A high priority of the South Australian Department of Agriculture was to ensure that plant industries had access to high quality seeds. This was a demanding role because seeds cannot be accessed on external appearances but require complex laboratory testing.
Particular plant cultivars, developed by breeding and selection, have specific characteristics such as growth period, time of flowering, disease resistance or nutritional value. It is therefore very important that improved cultivars are maintained from one generation to the next. Growers also want to be sure that the seed they have purchased for sowing their crops has a satisfactory germination percentage and it is not contaminated with weed seeds or other foreign material. Legislation was introduced to uphold grower’s rights to expect good quality seed.
To capture all of these attributes pure seed production became a specialized enterprise. Production was usually confined to specific properties of land where commercial growers, officers from the Department of Agriculture and plant breeders could work closely together.
Newton Tiver, Chief Agronomist of the Department of Agriculture, in the 1960’s, after special studies in the United States of America, convinced a group of landowners in the South East to specialize in pure seed production and to form their own co-operative. By the early 1970’s the industry was well established and began exporting a range of clover seeds such as Mt Barker and Clare subclover and Shaftal clover. Pasture grasses including Medea perennial rye, Seedmaster and Sirocco phalaris and Currie Cocksfoot were included and also Lucerne. These seeds were exported to virtually all countries around the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East. Later oilseed, field peas and lupins were also exported.
The pure seed industry depended on the Department of Agriculture’s seed certification scheme that was based on international standards. The scheme offered two services, firstly a sophisticated seed testing laboratory that measured seed purity and germination percentages, and secondly, field inspections by qualified officers. These officers established the purity of the crop for harvest and assisted the growers with technical advice. The scheme produced packaged seeds in sealed bags, labeled with all the details of the seed. This enabled the purchaser to be certain that it was the desired cultivar, true to type, with an assured germination percentage and free from weeds.
The Department of Agriculture also operated a registered seed scheme for wheat, barley, oats, pulse and oilseed crops. The scheme provided a continuing source of high quality seed of new cultivars from which farmers could multiply their own seeds.
The seed that was initially bred by qualified plant breeders was multiplied to produce foundation seed at isolated land sites, usually on departmental research farms. The foundation seed was then made available to registered growers for sowing and multiplying. The resulting crop was inspected before harvest for off-type plants, weeds and disease. The seed was then sold or traded commercially.
The Plant Variety Rights Act was introduced by the Federal Government on 1987. By this Act a new plant had to be different from any other plant by botanical characteristics, be stable and reproduce to form. The Act encouraged commercial breeders to take up the challenge and within a decade their profitable marketing of new cultivars, particularly wheat, had captured much of the Department’s role in plant breeding.