australian pastoral and agricultural science was observed by in his paper, Grass, and Sheep Farming (1873), which went largely unnoticed. He moved around NSW as a surveyor from 1875 until 1886, when he acquired a small property on the Murrumbidgee River near the present site of Canberra. Here, at the farm he named Lambrigg after his mother's birthplace, Farrer built a laboratory. On three acres he laid out wheat-breeding plots, and devoted the rest of his life to selection and cross-breeding experiments. Out of hundreds of painstaking crosses each season, Farrer produced over two dozen commercially cultivated wheats and 180 parent breeds. Contrary to popular belief, his famous Federation variety, developed from 1894 to 1901, was not especially resistant to rust fungus or bunt infection, but it escaped rust because it was an early maturing type. The Federation strain was high-yielding and so drought-resistant that it enabled a vast inland extension of the wheat belt. It was the leading wheat strain in Australia 1910–25, and its russet brown ears changed the colour of harvest landscapes from gold to bronze. The man once called a ‘woolly-headed crank’ by local farmers was portrayed on the Australian $2 note in 1966. wrote his biography, William James Farrer (1949).

From The Oxford Companion to Australian History in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Australasian and Pacific History.

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