Some of My Experience at the Berri Experimental Orchard

John Steed

Beginning

I began work at Berri as an Orchard Hand towards the end of 1951.  This was a temporary position involving mainly harvest work while my appointment as a Field Officer came through.  I was appointed Field Officer and began work on 14 January 1952.

My first job was to paint a door in the office that connected the home of the Manager to the single room office.

The Manager’s residence was situated on the eastern boundary of the Orchard not far from the river Murray.

The Manager was Oliver E. ‘Son’ Halliday.  He was very small in stature but a great horticulturist with a very good reputation in the district for his sound and practical knowledge.  He came from Queensland originally and went back there after he retired in 1952.  He died at Bundaberg in 1988 aged 99 years and 7 months.

The foreman was Frank Fox and the permanent Orchard Hands Ted Rout, who lived with his family in what were known as ‘The Quarters’ being sometimes used as pickers’ quarters – a large building on the river side of the road that gave entry to the Manager’s residence.  Other Orchard Hands were Vic Teusner, John and Fred Nicolai, Morris Meyer and Mel Lukic.  Numerous other seasonal workers were employed mainly for the grape harvest.  Frank Fox was the longest serving employee at the Berri Orchard, at the time and he kept a daily diary of his activities in his little wooden officer.  One day I was able to look in these diaries and was interested to see what he had been doing on 2 June 1931, the day I was born at Barmera.

In those days nearly everyone came to work on a bike with a haversack of some sort to carry lunch and a thermos of tea or coffee.  My daily ride was about five miles each way.

The Work

Most of the plantings on the property were trial blocks in which most of the operations had to be recorded – particularly harvest weights and/or number.  So a lot of the work involved counting, measuring and recording.  In those days each bag of oranges was weighed, sometimes from individual trees.  We had a tripod and set of scales on which the bag was suspended without being taken off by the picker and the weight minus the tare duly recorded in a field book.  The same applied to grape harvesting where sometimes the number of bunches from each vine was counted and then the weights determined and recorded.  Citrus and grapes were the main crops but there were also figs, apricots, peaches and some almonds.

We also grew some vegetable crops such as asparagus and tomatoes.  It was before the days of the calculators and computers and all of the numbers recorded in the field books had to be tabulated by hand and brain power.  Whenever we had a spare moment we seemed to be adding up row of figures in the field books.

‘Son’ Halliday used to watch Berri play football on Saturday afternoons and he would generally take a couple of field books with him to do some adding up during the intervals.  There was a Massey Harris tractor on the property that was used for furrowing out, cultivating and other cultural operations, mostly driven by Ted Rout or Morris Meyer.

There were also two or three horses stabled on the place and they were mainly used to pull four wheeled trolleys during harvest operations.  John and Fred Neindorf were the main blokes who looked after the horses.  The Department had a dry block northwest of the Orchard not far from the Berri cannery and on the Sturt Highway.  The horses were taken up there for weekends and on Monday mornings I sometimes had the job of bringing the horses back to the Orchard with the block Ute.  With a bit of encouragement they would run across the highway and down a side road to the Orchard straight into the stables.

Ian Bond was appointed Assistant Manager at Berri some time after I began there and it was Ian who taught me to drive in the Old Bedford Ute that belonged to the property.  Later we were allotted an Austin A70 Ute which was a bit of an upgrade, but it had done a lot of miles in Adelaide before we got it.  It used to ‘ping’ a lot and Ian said it needed a valve grind and that we ought to be able to do it on the place.  So we had a go – most of the work being done by the blacksmith’s shop.  This was a bit of an eye opener to me but we got the job done successfully and the vehicle was much better for it.

Ian had his name down for a War Service Settlement block at Loxton having been in the RAAF towards the end of World War II and he took delivery of his first tractor – a Ferguson while he was still working at the Berri Orchard.  He later became a very successful grower at Loxton and after retiring from fruit growing became the block manager at the Loxton Research Centre.

Research Staff

In those days all of the Department of Agriculture research staff in the Horticultural Branch was based in Adelaide and they used to make visits to places like Berri to conduct research projects either on the Orchard or on other properties in the district.  Bryan Coombe was the Viticultural Research Officer and I can remember helping in some of the early work he did to induce setting in Zante currants without having to go through the laborious task of hand cincturing.  The new procedure which was very successfully developed following the research, involved spraying the vines at the correct stage of flowering with a growth substance.  I remember Bryan being meticulous in his work.  Once we were harvesting currants in a trial down at Barmera and he needed a camera to photograph the samples that afternoon. 

He calculated how long it would take him to drive to Berri to get the camera and return in enough time to get the job done, and was able to do all of this successfully.

Bryan later obtained a PhD and eventually became a lecturer in Horticulture at the Waite Institute.  He has an excellent and worldwide reputation as a viticulturist.  Gordon Edwards was the Vegetable Research Officer and conducted several trials at Berri with asparagus and tomatoes.  I can remember planting an asparagus variety trial with him on the Orchard a short time before he was due to start at Davis University in California for his Master’s Degree.  Just before he drove up to Berri he had been inoculated against smallpox and was starting to feel the effects of the toxins in his body.  He began to feel very hot and uncomfortable even though there was quite a strong cold wind blowing.  He persevered doggedly to get the job done but at one stage was so weakened he had to lie down between the banks we had made to plant the asparagus into, and looked really funny lying there in his overalls with his black army beret on.

Gordon went on to successfully obtain his degree and formed a great association with Professor Hanna, from whom he obtained and successfully introduced to Australia for the first time, seed of the Butternut pumpkin.  He did a lot of work to streamline the seed potato industry in this state and eventually joined Bryan Coombe as Lecturer in Horticulture at the Waite Institute.  Between them Bryan and Gordon trained many young horticulturists who have made a name for themselves in the industry.

Max Till was the Irrigation Research Officer after Milton Spurling had been in the job for a while and Peter Trumble the Citrus Research Officer.  We helped in the trial work they did on properties in the district or other Riverland towns from time to time.  Bill Harris was the Stone Fruit Research Officer and he had a peach variety and pruning trial on the Orchard which we helped prune and harvest. Bill later became the Manager at Berri when ‘Son’ Halliday retired in 1952.

Special Jobs

One of the special jobs that I remember well involved using sump oil to control weeds in one of the river flat vine blocks.  This was on heavy soil with lots of difficult to control weeds such as paspalum and couch grass.

With Bill Baskett who used to alternate a bit between working at Berri and Blackwood Experimental Orchards, I used to spray the trial block with a mixture of sump oil and kerosene or sometimes dieseline, about once a month.  The mixture was quite variable and would depend on the consistency of the sump oil which was just waste material from local garages.  We had a small Metters Bantam spray plant with a Villiers motor on the back of a rubber tyred horse drawn trolley.  Blockages were very frequent requiring us to dismantle and clean the spray jets and we used to get covered in black oil in no time.  However, we had a lot of fun.

I don’t think the procedure became the salvation of the weed control problem because better and cleaner herbicides soon came on to the scene.

Bill and I were in the same year at Roseworthy College and we both joined the Department of Agriculture at about the same time.  He was stationed at the Blackwood Experimental Orchard and I was appointed to Berri.  We both became Horticultural Advisers eventually.  After Bill had been Adviser at Loxton for a while he started a Farm Club there which was very successful.  Unfortunately he died in April 1990, when in about his late 50s.

Another special job I remember was checking the drainage outfall from the property.  There were two drains that collected underground seepage water from the river flat block and discharged directly back into the river.  To measure the outfall it was necessary to get down to the river where the pipe emerged and hold a measuring cylinder under the flow recording how long it took to fill.  The time was duly recorded in the field book so that the rate of flow could be calculated.

We also used to man a weather station at the property not far from the office.  This required the observation of maximum and minimum temperatures, dew point, wind speed and direction and type of cloud formation at 9am and 3pm daily.  This information was all entered into a code book and the information phoned through to The Bureau of Meteorology in Adelaide soon after it was taken.  The data was used in weather forecasting – our weather station being the official one for the Riverland.  We were rostered for weekend duties if the Manager was unable to take the observations, however, I think we received extra pay for these special duties.

Another task we performed each morning was to record the evaporation that occurred during previous 24 hours from a black pan evaporimeter.  This device consisted of a large shallow black pan about 1m in diameter and 25mm deep with a level marker on it.  It was supplied with water via a plastic or rubber hose from a sealed tank set well above the level of the water in the pan.  As the water evaporated from the surface of the pan it was gradually replaced with water from the tank.  Each morning the amount of water it took to refill the tank was measured and the result recorded.  These daily figures were summed up on a weekly basis and printed in the local newspaper, the Murray Pioneer.  By applying a conversation factor for the crops they were interested in, growers could estimate the amount of soil moisture used by their crops in order to decide when next to irrigate.  It was the forerunner of the much more sophisticated irrigation scheduling techniques used these days.

From Berri to Blackwood

In June 1953 I transferred from Berri to the Blackwood Experimental Orchard in Coromandel Valley and was therefore not present when the Loxton Research Centre was planned up in the early 60s although there had been a lot of talk about the need for this facility before I left.