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Scholar Profile: 1972 Scholar Guy Wheal, SA

August 2020

1. Please confirm family history and members including children, grandchildren?

I was born at Streaky Bay, SA, in 1933 – the third child but eldest boy. In 1939 my parents walked off their farm after depression and drought – along with 14 other families locally – leaving it to the bank. We were lucky though, as my maternal grandfather (a hotel broker in Adelaide) had a property at Keith which my parents went down to manage. The farm was surrounded by scrub and there was only a sandy track into Keith township (10 miles away) so we were home schooled until I was 11 years old. By then there were enough children in the area that an old van was converted into a school bus, which I had to ride the pony or a push bike 6 miles to meet! Often the pony or a push bike was quicker and more reliable. After school, I had wanted to be a geologist, but there was one choice “back on the farm”!

I met my first wife Alice whilst she was teaching at Keith and over the next few years Jose, Holly, Bridget and Guy arrived. After 18 years we divorced, and I had six years of bachelorhood before marrying Sue and adding our son’s Ian and Mark to my family. 40 years later our family is a wonderful vibrant unit – six children, 12 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren!

2. Please outline a brief version of your business history?

Upon returning to the farm there was still debt even though my parents had sold half the farm to lessen the debt. There was 2,400 acres of which only 500 acres was cleared, the remainder being undeveloped native scrub. This country was found to be deficient in multiple trace elements and major land development was taking place with the objective of creating War Service Blocks for returning soldiers from World War II.

My father had a very conservative, traditional approach to farming, and we clashed. I worked for the neighbours until my father became President of the Stockowners and then I was needed at home as he was away a lot. In 1956, Alice and I moved into a shed on the undeveloped portion of the farm as we had been offered ownership of 800 acres. I bought a baler and started contracting as well as shearing and fencing – anything to gain a cash flow. Three years later my father suddenly died leaving death duties of GBP17,500 – which was nearly as much as the farm was worth. He left my mother and a much younger brother of 16 years. I had to manage the whole farm whilst trying to develop my own section, and all at the same time as the worst drought on record for our area.

I had always been keen to explore new ideas and felt that lucerne was a very underrated fodder plant. Having had a few paddocks sown to lucerne we then had a disastrous drought in 1959 and instead of grazing the lucerne with stock I harvested it for seed. This was liquid gold during a very tough season. In 1967, a good friend who had a rotary head drilling rig and had been drilling all around Australia came down and put down a few trial bore holes. We suddenly had water in huge quantities – each bore capable of pumping 100,000 galons an hour. With our flat sandy country, we had a clay layer approximately eight inches below the surface so we started flood irrigating lucerne and many other seed crops such as Chinese Cabbage, Sunflowers, Hybrid Maize, Japanese Radish and grass seed for seed. The new income allowed the farm to grow and develop. In the late 1970’s, laser levelling was introduced and greatly improved efficiencies of water use and minimised labour. Up until then we had approximately 300 irrigation gates to open and close every 20 days!

The Keith area of SA was very dynamic to farm as many farmers worked together and pooled information.

After my Nuffield Scholarship in 1972, with the assistance of Gordon Steer (A Churchill Fellow) and Coles Supermarkets we set up a modified version of the Charles Assessment System and established Classified Marketing Co-Operative, selling carcases over hooks, instead of just via the auction markets where they guessed weight and quality. There was strong opposition from the stock agents and some very challenging times but is now common practice.

Chemical use was increasing to control harmful insects in the lucerne seed crops due to it being a monoculture – which increased dramatically on the introduction of the various lucerne aphids as well as having a decimating effect on beneficial insects. As many farmers were now irrigating lucerne and other small seed crops it became urgent to alleviate this problem. So a small group of five farmers formed ‘Crop Monitoring Services’ in 1980 and employed an agronomist from Gatton University – resulting in a 50% reduction of chemical use in the first year and a further 25% reduction within the next two years as well as the added bonus of improving yields.

From L-R: Terry Hehir (1994 Sch) Guy Wheal (1972 Sch) and the late Max Jelbart (1991 Sch)

3. How did you hear about Nuffield Farming Scholarships?

I first heard of Nuffield whilst I was involved with SA Advisory Board of Agriculture and met Nuffield Scholars Hon. Bert Kelly (1951), Philip Young AM (1960) and Churchill Fellow Ian Tolley from Renmark.

4. Please confirm your topic and why did you choose this topic?

Farm management and irrigation with brackish water and livestock marketing.

- I wanted to improve the efficiency of farm management and farm design.

- With the Brackish water issue, we were using relatively high saline water (2000+ EC units) and needed to maximise diversity of crop to minimise the long-term detrimental affect of irrigating using saline water.

- Having grown seed and sold it per kilogram with all the necessary specifications of germination and purity, I felt it was imperative that farmers had to be able to obtain true value for their animals – therefore livestock marketing was essential.

5. Can you confirm who was on your state and/or national panel?

My memory is vague as to who was on the panel! I had to pass a SA State selection interview and the top two had to go to Melbourne for a national assessment, along with candidates fro, WA and the NT, from which they selected scholars. The three successful applicants in my year were myself from SA, Harry Perkins AO and Greg Morrell from WA.

6. What questions were you asked and were any particularly memorable?

In the final interview in Melbourne there was a Professor from Melbourne University and I recall us having a great discussion and interaction concerning water repellency in soil impinging on the availability of fertiliser! I cannot remember any other panel member getting a chance to ask a question!

7. What countries did you travel to as part of your study?

Israel, the UK, the USA, Canada and Europe.

8. What dates did you travel and how long were you overseas?

I departed Australia in January 1972 and returned home in September 1972.

I had a chance to study irrigation with brackish water in Israel en route to starting my Nuffield research in the UK so contacted the two WA Scholars – Harry Perkins and Greg Morrell – to see if they would like to join me. They both did and a friendship for life was formed. I was away from Australia for eight months but luckily had a very capable manger looking after the business in my absence. Much of the time was spent in the UK looking at meat marketing, cropping enterprises, agricultural research projects and getting a feel of world events and their impact on agriculture especially for Australia. Subsidies and the EU were a hot topic at the time as the UK was entering into an agreement with Europe. Politicians in Australia were saying that the UK entering into the EU would not affect us, but I was seeing something quite different during my research.

L-R: Damien Smart (2007 Sch), Brendon Smart (1990 Sch), Ian Matheson, Guy Wheal (1972 Sch) and Ryan Smart (2012 Sch) at the 2011 Awards Dinner in Adelaide, SA

9. What were your most memorable travel experiences?

The whole study tour was mind blowing. I had never ever been overseas before. It gave me a totally different perspective of my business. I went from time in Israel and being hosted by the Sheiks in the Negev Desert (which was an unforgettable experience) to vast modern irrigation operations in California. Wherever we visited as a Nuffield Scholar, we were befriended and graciously hosted and gained information not commonly available. Nuffield opened many doors for us all.

10. As a result of your study, what management practices changed in your business?

It didn’t so much change my objectives as it changed my priorities in order to achieve my objectives. So often we see farmers with their heads down working so hard that they cannot see a clear picture of where they are going, or even how to get there!

11. How did you disseminate your study outcomes to the wider industry?

Upon return to Australia I was permently being asked to speak at agricultural meetings, rural youth, conferences – intrastate and interstate, and a total of 40,000 miles in my first year back home! Many new research projects were carried out on the farm and we had regular visits from Adelaide University, Marcus Oldham College and Glenormiston, which I found very stimulating as I had to justify my answers all their questions!

12. Who has had a long-term positive impact on you within the Nuffield family and why?

My most positive impact has been the Nuffield’s I travelled with – Harry Perkins and Greg Morrell. They were both extremely good operators and I could pick up the phone any time and get an honest opinion.

13. Please outline industry/community leadership roles you have served?

- Secretary Treasurer Keith Ag Bureau, then Chairman

- Board Member of United Farmers and Graziers SA

- Chairman of SA Advisory Board of Agriculture

- Inaugural Member of SA Seed Growers Co-Operative

- Founding member and Chairman Classified Marketing

- Member of the South East of SA Research Liaison Committee

- Founding Member and Chairman Crop Monitoring Services

- Member of the Advisory Board of Curriculum Roseworthy Ag College

- Member and President of the National Party of South Australia

- Member of Keith and Beachport Lions Clubs

- Committee Keith Football Club

- Committee and Chairman Keith Golf Club

- Member and Chairman Keith War Memorial Community Centre

14. What were the three major benefits of completing your Nuffield Farming Scholarship?

a) A worldwide perspective of the interaction of agriculture and politics.

b) Worldwide contacts of people whose knowledge and opinion I can draw on at any time.

c) Worldwide family of friends and contacts from whom even our children and grandchildren benefit.

15. Finally, what are your future plans?

Staying alive and enjoying seeing my children and grandchildren’s achievements!

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