Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

History Revisited - Guyra's link to organic farming origins

A DIFFERENT WAY TO GROW: Harold Fletcher White was one of the pioneers of organic farming from his Guyra property
I suspect that most people think of Australian organic farming as a recent development dating to the 1980s.one thread in the growing environmental movements with their interest in sustainability.

Few Australians would know that the world’s first organic farming organisation, the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society, was formed in 1944. Its periodical, the Organic Farming Digest, was the first organics advocacy journal.

If few Australians know of the early history of organic farming, fewer still would know of the New England connection with that early history.

The term organic farming was coined by Lord Northbourne, appearing first in Northbourne’s manifesto on organic farming, Look to the Land, published in London in May 1940. The book reached Australia quite quickly, and was widely and favourably reviewed.

The ideas in the book attracted attention from that linked group of New England farmers and graziers already interested in scientific farming, as well as other Northern causes. .From the beginning, the newly established New England University College had been seen as a vehicle for the advancement and application of agricultural science.

Harold Fletcher White was a key member of the New England group. Known as Bill to his friends and Colonel to everybody else, White was a formal rather stern man of firm views who commanded considerable respect.

Born in 1883, White was part of the first group of pupils at the New England Proprietary School (later The Armidale School). After TAS, he studied arts and engineering at Sydney University for two years, but gave that up to join Pitt Son & Badgery. In 1906 White returned to manage some of the family properties at Guyra.

A member of the 6th Australian Light Horse since 1906, White enlisted in 1914, finishing the War as a lieutenant-colonel. Upon return to Australia, he continued the pasture and stock improvement work that he had begun on Bald Blair.

As part of his work, White experimented with the application of fertiliser to pastures. This gave great initial yields which then diminished despite increased application of fertiliser. White concluded that much farming was soil mining, that healthy food required healthy soil, that monoculture was part of the problem. To his mind, action to increase the humus content in soils was central to sustainable agriculture.

White began to experiment with various techniques that might increase the humus content. This focus on practical experimentation was one of the features of the New England group as a whole.

White was involved with the Australian Organic Farming and Gardening Society from its formation to demise in 1955. Starting with the first and ending with the last publication, he contributed twenty articles to its periodical, making him the second most prolific contributor.

In 1953, he joined with Professor C Stanton Hicks to write and publish Life from the Soil setting out his ideas in some detail. The book was a considerable success, going through three editions.

The Society was forced to close in 1955 because of lack of support. However, by then it had popularised the concept of organic farming. The ideas that it and White espoused remain relevant today.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 9 December 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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