An Autobiographical Account
(This article, provided by Bob Hagerstrom of Kingscote, South Australia, to the Agriculture History Project in February 2005 was edited lightly and re-set by Bernard O’Neil for the website on 7 March 2005.)
I had an auspicious entry into the real world of the Department of Agriculture after spending several weeks in a pickle factory, making vinegar and screwing the tops on to pickled onion and gherkin jars. I, rightly or wrongly, believed that I was destined for better things! I had applied for a permanent job, but did not realise that all appointments had to be approved by the Executive Council. I rang the Department for Bob Herriot, the only name I could remember, and said, in effect, ‘Do you want me or not?’. He must have been taken aback by my effrontery, but told me to come in on Monday, and he would see what was available.
I began work in April 1956 in the Fruit Fly section, spraying DDT from a high-pressure unit on to fruit trees within the square mile (2.6 km2) of the City of Adelaide. It was only after several months that I found out that Herriot was the Deputy Director of Agriculture: we had a good working relationship for many years! In June that year I was appointed as a Soil Conservation Field Officer, based in Jamestown, working with Peter Barrow, Bill Matheson, Gavin Young and, later, John Potter (Soils). I was trained to design and survey erosion control structures, such as graded banks, contour furrows, and help with soil surveys in the district. And I was introduced to the Agricultural Bureau, meeting many farmers, and many other disciplines within the Department, such as Agronomy, Livestock, and Dairy. I enjoyed discussions with the likes of Jack McAuliffe, Keith Sinclair and Wilf Bowen over the next 3 years.
In 1959 I was promoted to Project Officer and moved to Cleve, working again with Gavin Young. Ian Brooker and I had one memorable job inspecting 600 000 acres (242 800 ha) of virgin scrub to reserve the areas of erosion potential, in other words, the sandhills, from being cleared. Reg French was conducting his research work in the district and I was a very interested helper.
Then in 1960 another transfer, promotion and different type of work was offered, as Barley Project Officer, working with the likes of Peter Barrow once again, John Doulette and Glyn Webber. We were charged with doing the research work to introduce new and improved varieties of barleys from around the world, and the Plant Breeders at the Waite Institute. We travelled mainly to Yorke Peninsula, but also to the Upper South East, the Lower North and the Mallee, laying out research trial plots on farms, then harvesting them with the farmer's equipment. We brought back the small samples to the laboratory where they were analysed, and yields and quality were compared. We were co-opted to the SA Barley Classification Committee, where we assessed every barley sample from farmers around the State, and gave them a grading.
It was exciting yet rewarding work, and we worked with and met many of the doyens of South Australian agriculture, both professionals and farmers. Then my big break came when several officers left the Department to join the Development Bank. I was appointed as the Agricultural Adviser to the Lower South East, based in Mt Gambier, with the area extending from the Victorian border north to Frances, west to the coast at Mt Benson, and south to Pt MacDonnell. What a mixture of enterprises! There were 3600 farmers in this area. It was, and remains, one of South Australia’s prime agricultural regions. Much of it was still being developed from scrub and we worked with both the struggling farmers and those with seemingly unlimited capital. I was fortunate to follow in the footsteps of Ernie Alcock, Frank Pearson and Cecil Grosse as the fourth Agricultural Adviser for that area. Peter Marrett and George Lines were working both on their own projects and in conjunction with the likes of Newton Tiver and Kel Powrie on the trace element needs of pastures. They evolved a recipe for establishing pastures based on the liberal use of superphosphate and trace elements, notably copper, zinc, cobalt and molybdenum, the so-called ‘scrub mix’. As well, pastures established on acidic soils benefited from periodic applications of agricultural lime and for hay pastures, potash was a necessary additive.
Perennial pastures were based on lucerne, Currie cocksfoot then, later, Porto cocksfoot and Demeter fescue, phalaris and ryegrasses, all under sown with a solid base of subterranean clovers. Obviously, the denser the pasture, the greater the need for quick-acting fertilisers. Some of the production figures were outstanding, especially after several years to build up the organic matter levels in the soils. When that regime increased the soil acidity, then was the time for remedial lime.
Irrigation was in its infancy, and the small seeds industry was just beginning, ably fostered by the likes of David Ragless. I worked with Peter Fairbrother and David Crawford as my Field Officers. Some of the other members of the team were Bob Clare (Stock Inspector), Greg Botting then David Moss (Horticultural Advisers), Eric Pittman and Gilbert Coles (Horticultural Inspectors), Murray Liebelt and Ron Perry (Dairy Section, then at Naracoorte), John Dawes (Weeds Officer), and the various staffs at the Research Centres at Kybybolite and Struan under the direction of Tim Quinlan-Watson and Ron McNeil. Marshall Irving was one of the directors, and regularly visited his staff in the regions. There were many visiting Research Officers who also worked in the area, and they were well received by the farmers either on a one-to-one basis or as guest speakers at the Agricultural Bureau meetings.
At any one time over a year, it was possible that 23 different insects could attack crops or pastures in the district. That was the era of the very effective and dangerous organophosphate insecticides, such as DDT, lindane etc. We still preached responsible use, latterly known as integrated pest management, wherein farmers were encouraged to learn more about the pest’s lifecycles and habits, and try to assess when they were likely to be at their most destructive, and vulnerable, and if they were in sufficient numbers to warrant treatment with the lowest rate of chemical at the most optimum time. We also recommended cultural practices such as cultivation or burning stubbles to control particular insects.
We were inundated with requests to speak at Agricultural Bureau meetings and I recall that in one August I was asked to speak at 27 night meetings. Phone calls to home would begin at 6.30 a.m., and stop about 10 p.m. We were truly Public Servants, with no time in lieu or paid overtime. In fact, I joined the Port MacDonnell Sailing Club to have some family time – there were no mobile phones then!
We were offered the first weekly half-hour live television program from the Mt Gambier station on Monday evenings at 7.30 and I was asked to head the team which comprised the local as well as visiting staff to prepare and present ‘Down To Earth’. With some of the production problems, it lived up to its name!
One of the Department’s detractors was Peter Bennett, who was promoting dolomite and other organic fertilizers and had his own TV program, ‘Four Seasons’. He was a superb TV presenter and showman, with a commanding voice and a silver shovel for soil sampling. One night he invited me to be a guest on his show, and while I was waiting in the wings, he interviewed a man who had brought along a bag of snakes. They were activated by the warmth of the studio arc lights, and accidentally spilled on the set. We had a few hasty commercials whilst they were collected.
One of my first jobs in 1962 was, with Greg Botting, to survey the square mile (640 acres / 259 ha) of Coonawarra and draw up a frost liability map, i.e. identifying the low-lying areas which would be most susceptible to frost. Not all the area had been planted to vines at that stage. Contrast that with the huge areas now!
I attended an in-service training school in Perth in about 1968 and was impressed by the simplicity of their AGDEX filing system for the storage and retrieval of subject-specific information. Eventually it was modified for our SA needs, and each office had a copy. Because of the many requests from farmers for seasonal information, say, about a widespread insect, I evolved the first of what are now known as Fact Sheets. I wrote the main information and recommendations and submitted them to say, an entomologist in Head Office for corrections, additions and production. They were widely adopted and used because they covered all facets and subjects relating to agriculture.
Murray Liebelt (Dairy Adviser), Ron Perry (Dairy Factory Inspector) David Ragless (Small Seeds Officer), John Dawes (Weeds Adviser), Ron McNeil (OIC, Struan Research Station) and Tim Quinlan-Watson (OIC, Kybybolite Research Centre) and the various other staff members completed the teams servicing the needs of the South East farmers. Marshall Irving was one of the directors we worked with. Most of the visiting Research Officers were well received by the farmers in this era of massive land and enterprise development. The Upper South East, including the AMP Land Development Scheme, was also progressing, aided by the previous and current research work by people such as Newton Tiver, Kel Powrie and the progressive farmers – Guy Wheal, Ron Badman, Ralph James, the Kentish Brothers, Neville Ferguson, Gerald Shipway, Gordon Cameron and Cliff Cordon. These and many were the backbone of the development and information dissemination in their districts, and we really appreciated working with them.
Annual Agricultural Bureau conferences were well attended, and well organised. Albert Engel was one of the Department’s main Extension Training Officers. I remember using an overhead projector for the first time at a conference in Mt Gambier. I had never seen one before, and was so nervous that my every shake at the machine was magnified many times on the screen.
We had a good liaison with the ABC’s ‘Breakfast Session’ and ‘The Country Hour’. Men like Jim Lindsay and Myles Breen gave selfless and unending service to their organisation. Similarly, the rural newspapers – the Mt Gambier Border Watch, the Naracoorte Herald and the SE Times at Millicent – went out of their way to help with disseminating our seasonal and timely information. Frankly, we couldn’t have done so much without their involvement.
We were reluctant to leave the Lower South East, but made the decision in early 1970 after eight very rewarding years. We went to Cleve, servicing eastern Eyre Peninsula. The emerging emphasis was on grain production and minimum tillage, using knockdown herbicides. Widespread and prolonged droughts exacerbated many of the soil-related problems. I wrote the first of the District Statements, including statistics and trends on areas cropped, livestock numbers, relating them to soil types and climatic data and potential production levels, and likely problems which may be encountered. Dennis Elliott, Peter King, Richard Wood, Gary MacPhie, Mike Riley and Wendy Harris, the office girl, were some of the District Officers working with the farmers, with the major emphasis on soil-related issues.
In early 1973 I was offered the position of Senior District Agronomist, Kangaroo Island based in Kingscote, together with Bob Clare (Stock Inspector) and Diane Rowsell (office girl). The Parndana Research Centre had begun in the late 1940s with E.D. Carter, Henry Day, Bert Ninnes and Peter Flavel as the OICs, until it closed in 1985. Some of the State’s most rewarding (for farmers) research work on high rainfall pastures came from these people and their staffs. Trace elements, the Parndana Hay mix to combat the effects of Kabatiella, which decimated clover-based hay crops and the release by Philip Beale of Trikkala subterranean clover were some of the highlights of the era.
My role was to offer agronomic and financial advice to those farmers who had their stock mortgage with the Lands Department, acting as their bankers. There were many problems over all the farms and it soon became apparent that my work should not be confined to the farmers in the Soldier Settlement Scheme. Those farmers who made enough money by diversifying into cattle or cropping or making hay from the Parndana Hay mix to feed their stock or put on sufficient fertilisers to boost their pastures were able to survive these times of low commodity prices. I was fortunate to get to know most of the island’s 350 farmers and their farms.
One of the mainland Research Officers working here was Roger Hartley who, from his work on salinity on several farms, formulated an understanding of the pattern of insidious salt build-up when comparing native vegetation with cleared land. That led to many of the soil salinity mitigation projects across the island and all the mainland States.
I was heavily involved in a Supreme Court case where a farmer from Kangaroo Island sued the government for wrongful advice, a stand which the Department vigorously denied. Eventually, after five months in court, the Department won the case in appeal. That case changed the way in which we interacted with farmers, in that we stated that in every case, the advice being offered was based on our assessment of the information displayed or given. That had always been so, but we were mindful of the consequences if we didn’t state that fact – we wouldn’t have deserved to be sued! Even though our advice was free, we were ever mindful of the responsibility that trust entailed, and as with any advice, the client was free to take it or leave it or get other opinions, as he saw fit!
We conducted cereal variety trials and salt management schemes on various farms and these were carried on by my successors, notably Lyn Dohle whom I nominated in 1992 for ‘Young Achiever of the Year’, which she won.
Tony Cradock, who had since moved successfully into private enterprise, was one of my protégés on the Island. We predicted a rosy future for him and he has lived up to that expectation.
In 1988–89 I took two years leave on half pay, expecting to join the Australian Volunteers Abroad as a resident agronomist in Tonga for that time. It didn’t eventuate, so we moved to Alice Springs, where I worked as a landscape gardener then as a night security guard for several months.
In June 1989 I moved to Pt Augusta to conduct a survey into the problems and formulate solutions on 100 properties in the pastoral districts of SA. With Danny Matthews, we collected this information and then wrote it up as an internal report. I wrote the lecture notes and delivered a Farmers Surveying Course at Carrieton in early 1990. We proved it could be done! My time was up and I returned to Kangaroo Island in June 1990.
I was involved in helping to control several locust outbreaks: in Cleve in 1971 and in the Upper North and pastoral areas several times during the 1980s.
A final story. At a function at Arkaroola, I again met Sir Marcus Oliphant and because it was difficult to balance the sandwich plate and cup of tea, I offered to hold one for him. He asked me what I did. When I replied that I worked for the D. of A., he said that several years before, he had opened a field day at a place in the South East with a ‘funny name’. Of course it was Kybybolite (sometimes pronounced ‘Kybibolite’). He said, ‘Yes, that’s it!’. Then he astounded me by recalling the results of the trial work that he had seen that one day so many years before. I had been present and could never have recalled them and in such detail.
I finally retired early from the Department in July 1993 after 37 marvellous years being well paid for doing a job, which I loved.
It was my privilege to work with some of the finest and most sincere people I’ve ever met – both my peers, my bosses and the farmers across SA. We didn’t see ourselves as public servants – we certainly never worked Public Service hours. The extra effort and time were given freely, because we took a pride in our work. We are gradually losing those fine people – Henry Day, Andy Michelmore, Peter Marrett, Cecil Grosse, Frank Pearson, Jack McAuliffe, Bob Clare, Bob Fryar, Gill Williams etc. and, latterly, the best-loved and respected Minister, yes, Minister, of our time – Labor’s Gabe Bywaters. What a gentleman!
Their legacies will live forever. I’m so pleased that the Department has taken the opportunity to compile a history of the coming of age of South Australian agriculture through the eyes and experiences of its officers, mainly men, but also some of the finest women ever in any workforce. And a special salute must go to the partners, usually wives, of the departmental officers who manned the phones and helped run the show when their men were away working.