From Sam Wadham To Blue Gums

An occasional talk to the associates and members

The Navel and Military Club, Melbourne, 31st August 2006

Peter Small[1]

Part 1: Sam Wadham

One of my earliest memories of farming after I left school in 1958, was listening to Professor Sir Samuel Wadham’s weekly broadcasts on the ABC Rural Program, and also reading his articles in the “Stock and Land”.

In those days there were two “giant” communicators from rural academia and science, Sir Samuel Wadham and Sir Ian Clunies-Ross. Clunies-Ross like Wadham was a household name in country Australia. Clunies-Ross seemed to be continually announcing some major scientific breakthrough achieved by CSIRO and Wadham “placed public questions (about rural Australia) in a thoughtful and humane context” (Wadham page 195).

Sam Wadham in September 1926 at the age of 34 became Professor of Agriculture and Dean of the Faculty, The University of Melbourne. Born at Ealing in the UK in October 1891, he studied at Cambridge gaining a First Class honours in Botany and the Darwin Price for “Study of Salt Marsh Vegetation”. In 1915 he enlisted with the Durham Light Infantry, and saw service in Egypt, Palestine and Syria.

After demobilization Wadham became a Junior Demonstrator in Botany at Cambridge, marrying Dorothy Fanny Baylis on the 12th April. 1919. In 1920 he became Senior Demonstrator in Botany a position he held until he gained his Melbourne appointment.

While Wadham was a botanist at Cambridge, on arrival at The University of Melbourne he demonstrated that he could quickly gain new skills “ from ecological botany to agronomy and agricultural practice and from there to economics and rural sociology. His achievement was in intellectual synthesis, exemplified in his four editions of “Land Utilization in Australia” (Wadham, pp 195).

I think my fascination with Wadham arose out of his thoughtful commentary on land use and land settlement in Australia. As a young man this was of particular interest to me as my first year out of school was spent on my cousins recently acquired Brigalow block near Goondiwindi in South Eastern Queensland. These “Brigalow blocks” were, at that time, Australia’s most recent land settlement scheme. Aspiring landowners applied to participate in a ballot; if your number came up from the roll of the barrel the block could be yours!

However like all the other land settlement schemes in Australia that receded the Brigalow development, the size of the blocks was too small. Unless the new owner could contribute considerable additional capital for development and expansion, the often-inevitable result was a pretty tough time; while perhaps fulfilling in the short term, often ended in failure.

Arriving in Australia in 1926 just prior to the great depression Wadham quickly had his finger on these matters and worked tirelessly to give a sound commentary on the issues, explaining and arguing for the development of good public policy on land use and land settlement. “The interesting thing is that historians have been absolutely one-eyed on this matter”, he said, “They seem to me to have swallowed hook, line and sinker, the theories (on land settlement) of the reformers quite oblivious of the fact that their theories would not work and wherever tried they nearly always failed to work for thoroughly sound economic reasons. The whole agricultural history of Australia shows clearly that… no really large-scale ..development (of closer settlement} has been a success and I firmly believe none ever will be” ( Wadham, pp 123).

On the 5th July 1946 Wadham was invited to give ”The Joseph Fisher Lecture in Commerce” at The University of Adelaide. He titled his lecture “Necessary Principles for Satisfactory Agricultural Development in Australia”

In all, Wadham enunciated 13 principles to underpin a successful agricultural industry. These 13 principles encompassed: Land Allocation; Erosion Control; Soil Fertility; Rural Credit; Size of Farms; Avoidance of Unwise Settlement or Subdivision; Rural Education and Training; Agricultural Extension, and the Development of sound Intra State and National Agricultural policies. Fifty years later they are as relevant as they were then. While time this morning doesn’t allow for us to explore all of Wadham’s principles his first is particularly pertinent to the second part of my talk, Blue Gums.

Waddam wrote: “my first and foremost principle, would be proper land usage….. any self-respecting nation must ensure that its land resources are used with regard to the needs of future generations and not merely for those of the present. Two separate principles are involved: the first that the available land is properly allocated; the second, that the soils are conserved. As regards the first, water catchments must be safeguarded; the allocation of land between forestry and farming must be in accord with sound timber policy; and national reserves and parks must be set-aside on a plan which caters not merely for a population of the present size.”

In Wadham’s inaugural lecture upon taking up the Chair at Melbourne University he enunciated his basic philosophy that changed little over 30 Years: ‘the ultimate aim of any university must be to advance and disseminate learning and the advance of learning is dependent on sound research” (Wadham, pp 58). However in practical terms he saw the Department of Agriculture as the appropriate research body, and decided to leave most research to them with the agricultural faculty concentrating on teaching. This was understandable in the context that in 1927 the faculty only had one full time position, the Dean with all the other teaching positions filled by Department of Agriculture researchers who lectured on a part time basis and where called Associate Professors.

Wadham was not only a considerable educator but was also a great communicator. He travelled widely through country districts during the depression and those periods of serious droughts of the 30’and 40’s. His opinions where highly regarded by both farmers and politicians; he was an insightful commentator on the foolishness of Australia’s closer settlement schemes. He appeared before many Government Inquiries on land settlement and land utilisation and was a member of the Rural Reconstruction Commission until 1946. He was a firm advocate of good public policy development on agricultural issues and he patiently and persistently argued the issues as I remember it, in a very eloquent, convincing and engaging way that was understandable to all. Without a doubt he would be greatly disturbed with the lazy attempt by Australia’s contempory politicians to develop sound land use and land utilization policies, and by the unwillingness of contempory university leaders to engage in and contribute to the debate on these critical issues.

Wadham became Professor Emeritus on his retirement in 1957, but continued with his broadcasting and writing until the mid 1960’s. He died on the 18th September 1972.

Part 2: Blue Gums

When I was a small boy, most people who lived in our cities had friends or relatives who lived in the country, or at least knew someone who did. It wasn’t uncommon for city people to listen to ABC rural programs and even listen to “Blue Hills” There was empathy between city and country! Today very few city folk have connections with the country, and the empathy of the past has been replaced with negativity. We no longer have the great communicators like Wadham at hand to enlighten the discussion. Realities are clouded by ignorance; it is conceived that farmers exploit the countryside, that foresters denude the bush and that country people are wingers and unprofessional. In addition there is a conception that all trees are good, and all old growth forests need to be locked up and protected from the rappers. Of course, most people are affronted by modern timber harvesting practices of clear felling timber. Failure of the foresters to explain why clear felling is necessary has been a major contributor to the current situation.

In all, I rather think many of these matters are clouded in “mist” Over time, this mist has allowed the environmentalist to win the political arguments and timber production has, as a result, been restricted in vast tracks of native forests throughout Australia.

The locking up of these vast areas of our native timber reserves and the withdrawing from the market of our traditional source of hardwood timber has demanded a government policy response that included an incentive structure to attract new capital into building a new timber resource.

The policy response was of course the Regional Forest Agreement between the Sate and Federal Governments. This Agreement included a policy of plantation forestry with a 20/20 vision, which envisaged a replacement of national forest with plantation forestry producing sawn-logs in hardwood and pine, along with the development of a woodchip industry. Without a doubt, the Regional Forest Agreement and the associated taxation incentives have attracted a range of investors through what are known as Managed Investment Schemes, (MIS).

Of course, the wood chipping industry was originally developed to utilize the residue of the saw milling industry. However, plantations for hardwood seem to have fallen off everyone’s radar screen and the focus is firmly on plantations for pulpwood. Plantation timber promoters and their MIS are now moving into products like grapes, olives, and even cattle.

This diversion is directly a result of the taxation incentive structure, which encourages short-term projects and represents a massive policy failure at both State and Federal level.  Not only is the growth of a hardwood plantation timber industry for sawn logs languishing but vast areas of highly productive agricultural country is going under plantation timber for low-return wood chipping. When I say low return I mean 2 percent or less return on investment.

“As at July 2006, approximately $3.6 billion have been invested under the agricultural MIS schemes. It is reliably estimated that Federal Treasury is foregoing half a billion dollars annually in tax that would have otherwise been paid. Under MIS investors in woodlots have an equity in the (timber or other product) and have no equity in the land….Investors are attracted to the MIS schemes by slick sales talk of huge taxation concessions in the year their income is received, whereas little attention is given to the final return on their investment in year 14”  (Stewart, pp4).

Let’s have a look at how these MIS Schemes work.

So what are some of the consequences of the failure the Federal and State Government Regional Forest Agreement and its underpinning taxation incentive structure to deliver a revitalised forestry industry to replace old growth forests?

With Australia having limited amount of agricultural land in the secure rainfall zone shouldn’t we as a nation be revisiting our national policy of locking up vast areas of old growth forests? Isn’t it possible to manage these forests and to harvest them in a none intrusive way so that the environment is safeguarded and our national resource used productively? Or do we leave the trees to mature and die or burn as the case may be?


Wadham: Scientist for Land and People. L.R.Humphries, Melbourne University Press.

Stewart McArthur MP, Submission to the Federal Governments review of the Taxation Treatment of Plantation Forestry.

[1] I am indebted to my good friend Mike Stephens of Mike Stephens and Associates from Ballarat.