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Interview with 1965 Scholar Robert Harrison

Background 

Robert is from Beaudesert in Queensland. He has been dairying and grazing beef cattle. He has been a director of the Artificial Breeders Cooperative (Qld) and past chairman of Beaudesert Branch of the Graziers Association. He was a consultant for FAO overseas in the 1970s. Robert was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship in 1965. The late 1960’ and early 70’s saw Robert take on consulting work overseas for almost 20 years. At the same time, his beloved wife Ann used her architect skills to also support the family. In the early 1980’s Robert concentrated on raising beef cattle and also became interested in off farm investing. The knowledge gained in this area has seen him giving advice on the Australian Nuffield Finance Committee for many years. In 1994, Robert and Ann sold the main part of the farm, leaving them with 200 acres. Robert lost Ann a couple of years ago and is semi-retired, spending time between the farm at Beaudesert and Brisbane.

Please confirm family history and members including children, grandchildren?
I was born in a room at my parent’s farm in 1933 and that rooms is the room where I still sleep at the farm. Not many people can say that! I married Ann in 1957 and sadly she died two-and-a-half years ago. We have three children, seven children and one great grandchild. I had two siblings who were both girls. I have just returned from South Africa where 16 family members went to celebrate my youngest daughter’s 50th birthday. She and her husband lived in South Africa after they graduated university and she wanted to return to the country to celebrate her birthday milestone. I was a wonderful occasion.

Please outline a brief version of your business history?
I graduated with a Batchelor of Agricultural Science from Queensland University in the 1950s with a good record and returned to the family farm where I was born. In addition to the dairy, I started to add beef cattle and grazing techniques into the farm mix. We farmed 1200 acres. I was able to work on the dairy and build up beef herd, which I still have. We’ve sold some of it but the farm and house is still in the family. Unfortunately, my father died quite young so I took on the farm. I had two sisters who had no interest in returning to the farm so I took the property on. I was also a Fellow of the Agricultural Society of Australia and took active off-farm roles in agricultural organisations and groups. Whilst I was farming outside organisations were always an area of focus. This followed on from my father who was also active in the community with grazier organisations. I was chair of Beaudesert Graziers Association.

How did you hear about Nuffield Farming Scholarships?
I heard about Nuffield from three Queensland scholars who had completed scholarships – 1953 Scholar Doug Poulson, 1959 Scholar Keith McLean and 1962 Scholar Don McFarlane. I knew then all through meetings in agriculture. They all alerted me to Nuffield and I moved fairly quickly to apply as I wanted to travel to learn more about record keeping.
Please confirm your topic and why did you choose this topic?

Farm management and record keeping was my topic and all the other aspects where it leads. I also had a focus on artificial insemination and grazing. I wanted to study to improve my farm practices but also educate more Australian farmers on this topic. I saw farm management as very necessary. It wasn’t common for farmers to have good plans and figures back then. Pasture improvement was another area of focus.

Can you confirm who was on your state and/or national selection panels?
There was not state panel. There were six of us interviewed in Melbourne – three from Queensland and three from New South Wales. We flew to Melbourne for the interviews. From that group I was successful in Queensland and Ian Macintosh was successful in New South Wales. I recall the panel included Sir Colin Sim, the Professor of Science in Melbourne University and the British High Commissioner. There were several other very well know agricultural figures on the panel.

What questions were you asked and were any particularly memorable?
It was a very good meeting. When it started the first thing said was a statement rather than a question. Because I had a Batchelor of Agricultural Science, they said that Nuffield Scholarships were for practicing farmers, not scientists. This is what they told me! The other interesting question was about my father – they asked me how he was as at this time, he was quite ill. This question was letting me know that thy had been researching my details. Those two stand out in my mind from the interview. Other questions were about the farm and topic.

After the interview, us two winners had dinner at the Australian Club. Wives were not included in this whole process back then. There were no formal speeches during dinner but I clearly recall the nice table napkins, silver wear about a foot long and about five different wine glasses in front of me. I was seated next to the chairman and he asked whether I would choose the wine for the dinner. I was hesitant. I knew of one of the bottles of red wine and suggested that one and the chairman said “that’ll do nicely”. So my memory of the dinner was choosing the wine!

After the dinner had finished we moved around the room and the panel continued to give us another few hours of sound advice about the scholarship. In particular, how to behave, what to do and how to ask the right questions. This was all done over cognac and coffee so Ian and I were very well set up by the time we left the Club!

All the six applicants were staying at the same hotel and I had arranged a party after the interviews for everyone who wasn’t successful t drown their sorrows – as I thought it would be me. I remember getting back to the hotel and the party was still in full swing. I remember the British High Commissioner was at the party too and it was about 4.00am. It was a long night!

Which countries did you travel to as part of your study?
Back then, scholars couldn’t choose countries to visit on the scholarship, you only went to the UK. But I wanted to do some of my study in other countries in Europe and went to the powers-that-be to request that I travel further afield. In particular, I was l already doing some science work for a biotech company in Germany and wanted to visit them as I was testing products on my beef cattle. So I had to get special permission to travel to other European countries to research artificial insemination and chemicals. Nuffield allowed me just two weeks to do that, which is very different to how it is today.

What dates did you travel and how long were you overseas?
I traveled to the UK, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden which was a big schedule in two weeks. I had to delay part of the scholarship as dad passed away. I traveled from Australia in late February and returned in the June. It was supposed to be six months. I was the last Australian Scholar who departed Australia by boat for the scholarship. I traveled to Singapore by boat then flew to London. Ian McFarlane flew via the USA.

What were your most memorable travel experiences?
I recall boarding the ship at Sydney and I was exhausted. I’d been flat out getting the farm ready for me to be away and dad was already ill at this stage and I was under nine stone in weight. It was an Italian Ship with good Italian food and wine. It took 11 days to Singapore, and by the time I disembarked the boat, I was back to my normal weight. I had a single cabin on that ship.

I had a day and a half in Singapore and bought a tape recorder to record the interviews and information I was going to gather for the scholarship. I arrived in London, there was just a brief meeting there then we were assigned farm hosts. The British Milk Marketing Board gave us a car which was really good.

My first and memorable host was David Stevens from Leas Farm in Gloucestershire. They are the most wonderful friends of ours. They showed me around, took me everywhere focusing on management systems. These were the things I really wanted to see. I was given all the information I had hoped to get and we became firm friends for life. Our children are friends as well. I went to other destinations but only David gave me a real home base. I traveled extensively, up to Scotland as well.

I went to a lot of very good places, David Stevens guided me through that and helped, giving me contacts at really good farms. These were individuals who had a lasting impact. People such as Richard Roadknight, who was a memorable man with a very large, diverse enterprise. It was a wonderfully run business and the record keeping was absolutely spot on. I got a lot of advice. I also talked to David’s figures people, people who were professional business managers.

As a result of your study, what management practices changed in your business?
I certainly made me aware of the thing I wanted to get, which was a good record system of business management in my office. With the information that I got I set up a system that was thorough. Keeping good records in a specific way was very useful.

How did you disseminate your study outcomes to the wider industry?
I was very active in all the local and regional farm organisations in our district. I gave talks to our local organisations, and went further across south-east Queensland. Once it was known that I was a Nuffield Scholar and I’d been over to the UK and Europe and come back with ideas, I was invited to lots of meetings. I provide a presentation that outlined the enlightenment I’d received. No particular meeting stands out but they were all very well attended and I also got asked a lot of questions.

Who has had a long-term positive impact on you within the Nuffield family and why?
There have been many. I was put on the Nuffield management committee as soon as I came back. George Wilson (1952 Sch) was the Chairman and Ron Baillieu (1958 Sch) was the vice chairman. All the meetings were held at the showgrounds in Melbourne. George and Ron were definitely leaders who I learnt a lot from. Others like Harry Perkins (1972 Sch), Peter Nixon (1990 Sch), Brendon Smart (1990 Sch) and David Brownhill (1998 Sch) were all later individuals. I went down to every meeting and got to know them all as they became scholars over time. I was also able to visit them and see what they were doing on their property.

Please outline industry/community leadership roles you have served. 
I been fairly active. I was the chair of local graziers’ association. I also established an artificial breeding program which I chaired. I also became a consultant for FAO and started doing work overseas with this too. I ended up working in over 20 countries leading teams to fix up some of the problems in some dangerous and third world countries. There were over 20 of them. It was a very interesting time and strangely enough in 1977, I was awarded The Agricultural Scientist of the Year Award for the work I had done overseas. I was the first farmer that this had happened to and it was a great honor. Usually, for those awards it was given to scientists in large organisations such as CSIRO.

What were the three major benefits of completing your Nuffield Farming Scholarship? 
It opened my eyes to the new ideas and methods of business management and the breadth of it. The scholarship wasn’t just about looking at cows and calves. It opened my eyes. I realised that the success of David Stevens in his business wasn’t about going to the dairy to milk the cows and work hard with that, but it was what they were doing and achieving in their business office. They were active people and keeping in touch with them continually gave me ideas and thoughts.

As a scholar, I’ve been to all the Nuffield International triennial conferences since they started in Melbourne, apart from the Australian one in 2011 as unfortunately, that’s when Ann was ill. But then I also went to Canada in 2014. Max Jelbart, who has just passed away, was my roommate in Canada and we are (were) very good friends. I am still active in the organisation and love meeting up with scholars. Peter Rose and I room together now at conference and we are good friends. The friendships are very important.

Finally, what are your future plans? 
I plan to stay alive for a bit longer! I’m nearly 83 and I still play golf every week and I enjoy travelling. I divide my time between the farm, which is north of Beaudesert and only 40 minutes from Brisbane, and my three-bedroom home which is part of a bigger retirement village as the children say doing this is important if my health deteriorates. Jim stays with me when he’s here in Brisbane. He uses it as his home when he’s in Brisbane and even used my car to drive Jodie around to meet investors here last week.

I guess I’ve been to 70 different countries and worked in 30 of them. I’ve been fortunate.

 

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