Some times you forget the great men and women your've met

Submitted: Monday, Feb 11, 2008 at 19:37
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Bit of back ground first. I met Bert Farquhar in the 80's trying to sell him fuel and oil. Our discussion was on the roadside while Bert ate his cut lunch out of a beat up Kingwood station wagon during a cattle muster.

It was strongly rumoured at the time, that Bert walked up to Teller ( not the manager) in the Campbell Town bank and asked for a $10m loan to buy Rushy Lagoon Station on the North East tip of Tasmanian. Old Bert eventually got his way, and I was invited out to the property.

Bert was one of nature's gentlemen, but when it came to business.....

The following is a web based report that triggered this post and brought back a lot of memories for me. Read on:

Bert Farquhar succeeded where others floundered; he turned back the tides to farm coastal river flats, and converted a World War II food dehydration factory into a profitable food processor.

Bert was the great nephew of the first white boy born in Tasmania's northeast. He started his life in 1918 at Scottsdale in the heart of the northeast, at the end of the first World War.

The dull childhood backdrop of the great depression was coloured by time spent in mining camps. With his miner father, the five-year-old Bert first visited the rich and remote Adamsfield camp. He witnessed rough justice dispensed by the vigilantes of Adamsfield, a group that maintained law and order for the thousand men and six women in the isolated mining town.

"Reason was the first casualty in the fever caused by osmiridium, an ore which is heavier and more valuable than gold," Bert recalls.

"One night they decided they were going to drop someone over The Thumbs, a thousand-foot cliff, for stealing a shovel and pan. Only when someone showed up and asked who'd witnessed the theft did we discover that no-one had any evidence.

"It showed me how unreliable circumstantial evidence can be. It nearly cost a life."

As a result, Bert Farquhar decided to work solely from the facts and think for himself. The decision set him on a fresh course solving problems and pursuing opportunities throughout life. It was a course that paid handsome dividends.

By the time he was nine, Bert had saved for and purchased his first bar of osmiridium. He sent it to England and sold it for twice what he'd paid. He was able to replicate that formula over the next 60 years, until he'd built his own grazing kingdom covering a hundred thousand acres across Tasmania's north eastern corner.

The first adult steps were a real test. Potato farming! In 1936 Bert (then seventeen) and a brother borrowed five pounds, pooled it with 50 pounds Bert had made from rabbit skinning, and put their money and energy into leasing land, hiring horses, and setting up in farming.

It wasn't very long before they were amongst the biggest potato growers in the Commonwealth. It was strenuous work, demanding physical fitness as well as strength of character. Racing up and down paddocks carting bags of potatoes on his back, Bert toughened up. Potatoes were a proving ground for Bert Farquhar's next venture, one which everyone said wouldn't work.

Bert had taken a fancy to some land by the sea. The flats at the mouth of the Greater Forester River near Bridport were green fields for vegetable cropping. The soil was good, there was water on hand for irrigation. There was just one snag, but it was a colossal one.

"The government engineers said you couldn't keep the salt tides out of the area and let the fresh water go at the same time. It was an economic impossibility. People had thought about it for a hundred years and everyone, even my mother, said you couldn't do it."

Undaunted, Bert and business partner, Herb Nicholson, bought a few thousand acres. With a series of pipes and a massive floodgate, they built a simple tidal gate that opened automatically with the fresh water pressure on the out-going tide, and closed when the tide turned to come in. This simple system sparked a massive agricultural development and is still in place today. It extended Bert's agricultural empire and influence. Members of both sides of Parliament inspected the project that defied the engineers' pronouncements.

Soon after, Bert's ability to turn back the tides was used against an even more overwhelming force. With the end of World War II, the machinery of conflict was being dismantled. There were fifty-one food dehydration factories in the Commonwealth, but people were sick of dried meat and vegetables. The Scottsdale dehydration plant was marked for closure.

In the end, it was the only one in Australia to survive. Bert tells the story.

"We put on a dinner ourselves, our wives did the cooking and we invited every big bugger we could think of in Australia, the Premier and the chairman of commerce, the Senators and everyone you could think of.

"Well, the meal tasted good, it was very economical, it was easy to do. I said to the Premier 'We want you to run the plant'. He said, 'I'm not going to, but I'll give you ten thousand dollars guaranteed at the bank if you'll run it, come Monday. I said, 'Mr Premier, on behalf of the committee, I'll do that' and sat down. And now of course, it's Simplott's big factory."

Things in the drying, canning and freezing business were tough from day one. The books were written in red ink, not blue. When five Victorian factories went bankrupt in 1952, the accountant advised Bert Farquhar, as managing director, to do likewise. He declined.

Bert's persistence paid off when he obtained 35-thousand cans from a manufacturer, with a promise to pay in monthly instalments. This meant Scottsdale could start canning and trade out of trouble. Ultimately he and other local investors doubled their money in the venture. But initially it was Bert's sheer defiance that united everyone in the dark days.

"It would have been easier to have gone bankrupt, I know, but the people would have lost their money, and I said to them it would be right and I more or less guaranteed it."

For several weeks Bert paid all the wages for one hundred and twenty people from his own private bank account, on overdraft.

Travelling was a way for Bert to acquire ideas: simple ideas like having toilets at every service station. He'd seen this in 1956 in America on the first of several world tours, and he returned to lobby for lavvies in Australia. He won. Better toilet facilities and better hospitals are simple things according to Bert, but high on his list of achievements. Bert's travels also led to big things: irrigated land holdings that set B.A. Farquhar apart as a legend.

Bert's acumen for assessing land for agricultural development was recognised post-war by the deputy Prime Minister, Sir John McEwan.

"He wanted me to come up with a plan to develop ground in the north east and north west of Tasmania, Robins Island and different places. I spent three months surveying 250-thousand acres and I didn't charge him for it, 'cause I found out he was paying for it himself."

The job eventually paid off. First, Bert acquired 70-thousand acres at Wyamby and installed the biggest private gravity-fed irrigation system in Australia. Later, in 1986, Bert bought an adjoining property, 'Rushy Lagoon'. The purchase price of $10.1 million cracked the private property price ceiling for individuals in Australia, by one hundred thousand dollars.

Irrigation was the key to making Rushy Lagoon pay. All the property's previous owners, including British Tobacco and the Cascade Brewery, thought it couldn't be done. Not Bert. With 128 kilometres of channels installed, Rushy Lagoon became a premier sheep and beef breeding concern. Even with eight thousand cattle and fifty thousand sheep there, honesty underpinned the operation.

"I've sold a thousand fat cattle just on a handshake. But probably I shouldn't be espousing that because I lost a quarter of a million on RMI (Richardson's Meats) going bankrupt. If I'd had it in writing, I wouldn't have lost it, but up till that stage we all did it on a handshake and that was it."

Another tenet of Bert's business is progress without treading on toes.

"We can't make progress by ruining the country environmentally, or trampling anyone underfoot economically. Do that and we're not a success at all, it doesn't matter how much money we've made, we're a failure."

Bert pioneered the use of earthworms to build soil fertility. He established the first big private pine plantations in the state, a move which prompted criticism from other farmers.

Bert's vision also included a grand plan to turn the northeast tip of Tasmania into a series of dairies, milking thirty thousand cows. But plans to develop Rushy Lagoon were thwarted by the collapse of the wool market in the late 1980's, and interest rates which spiralled up to eighteen and twenty per cent. Bert revised his plans, which would then have taken thirteen years and thirty million dollars to execute.

"I could see I'd be about ninety-three, just coming into my prime I suppose, but you never know, your wife might want a new hat in the meantime, and you'd be spending all the money on the land. If I'd been younger I think we would have."

When his son, John, drowned while Bert was travelling in China, some of the impetus for taking on such a big enterprise evaporated. Bert Farquhar sold Rushy Lagoon to a consortium of New Zealand and American interests at auction.

These days Bert (aged 83) still runs his business, including interests in magnesite deposits on Tasmania's west cost which he estimates are worth 200 billion dollars. If you want to make a buck, this Rural Legend told me, slip a few bob from your rural reporter's pay packet into magnesite shares.


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Reply By: Willem - Monday, Feb 11, 2008 at 20:13

Monday, Feb 11, 2008 at 20:13
Nice story that, Kim

Yes you are right, Along the way and by pure chance one meets many people who have done great things.

I used to be the Secretary to a Board in the NT which gave out money. Amongst the Members of that Board were Noel Buntine(Road Trains Australia), John Ryan ( Diverse NT interests ) and Gerry Blitner representing Groote Eilandt Abriginal Interests. They were real characters. I must say though that the most easy going fella I ever met was Lord Alastair McAlpine, the man who redeveloped Broome. I did a few jobs for him too. Then there is a mate who I helped get a loan for a struggling business. Today he is a multi Millionaire but is still the same Tony I knew back then. One of his ventures is the original Jumping Crocodile Cruise on the Adelaide River.

If I wrack my brain I could come up with

Me? I was too lacidaisical to make money or do great things. I've just cruised along my whole life enjoying it as it went by..............

AnswerID: 286950

Follow Up By: Off-track - Tuesday, Feb 12, 2008 at 00:11

Tuesday, Feb 12, 2008 at 00:11
Ahh yes, my old man used to drive for Noel Buntine and subsequently his son Dennis, in the 70's when it was Buntine Roadways and Buntine Freightways. Even did a stint in his old black Mack for a bit.

Loved those days.
FollowupID: 552229

Reply By: Member - barry F (NSW) - Tuesday, Feb 12, 2008 at 19:00

Tuesday, Feb 12, 2008 at 19:00
Thanks Kim, that was a great & very informative read. I have read of some his achievements in the past, but did not realise he had contributed so much. Thanks
AnswerID: 287099

Follow Up By: Member - Kim M (VIC) - Tuesday, Feb 12, 2008 at 21:47

Tuesday, Feb 12, 2008 at 21:47

Old Bert was an interesting character and I learned a few lessons from him.

You'd put a proposal to Bert and never get an answer:

"I'll have to give that a bit of thought" he'd say.

The truth was that he was looking at me.....could I be trusted? .

There where a number of other people I came across during my time in Tassie, particularly around the Scottsdale, Longford and Cressy area.

Magnificent old men who taught me a thing or two.

Generally the first meeting went like this......."Ya don't know bleep from clay young fella".

As time went on we formed strong friendships.



FollowupID: 552335

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