The Early History - WJ Farrer's Work

Milling and baking quality in wheat was of little concern to the early pioneers of the wheat industry. But William James Farrer (1845-1906), the surveyor come wheat breeder in 1886, whilst emphasising rust and drought resistance in his crossbreeding work with wheat, also had among his objectives wheat quality and the promotion of durum wheats for macaroni production in the 1890’s .This work intensified when Farrer joined the NSW Department of Agriculture in 1898 and he aimed to produce wheats that would have a higher protein content and better milling and baking quality. Farrer is considered to have been one of the first wheat breeders in the WORLD to breed for milling and baking quality.

Wheat growing in Australia, at that time, was chiefly in the higher rainfall areas with soft floured varieties like the Lammas and Purple Straw predominating. Hence the challenge to produce hard wheats suitable for the hot dry climate of Australia with milling characteristics similar to the hard Canadian Fife types. This would also enable the then known wheat belt to be extended into drier areas.

Together with this objective, Farrer was adamant that millers should adapt their mills to handle such hard wheats. However, millers were reluctant to cooperate choosing to continue with soft wheats with which they were familiar and easier to mill. Likewise bakers resisted modifying baking techniques to use flour from hard wheats and farmers would only grow them if yields were as good as the common soft varieties. Added to these objectives were the likes and dislikes of the discerning public consumer and the reputation Australian wheat had established on the English market as a “filler” for blending with hard Canadian wheats, and perhaps more importantly there was no small test mill to test new varieties.

All these problems required solutions, patience and perseverance, but Farrer insisted that the end result would be worthwhile. A small hand mill was procured, later to be replaced by a larger power driven one which proved invaluable in Farrer selecting and developing wheats of higher flour strength and retaining excellent flour colour. (more loaves were baked from a sack of flour). Jonathon and Comeback were two varieties – forerunners of Fife X Indian hybrids.

Farrer also started using backcrossing for higher baking quality. The variety Florence nearly reached his desired standard for baking quality combined with good yield.

So Farrer really led the way for plant breeders to combine high yield and good baking quality and forty years later we see the release of varieties like Gabo, Kendet, Yalta and Charter. However Farrer’s immediate successors didn’t pay the same attention to baking quality with the release of widely grown varieties such as Free, Gallipoli and Bencubbin, examples of high yielding poor quality wheats. Depletion of soil fertility due to excessive cropping in this era didn’t help.

The F.A.Q. Marketing Era – 1888 - 1957

As overseas trade in wheat developed before the turn of the 20th Century, the need for some marketing standard became essential. Hence a method evolved which became known as the f.a.q. system (Fair Average Quality). It started in South Australia in 1888 and was subsequently adopted in Victoria (1891), NSW (1899) and WA (1905). Although criticised from time to time, the system persisted and became widely recognised for nearly seventy years. Sampling methods were improved from time to time and wheat merchants opposed any departure from this system of marketing. The term “quality” in f.a.q. is a misnomer and is NOT a measure of baking quality, but rather its milling value. “Fair Average Sample” would be a better definition of f.a.q.

The sample on which the f.a.q. is based is actually a good reflection of the bushel weight (now called hectolitre weight) of the South Australian crop in any one season.

South Australian Wheat (like all Australian wheat) was recognised overseas for its ease of milling; could be readily blended, white colour and low moisture content.

The f.a.q. standard was fixed each year in each State by the Chamber of Commerce. Samples were drawn from each delivery point, its size dependent on the quality of grain received at each point. The samples are thoroughly mixed and the official bushel weight of this composite sample determined – it is thus a weighted average. The standard f.a.q. bushel weight for the State for that season was then officially declared, and samples were airmailed to importing countries (in February) – the delay was a weakness (some photographs are available of this procedure) A bushel is a measure of VOLUME – 1 bushel = 8 gallons. (This has now been changed to 1 hectolitre or 100 litres) (thus lbs per bushel has become kilograms per hectolitre). Bushel weight is therefore a measure of density and a good measure of milling value (ie % yield of flour)

Suggestions of a Grading System

This was frequently discussed towards the end of the f.a.q. era. It would need to describe the value of the grain both to the miller and the baker. In addition it needed to assess flour strength (ie strong, medium or weak) as well as retaining milling value as determined by bushel weight. Merchants were not supportive of any grading system as they considered the f.a.q. system to be practical and equitable and hence survived for nearly 70 years. However as a result of successful wheat breeding efforts more and more strong and medium strong class varieties were being released and grown. By the 1950’s 25% of the Australian wheat crop consisted of these varieties. It was considered that a strong white flour class on the basis of variety could be drawn from the crop without prejudice to the f.a.q. class. British buyers were opposed to any change as Australian wheat continued to be used mainly as a “filler” to blend with stronger wheat from Manitoba etc. Hence any change to the f.a.q. system had its opponents. It was considered simple and cheap. The separation of a Hard Wheat Class could be complicated and costly. Visual classing is not possible, hence flour strength would need to be assessed using scientific tests. Also any segregation would incur costs at sidings, in transit, at terminal ports and in holds of overseas ships.

Others argued that the f.a.q. system was adequate when Australia’s exportable surplus was small, but when Australia became one of four major exporting countries, the f.a.q. was outmoded. Looking to the future in the 1950’s, farmers needed encouragement to grow better quality varieties which implies segregation of the stronger wheats and payment according to flour strength. Further, growers should be rewarded for delivering wheat with a higher bushel weight. So the faq system was losing its former significance as the ONLY means of marketing wheat. Not only were strong and medium-strong varieties with yielding capacity available but protein content was rising with improved farming practices, improvement in soil fertility and judicious use of fertilizers. Furthermore, a growing home market and new overseas markets demanded separating the highest quality lines from the standard f.a.q. with due reward to the grower.

The Period 1957 to the Present

Prior to the eventual introduction of a segregation system with the 1967-68 harvest, the following are notable milestones:

  1. 1932 saw the appointment of Allan R Callaghan as Principal at Roseworthy College and a new era in wheat breeding began. He outlined his vision for wheat improvement at Roseworthy. Callaghan was conscious of the poor quality of South Australia’s faq wheat due to widespread growing of Nabawa (ex NSW) and Free Gallipoli (ex Victoria) at the time. He vowed to rectify this with varieties combining high yield with disease resistance and good quality.
  2. 1933 – Jim Breakwell was appointed the first full time wheat breeder at Roseworthy and SA. Working closely with Callaghan, the latter’s vision above was immediately put into practice.
  3. The introduction of the wholemeal fermentation test developed by Pelshenke in Germany in 1930 gave some measure of flour quality in developing lines.
  4. Mark Hutton appointed assistant plant breeder to cope with the ever expanding breeding program.
  5. Through the 1940’s and 1950’s the SA Department of Chemistry became increasingly involved in the quality testing of Roseworthy’s advanced breeding lines – (Farquhar, Acton, Lewis), Faringraph, Extensograph,; protein analysis; baking tests were introduced.
  6. Breakwell releases his first improved quality varieties – Rapier, (1939) Scimitar (1941), Javelin(1942).
  7. Phipps begins wheat breeding at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute  with emphasis on disease resistance followed by the appointment of Pugsley as assistant. The latter is remembered for the use of backcrossing technique and the release of the ‘48 series of wheat varieties.
  8. In 1957, the Department of Agriculture introduced its annual ”Wheat Variety Recommendations in map form with the State divided into zones.
  9. The above recommendations became part of the responsibilities of the South Australian Committee on Wheat Quality set up in 1962. It had representatives from growers, breeders, millers, bakers and the Department of Agriculture.
  10. Wheat research received a boost in funding when the Wheat research Act 1957 was passed and a levy put on all wheat deliveries with funding matched by the Commonwealth Government.

In 1932 when Callaghan introduced baking quality as a major objective in the Roseworthy breeding program Ford was the only medium strong variety being grown to any extent in South Australia but it only represented 4% of the harvest. By 1952 51% of the area sown to wheat in South Australia was medium to strong varieties. Callaghan kept championing the cause of segregating the better quality wheat from the faq class and it finally met with approval and was first used in 1957-58season. The original segregation based purely on variety were SA Hard; SA ASW (Australian Standard White) and SA Soft.

By 1982 we had the following grades:

  • Prime Hard (none in SA)
  • Hard
  • ASW
  • Soft
  • Durum

Wheat Quality – a brief chronology

  • 1800’s –
    • bushel weight varied
    • Clean & white popular
    • Red left a bitter taste in the mouth and needed sugar added 
    • Marshall wanted to establish an experimental mill (see wheat breeding book)
    • Main exports were flour not wheat
  • 1932
    • Standard bushel weight established
  • 1939
    • Australian Wheat Board formed to market the crop
  • 1957
    • FAQ Wheat segregated into hard and soft
    • SA Committee on Wheat Varieties established
  • 1960’s
    • Halberd story – see P54 of “Roseworthy Agricultural College - A Century of Service”, 1983, Edit Jeff Daniels
  • 1970’s 
    • Hard wheats could not be milled successfully with old stone mills (see Dunne’s history) because of the energy needed to drive the mills and the abrasiveness of the grain
  • 1980’s
    • Gluten story – chemical quality and sale quality and scientific background (Shephard)