FARRER, William James (1845-1906)

FARRER, William James (1845-1906)
wheat breeder
was born near Kendal, Westmoreland, England, on 3 April 1845. His father was a country gentleman who came of a long line of comparatively small landowners known as "statesmen". Educated at Christ's Hospital school, where he showed proficiency in mathematics, Farrer went on to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and graduated B.A. in 1868 as twenty-ninth wrangler in the mathematical tripos. He began to study medicine, but poor health led to his seeking a warmer climate and he went to Australia in 1870. He had intended to settle on the land, and while he was learning something about the country took a position as tutor in the family of George Campbell of Duntroon station near Queanbeyan. The loss of some of his money compelled him to give up his intention of buying land, and in July 1875 he passed the examination for licensed surveyors. He immediately obtained a position with the lands department and for the next 11 years, except for a visit to England in 1878-9, was carrying out surveys in New South Wales. In July 1886 he resigned his position and retired to his home at Lambrigg near Queanbeyan. He had published in 1873 Grass and Sheep-farming A Paper: Speculative and Suggestive dealing largely with the suitability of various soils for grasses, and the more scientific side of sheep-farming. This pamphlet showed the bent of his mind, but he had had little time to follow it up with other investigations. He had noted the prevalence of rust in wheat crops, and he became interested in the problem of producing wheats of good milling quality which would also be rust-resisting. He obtained samples of wheat from various parts of the world and set to work crossing those that appeared to have valuable qualities with the various varieties in use in Australia. The problem of rust-resistance was, however, not the only one. He was convinced that it is more profitable to the farmer to allow his wheat to become ripe before harvesting it, and that it was most important that varieties should be bred that would hold the grain firmly when it is ripe. At conferences of government officials and experts held in Sydney in 1891 and in South Australia in 1892, Farrer contributed valuable papers dealing with the many problems involved. He kept in touch with the New South Wales agricultural department, and in 1898 was appointed wheat experimentalist to the agricultural department at a salary of £350 a year. The smallness of this salary in relation to the value of the work done has sometimes been commented upon, but Farrer was not thinking about salary, and would never have attempted to make money out of his discoveries even if he had not joined the department. He continued experimenting on his own land and at various experimental farms in different districts, and had the usual disappointments inseparable from work of this kind. It was difficult too for some of the people in authority to understand how slowly experimental work proceeds. Farrer found it necessary to point out in the Agricultural Gazette that it takes at least four years to fix a type, that when that was done it had to pass a high standard of milling excellence, and that another three years must pass before there could be a sufficient stock of seed for a fairly wide distribution of it. His own health was uncertain, but he was so engrossed in his work that he would frequently begin it at 6.30 in the morning. He took up another problem, the resistance to bunt or smut-ball in wheat, and was able to produce varieties practically bunt-resistant. He was greatly pleased when the government decided to establish a 200 acre experimental farm near Cowra. He was also much interested in the question of manuring and particularly in the value of green-manuring. His famous variety of wheat, Federation, was fixed about the turn of the century, was made available to farmers in 1902-3, and soon established itself as the most popular variety in Australia. He produced several other varieties that were generally cultivated, but towards the end of his life he was over-taxing his strength. He died of heart disease on 16 April 1906. He married in 1882 Miss de Salis.
Farrer was a man of wide culture and reading, sensitive and somewhat reserved in disposition, but generous and sympathetic. He was a born experimenter, never losing his enthusiasm, untiring in labour, thinking only of the work in hand and never of himself. The value of his work to Australia can hardly be overstated, for though in course of time all his varieties will be superseded by better strains, for many years they added enormously to the value of the wheat crops, and later investigators have owed not a little to his methods of producing new and valuable varieties. His memory has been perpetuated by the Farrer Memorial Trust, which provides Farrer research scholarships for students wishing to do research work in connexion with wheat-growing.
F. B. Guthrie, Department of Agriculture, New South Wales, Science Bulletin, No. 22, William J. Farrer and the Results of his Work; W. S. Campbell, "An Historical Sketch of William Farrer's Work", and G. L. Sutton, "The Realization of the Aims of William J. Farrer, Wheat Breeder", Report, Australasian Association for Advancement of Science, vol. XIII, p. 525; W. S. Campbell, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. XIX, pp. 269-85.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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