Scholar Profile: John Lawton, 1963 Scholar
Please confirm family history and members including children, grandchildren? I’ll do my best with this interview but we are talking periods back to the 1950s and I’ll be 90 years old in a couple of weeks. I have a deceased brother called Brian and an existing brother called Peter who is in Berwick in Victoria. I am married with four children – Anne, Jane, Joanna and Richard. I have grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Please outline a brief version of your business history? I initially lived at Myponga, which is 40km from Adelaide, for 40 years. It was a 1,700-acre farm. I went to the local school from grade one to seven over a seven-year period. Then I went through agriculture college at Scotch College for a further five years.
(Scotch College, one of South Australia’s pre-eminent co-educational, independent day and boarding schools. Within the 20 hectares of the college lies a fully functioning agricultural farm, complete with cattle, alpacas, chickens and sheep)
In the final two years I was at Scotch, I was called home to assist with the sheep and shearing. Dad was injured in World War I and needed assistance in the shearing shed and there wasn’t the manpower as it was World War II. We could manage 3,500 sheep through the shearing shed in October 1942 and 1943.
Following Scotch, I spent five years batching independently on this home farm, worked with the fellas who were there and we were strongly associated with wool, cattle, and sheep – fat lambs. Later on, there was an expansion of the farm with the introduction of horses. I would look after and run about 60 horses on the property for the racing and trotting industries, as well as the sheep and cattle. I had nothing to do with training them, but I would look after them, ensure they were safe from wire and that they would behave themselves. There were very few issues or casualties in the four or five years that I did this on the farm. I was associated with this family farm for 40-odd years. The horses were a sideline and not part of the wider overall farm income of sheep, wool and cattle.
I then sold the family farm so my daughters could go to boarding school as there was no local high school. We bought a property a bit closer to Adelaide and kept the majority of the same horses on the new property. I carried out day-to-day activities such as fencing, stock management and fertiliser. I then employed a young girl who was terribly interested in horses and livestock and she took over a lot of the management. She was with us for some years, was competent and did the livestock side.
We then moved to the lower Eyre Peninsula and managed livestock. I continued farming there until recently. I realised I had a problem when I broke my hip last year. Up until that point I was managing the cattle. But I fell and was in hospital for a few months. My son Richard has 1,500 acres of his own and couldn’t manage my farm as well, so we sold the livestock and the farm is on the market. It hasn’t been sold yet but my son is making sure the property is in good condition. I moved into facilities in Port Lincoln but family decided this multi-purpose centre in Dover, Tasmania, was a god option as they had a space available and it’s only a few hundred metres away from where my youngest daughter lives.
How did you hear about Nuffield Farming Scholarships? As I am now in Tasmania, I haven’t got any of the historical books and records with me so it’s hard for me to remember a lot of names. I’m sorry about that. But initially contact was made with Bert Kelly, the first Nuffield Scholar. I also had contact with Alan Hookings (1954 Scholar), Geoffrey Giles (1957 Scholar) and later Philip Young (1960 Scholar). I’d heard them speak and presents at sales and events and I got familiar with Nuffield and the scholarship program. I went for it in 1959 and was unsuccessful and tried again with success in 1962. Back then of course, we went by ship on our scholarship and it would take a month to travel.
Those four scholars, I have great respect for, and their ability as farmers. I was involved in farmer organisations and stock associations and they would come to speak to us as groups. I was quite impressed by them and they convinced me that I’d be interested in doing a scholarship. This opportunity was driven by something I was always interested in, which was public speaking.
Please confirm your topic and why did you choose this topic? Naturally, I came up with a topic that was linked directly to what we were doing on the farm, which was the handling of wool and livestock. I’d always been very involved in shearing at home. We’d produce 70-80 bales of wool, and I was very interested in following up to see what happens to that wool overseas. So on my scholarship I went to wool brokers in the UK who were selling the wool. On one occasion I was at a wool brokers and my wool was on the floor when I was there which was very interesting. The fat lamb industry was also a great interest to me I travelled around Britain going to fat lamb markets and meat markets to watch what was going on, and what methods they were using to produce good fat lambs. Some methods were good and some were bad but I picked up a lot of tips.
Can you confirm who was on your state and/or national selection panels? Unfortunately, I cannot remember anyone at state level, although I remember some panel weren’t agreeable with my approach. At national level there was one fella from Victoria who was very well known from Berwick or Bullock in Victoria. He was one of three or four on the panel.
What questions were you asked and were any particularly memorable? There were lots of questions about my topic and approach. Many of them were chairmen of agricultural groups and organisations. These people would attend meetings I was at and encourage me to get involved with Nuffield. I can’t recall and specific questions.
Which countries did you travel to as part of your study? I went to Britain, travelling through England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. I spent a lot of time in Scotland in the early stages. Some of the conditions up there were aggressive with cold weather and heavy rainfall. I was very interested in their care of their livestock and some of their ideas, but not so much where they kept stock in sheds all the time, which was really rather frightening. I also had a great interest in the curing of hay and silage whilst I travelled. I used to bale up to 10,000 bales hay and so looking at methods of treating this in a satisfactory way to produce quality hay was a great interest to me. I would find myself picking over hay products at sale yards and farms and comparing quality. I learnt a lot about that. I looked at silage as well as another thing, but I didn’t practice it much when I returned as its more associated with the dairy industry.
What dates did you travel and how long were you overseas? I left Australia in mid-February and arrived in Britain about four or five weeks later. I went by ship and the ship broke down at Marseille on the way so we had to take a train from there. So I arrived in Britain in mid- or late March. I returned to Australia in mid-October, travelling back in September. After I did my study in Britain, I went to Europe and travelled in France, Belgium and Germany. It was a holiday but I was still looking at my subjects and activities in agriculture in those countries. There were very strange practices being done in Europe, I was quite shocked at some of them. The way stock was handled. I visited some slaughtering practices – not that this was a big part of my study or much interest – but I thought I should, and I was horrified at some of the ways they treated the livestock.
What were your most memorable travel experiences? I stayed with a host in UK who’s name I am afraid I cannot recall, who was highly regarded in the Nuffield world as a contact for the organisation. He was very well-known and his sons had been overseas on various to Australia on trips as well. He was quite an authoritative person.
As a result of your study, what management practices changed in your business? When I returned, I did some travelling to meetings and organisations who asked me to be involved to speak and discuss what I’d learnt. Some of the British ideas about livestock management were quite different from ours and some weren’t so relative for our climate, but my audience was interested in the practices I saw. I did some changes to my business, especially on fodder conservation.
How did you disseminate your study outcomes to the wider industry? I spoke at meetings for a number of years. It wasn’t a weekly thing but regularly I’d be called in and groups would hold a meeting where I spoke. I guess I had the Nuffield tick on my head so I was included. I was extremely proud to be asked to do this. At school I’d won public speaking competitions so I wasn’t frightened to pass information on and have a good discussion.
Who has had a long-term positive impact on you within the Nuffield family and why? In Australia, I have trouble coming up with names, but I respected a number I met up with, especially the scholars I have already mentioned. I passed on ideas and it was a wonderful way of getting messages circulated. I enjoyed attending meetings with groups of similarly interested people. I recently received an invitation to attend a Nuffield tour in Tasmania on 13 May which had a visit linked to the fishing industry and helped to choose Nuffield Scholars. This is a wonderful way of mixing with people with similar ideas and those interested in learning. I wish I could have attended but I cannot drive anymore.
Please outline industry/community leadership roles you have served. I did a few roles in industry and community. I also tried Parliament but I didn’t get very far for different reasons. You get a label as a Nuffield Scholar and I soon realised it is a very valuable one. I really tried to live by this label and with great honour for being a scholar.
What were the three major benefits of completing your Nuffield Farming Scholarship? Passing on the information of what I’d learnt in the best benefit of what I did. I was involved with radio interviews with the Country Hour and there is an immediate standard put on you if you are a Nuffield Scholar. And being an office bearer in the local organisation and agricultural groups. You are looked at to provide revolutionary ideas. I was critical with some methods used overseas. I recall in Leicester, there was a huge wool centre and some of the ways they would handle the wool was rather shocking. There seemed to be less respect of how to treat the wool. At home, we’d employed a wool classer and we’d shear 500-600 sheep per day. The standards from the guy pressing the wool and the classer were good – they’d make sure it was right. On the sale floor in Britain I was disappointed by obvious mistakes that were being made, such as bales having black wool or fly blown wool included, showing a lack of management of farm.
Finally, what are your future plans? Getting to my 90th birthday in a week or so!
I live in an organised home for people like me. It’s not a huge one but it’s a place I can have conversations and is effective. When I broke my hip, I was told by my doctor that I’d never drive a car again. So sadly, I didn’t have a hope of getting to this Nuffield tour last week as I couldn’t get there and I didn’t know where it was. I’m not mobile. But I would have really liked to attend and meet the scholars. Even at my age, if Nuffield wants me to stand in front and speak about agricultural matters and my Nuffield experience I’d be happy to. I like speaking to enthusiastic, like-minded young people. If ever there is an event near Dover I would like to come if someone could take me.