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Farrer, William James (1845–1906)

by C. W. Wrigley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William James Farrer (1845-1906), by unknown photographer

William James Farrer (1845-1906), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 11336

William James Farrer (1845-1906), wheat breeder, was born on 3 April 1845 at Docker, Westmorland, England, son of Thomas Farrer, tenant farmer, and his wife Sarah, née Brunskill. He gained a scholarship to Christ's Hospital, London, where he won a gold and a silver medal for mathematics. Another scholarship took him to Pembroke College, Cambridge, (B.A., 1868). He began medicine, but soon contracted tuberculosis and migrated to Australia at 25.

Farrer was first a tutor at George Campbell's sheep station, Duntroon (Canberra), New South Wales. Unable to buy a pastoral property as he had planned, because of financial problems, he qualified as a surveyor in July 1875, and until 1886 worked in the Dubbo, Nyngan, Cobar and Cooma districts with the Department of Lands. On 11 September 1882 at St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, he married Nina Henrietta Sophia Fane de Salis, daughter of Leopold de Salis. They were childless.

Farrer's pamphlet, Grass and Sheep Farming … (1873) showed his early thinking on agriculture. But his continuing interest became fixed on wheat-growing, and he concluded that the industry's problems were based on the unsuitability under Australian conditions of the types sown. As early as 1882 he started to formulate specific plans for producing improved wheats. His ideas began with the concept of selecting individual plants which showed superior qualities. But he soon included foreign wheats and the systematic cross-fertilisation of suitable parents prior to selecting promising plants. The possible use of cross-breeding to improve wheat was then only being attempted in Europe and America, and Farrer was forced to rely on overseas correspondence for his information.

In July 1886 he resigned from the Lands Department, settled on Lambrigg on the Murrumbidgee River near where Canberra now stands and intensified his experiments. In 1889, the year of his first crude attempts at cross-breeding, the colonies' crop was one of the worst in Australia's history, and flour-millers had to import wheat. Such was the disaster that an Intercolonial Rust in Wheat Conference was convened in 1890 by the Victorian minister for agriculture—losses due to rust had been estimated to be over £2.5 million. By letter Farrer emphasized his belief that cross-breeding would improve not only resistance to rust, but baking quality of the grain. His concern for the latter as well as for agronomic attributes distinguished Farrer from his contemporaries overseas.

At Lambrigg he devised and improvised, culling suitable introductions, cross-pollinating one to another using hairpins until forceps were available, and producing hundreds of crossbred plants to be further culled and selected. The evaluation of milling and baking quality was beyond his resources, but in 1892 F. B. Guthrie set about devising procedures that reproduced the flour-mill and bakehouse in miniature, providing a quantitative assessment of the yield of flour from the mill and its behaviour on baking. Farrer was able to choose parents and progeny by results rather than by repute or appearance. He worked assiduously throughout the 1890s, although he was not robust and a riding accident in 1878 had left him with one shoulder a little lower than the other and with impaired eyesight.

Until his appointment as wheat experimentalist to the Department of Agriculture in September 1898 at a salary of £350, Farrer, his wife and her father had been living on their own means. At one stage, a wealthy uncle in England offered him the alternative of returning to inherit a fortune there or of being disinherited. He chose to stay, despite being to many people 'a crazy faddist', who wasted time on 'pocket handkerchief wheat plots'. He kept faithful to himself and was convinced of the value of his work.

Farrer made annual visits to the Rust in Wheat Conferences. Guthrie paid tribute to him, 'It was this knowledge of the usefulness of the work he was doing that kept his enthusiasm undiminished to the end. He loved his work … Simple and frugal in his personal habits, he was equally direct and straightforward in his habit of thought, and was incapable of … self-seeking. Of a highly sensitive disposition, he was by nature extremely reserved and reticent towards comparative strangers. Widely read and of broad culture and sympathies, his conversation was always suggestive and invigorating, and it can be quite truly said of him that no one could enjoy an intimate conversation with him without feeling a better man'.

The first successes came from selecting outstanding individuals from introduced wheats. Blount's Lambrigg, the name given by Farrer to one of these, was selected in 1889 from Professor Blount's Hybrid No.38, Gypsum. It was not widely grown but was an important breeding parent. Bobs, the first Farrer wheat to be commercially grown, was in turn directly derived from Blount's Lambrigg. Not only did it yield well, but it also met his high ideals for grain quality, particularly in its superior blending ability. Continuing observation of the range of introduced wheats convinced him that the prospects for disease resistance and drought tolerance lay in the Indian wheats, which largely escaped rust and the hot, dry winds of summer because of their early maturity. On the other hand, Guthrie's studies pointed to the Canadian Fife wheats as the basis of milling and baking quality, but they were late maturing. The answer was to hybridize the two types and to select individuals that combined the advantages of both. In addition, the Fifes offered stiff straw, and the Indian wheats promised shorter straw and an ability to hold the grain in the ear. Early in the 1890s the variety Yandilla came from crossing Improved Fife with Etawah. Comeback (with Improved Fife, Indian G and Indian A in its pedigree) was a further improvement on the grain quality of Bobs, yielding flour 'better than the best imported Manitoba' according to the report of 1914 of the manager of the Adelaide Milling Co.

However, before the turn of the century, the flour-millers preferred the soft Purple Straw types with which they were familiar. But the final Rust in Wheat Conference in Melbourne in 1896 reported that the millers' opposition to the new generation of wheats 'has no legitimate foundation, but arises either from misconception or from conservatism'; in the same year the harvest was poor, and hard wheat from North America of the same quality as that produced by Farrer had to be imported. In altering their machinery and their attitudes to accept the imported grain, the millers saw the advantages that his wheats offered.

Farrer's 'strong' wheats were still being out-yielded in many districts by older types, such as Purple Straw, in seasons when disease was not a problem. He and Guthrie came to realize that more stress was needed on the yield of grain by including as breeding parents the older wheats that had established reputations. Federation, named in 1901, was the product of this combination—the result of crossing the Fife-Indian wheat Yandilla with 14A, a Purple Straw, in 1895. Seed from this cross was planted next year and the last seed in the plot produced a plant noted as 'specially fine with good brown heads and strong straw'. Further selection produced Federation, the Farrer variety that became by far the most widely grown of his wheats. Its rapid spread was 'the result of sheer ability to yield well, despite an unattractive appearance in the field'. Although Federation compromised his idealistic wish never to release any wheat that was not of top grain quality, it did fulfil his aim to produce a wheat with a short, strong straw suited to Australian methods of harvesting. From 1910 to 1925 it was the leading variety for the whole continent.

Farrer named a large number of the more promising of his crossbreds and selections—of the twenty-nine varieties recommended for growing in the various districts of New South Wales in 1914, twenty-two were Farrer wheats. Of greatest importance was the impressive effect that they had on overall production. Farrer-bred wheats were largely responsible for the extension of wheat-growing (a four-fold increase for the State, between 1897 and 1915) into drier or rust-prone districts, while in established areas yields and quality were improved. In addition, because he conducted his introduction of foreign wheats on an exchange basis, many of his varieties spread to other wheat-growing countries where some of them proved to be widely grown and popular in commercial production. His wheats were subsequently replaced by newer varieties, although Florence was still the second leading wheat in Queensland as late as 1938, and their contribution continues to the present day because of their extensive use as parents in the breeding of modern varieties. The famous Waterhouse wheat Gabo, which quickly became popular in the 1950s with farmers facing ruin from losses due to rust, can be seen as an extension of and justification for the Farrer breeding philosophy.

Farrer was not so successful in producing rust-resistant varieties as popular legend credits him. Rather, his varieties were rust escaping, due to their early maturity. However a degree of specific rust resistance, as now understood, was achieved in his wheats Florence and Thew. He was more successful in breeding for bunt resistance, largely because in the case of this seed-borne disease he achieved artificial inoculation. Florence was also resistant to flag smut.

Farrer's contributions extend beyond the provision of new wheats, since his systematic experimentation also added to scientific knowledge. Many years before the rediscovery of Mendelian principles of genetics, Farrer became aware of, and investigated, the heritable nature of disease resistance, of maturity and of grain-quality factors. He also discovered that they segregate independently, but that segregation only occurs in the second and subsequent generations after crossing.

For most of his life Farrer was not so involved in scientific publication, or with scientific societies, as would be a comparable professional scientist. However, a full account of his aims and experimental work is provided in a paper he read before the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in January 1898 (reprinted in the 1898 Agricultural Gazette of N.S.W. 9, 131-168, 241-260). During his term as wheat experimentalist he was a regular contributor to the Agricultural Gazette.

Farrer continued his work until his death, of heart disease, on 16 April 1906. He and his wife (d. 20 February 1929) are buried on the hilltop behind their house at Lambrigg. The grave is now marked with a granite column, erected by the Commonwealth Government and unveiled on 16 January 1939.

A Farrer Memorial fund was opened in Sydney in 1911. Currently it administers the annual award of the Farrer Memorial medal for outstanding service to agricultural science in research, administration and education, and the Farrer Memorial research scholarship, awarded for postgraduate research in agriculture. Australia has remembered Farrer well. In addition to a place on currency and stamps, he is perpetuated in the names of schools, streets, a suburb of Canberra, a flour-mill and several institutions. There is a bronze bust of him at Queanbeyan.

Select Bibliography

  • 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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Citation details

C. W. Wrigley, 'Farrer, William James (1845–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/farrer-william-james-6145/text10549, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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