William Farrer bred various strains of wheat to resist the common crop disease of rust. After many years of cross-breeding, he developed the Federation strain in 1900, just prior to the Federation of the Australian colonies. It was released to farmers in 1903 and contributed to the trebling of Australia’s wheat harvest over the next 20 years.
William Farrer was born in England in 1845 and migrated to Australia at the age of 25. He was first employed as a tutor at Duntroon in the area that is now Canberra, later qualifying as a surveyor – a profession he pursued until 1886. In the early 1880s, he became interested in improving the strains of wheat used in Australia, an interest that was heightened by a disastrous harvest in 1889 because of rust-affected crops.
In 1890 the first Rust in Wheat Conference was held and Farrer redoubled his efforts to breed rust-resistant strains. During the 1890s he worked with F.B. Guthrie to test his new strains of wheat for flour yield and baking qualities. William Farrer developed his initial experimental crops on his own property in Tharwa, now part of the Australian Capital Territory. The land was a gift from his father-in-law. In 1898 he was appointed as a wheat experimentalist to the Department of Agriculture, with a salary of £350.
Farrer’s first commercially grown wheats, developed from imported varieties, were thought to be ‘hard’ or ‘strong’. The flour millers preferred softer wheats that produced more flour, and there was initial resistance to his varieties. Federation was a hybrid of Farrer’s own ‘hard’ wheat with a softer variety. It became the leading variety of wheat planted throughout Australia from 1910 to 1925 and was largely responsible for trebling Australia’s wheat crop.
A memorial to William Farrer was erected in 1939 beside his grave in what is now part of the Canberra suburb of Tuggeranong. The inscription reads:
This Memorial to William James Farrer – 1845–1906 – overlooking the scene of his labours, was erected by the Commonwealth as a tribute to his national work in the breeding and establishment of improved varieties of Australian wheat.