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Interview with 1967 Scholar Bill Casimaty

By Nicola Raymond, Communications Manager 

The interview was held on 30th May by telephone, from his home in Tasmania.

Introduction 

Bill Casimaty took over management of the family farm at Richmond, Tasmania, in 1957, but subsequently decided that existing sheep and cereals enterprises were not viable because of property size and low rainfall. In 1960 he built a farm dam for irrigation and, he commenced a diversification program by developing a mushroom growing unit, and in 1968 established a pilot area of instant lawn as a result of a visit to the US after being awarded a Nuffield Scholarship. He also commenced the trialling of a range of potential irrigated crops including peas, poppies, hybrid brassia seed crops, pyrethrum, fennel and evening primrose. In 1972, Bill expanded the StrathAyr instant lawn crop to Seymour, Victoria, where the family’s major business is now located. Bill Casimaty also established GlenAyr Vineyard, in 1975, followed by Tolpuddle Vineyard in 1988 in conjunction with his eldest son Frank. We had some investors the Tolpuddle project. We eventually sold the Tolpuddle Vineyard and now focus on the family owned GlenAyr Vineyard. The Tolpuddle Vineyard is now owned by Shaw and Smith from the Adelaide Hills who have already won major international awards for their wine made from Tolpuddle fruit.

Please confirm family history and members including children, grandchildren?
I am married to Janet and we have three children and eight grandchildren. One of our sons is based in Sydney, has spent a significant amount of time overseas and completed an MBA at the London School of Business, while the other son completed an agricultural science course in Tasmania. Our daughter has a marketing degree and is now raising her family.

Please outline a brief version of your business history?
I completed an agricultural course at Dookie Agriculture College in Central Victoria in 1956 before returning to the family farm in Richmond. This is in a drought area and significantly affected what we could produce. The farm wasn’t sustainable due to rainfall an property size and we weren’t able to be viable with cropping barley and wool alone and it was a farm reliant on subsidy from my father’s city business which was common in those days. So, we started to grow mushrooms as part of the bigger need to diversity. This occurred in about 1960 and that part of the business started to grow.

How did you hear about Nuffield Farming Scholarships?
An earlier Scholar Ben McKay (1955 Scholar), lived quite close to my farm and he told me about it and made me aware of the opportunities with Nuffield. I missed out the first time, in 1966, but then applied a second time and was successful to travel in 1967. I was still quite youngish – about 30-31 years old, so age wasn’t an impediment to my applying twice.

Please confirm your topic and why did you choose this topic?
I need to find my report to give you the exact details! But mushrooms of course were a big area of interest as we were further developing that business. I also looked at further efficiencies with livestock and cropping. We were producing wool and wheat but it the business needed more emphasis on other crops to be profitable. I also studied turf on my scholarship, although that was in its early stages.

Can you confirm who was on your state and/or national selection panels?
In Tasmania, for many years, there was a state policy of interviewing all applicants. Back then, there were about 12 applicants in total and we were all interviewed. I recall Ben McKay MLC was on the Tasmanian selection committee along with Frank Hicks, Tasmanian Director of Agriculture. Just two of us were selected to go to Melbourne for a national interview. On the Victorian panel was Bert Kelly, the Head of BHP Billiton Sir James Balderstone, and George Wilson representing Nuffield.

What questions were you asked and were any particularly memorable?
There are no specific questions that stand out from either interview but in general terms, the study topic about mushrooms was the interesting part where I recall a lot of questions were asked. It was a very good experience for me. It was very well worthwhile. After the interview I recall attending the dinner at The Melbourne Club. I enjoyed a big circle of dignitaries. I found it a good experience. We had our induction during that dinner. After that, there wasn’t a lot of association with other scholars until we travelled overseas.

Climatic Advantage

Tasmania enjoys advantages that have been demonstrated to provide high levels of the essential flavour and fragrance components for a wide range of products. Taking advantage of these important factors is work in progress and I submit that this factor will lead to greater productivity for many more specialised industries. I was deeply involved with the political conception of the Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme which is very valuable to Tasmania.

Which countries did you travel to as part of your study?
To provide background, we had a bad experience with bushfires around the time I was at Dookie College where firefighters were killed following high fuel levels. After the 1956 flood, fuel levels were again very high – a normal pattern – and due to this, I set about developing a team of firefighters in the Richmond region. I bought a tanker truck as there wasn’t one in the area. Our brigade is celebrating its 50th year this year since it was formed in 1965. It was the only fire tanker truck in the state during the 1967 fires.

BACKGROUND – THE ONLY TANKER TRUCK IN TASMANIA

The Ford Blitz truck was purchased by Bill Casimaty in 1964 after it had been inspected by Lou Holobradek who was the proprietor of the Richmond Garage at the time. Lou modified the tanker truck and resolved several problems to make it a suitable fire-fighting tanker truck which was believed to be the only tanker fire truck in Tasmania. Prior to the 1967 fires Bill was extremely aware of Tasmania’s fire risk having fought at fires near Dookie Agricultural College near Shepparton at which deaths were recorded. Approximately 20 tanker firetrucks fought that fire but two volunteers died. On his return to Tasmania the high fuel levels were similar to Victoria but there was not one firefighting tanker. Bill paid 400 pounds for the truck and as a Richmond Councillor he offered it to the Council at his purchase price. During the lead up to the 7th February 1967 holocaust there were several prior fires that exposed some weaknesses in the pump and fittings. Fortunately, these were resolved before 7th February 1967 and the Blitz truck was extremely valuable. Huge losses in life and property resulted from these fires. We have recently located the original Ford Blitz truck and it is now being reconstructed as a museum piece. It will be used to promote the Brigade at various gatherings.

So Henry Hopkins, my fellow Australian Scholar in 1967, and I travelled to Africa first as I had some contacts in Johannesburg and he had some contacts in Nairobi. Of course, there were Nuffield Scholars living in that region at that time. Whilst we were there we heard about the fires, and there were stories – unsubstantiated – where people were escaping the fires in submarines. I tried to get home but heard that the family had survived and there was nothing further I could do at that stage. It was a difficult time. However, the short time in Africa was fascinating – we had two days in each area – and then we flew to Nuffield House in London.

We didn’t have much of a briefing in London, but we did meet the other Nuffield Scholars which was very enjoyable and created some long-term associations. The Milk Marketing Board provided us with their used vehicles which was very helpful. I recall one chap in our group from Canada having quite a traumatic experience driving around, and out, of London!

We stayed with host farmers. We would have one primary farmer host, who was usually a scholar, to host us. Mine was Michel Trickett (1966 UK Scholar). I kept in touch with him throughout the scholarship. The general process included several meetings with other scholars in London then association with hosting farmer thereafter.

We had an address book with contact details and we were always very well-received when phoning them. I recall one time I was staying at one place and when I looked at the family photos around the room there were a number with members of the royal family. That was very impressive. I also travelled to Scotland, Ireland and the USA on the study

What dates did you travel and how long were you overseas?
I spent six-and-a-half months overseas departing on 6th February, arriving back in Australia in mid-August.

What were your most memorable travel experiences?
In the UK at that time, there was a lot of mushroom production, especially in disused airports and airstrips that had been closed down after the Second World War. I formed one very good relationship with a chap called John Stewart Wood, who was a mushroom producer and very interesting chap. He had been a World War II fighter pilot and instructor and was also a very good mushroom producer. He was certainly a mentor to me in the mushroom world. On my return to Tasmania he flew out to see me in a single engine plane. He was a competitive racing pilot.

Six-Day War

In Tasmania there were predictions of using the apple storage techniques that were trialled in apple consignment locked up in the Suez Canal and to extend the season for shipping apples to Europe. However, this also meant that improved storage technology would mean the European apples could be supplied over an extended season. A dramatic example whereby wishful thinking was the order of the day.

After touring England, I travelled to Scotland and Ireland, mostly following developments in the intensive beef cattle industry. Not that this was specifically useful for our home business as it was too dry for cattle. However I also looked at cereals as well as we were growing barley at the time. It was interesting as they were applying much higher levels of fertiliser than in Australia.

One memorable experience was a visit to the House of Commons in London, which was arranged by 1966 New Zealand Scholar Nick Tripe as his focus was on the European Economic Community and the UK’s entry to that and what that would mean for countries like New Zealand and Australia. We went to a second reading in the Commons and that was very interesting and relevant and included questions about how Australia would be served by that change. It was very educational, giving us a feel for what the future would bring with Australia – UK relations. We found that our political understandings of the effect of the UK’s common market entry was later to be very valuable.

In the UK I also got involved in local pursuits like hunting and fishing which was great fun. I also went to the Royal Show and that was relevant as I was looking into turf farming. At that time, there was no cultivated turf in the UK at all. It was all linked to pasture turf production where pastures was ploughed up to produce crops. It was lower quality and the only industry there at that time. After, I travelled to the US where I saw cultivated turf species for racing and sporting events for the first time.

So, in the USA I travelled to Wisconsin where I met Ben Warren, a pioneer of the USA industry in cultivated turf. He lived just outside Chicago and I had one full day with him on innovative turf farming. I had a Dookie College friend whose family had started a turf farm in Victoria but didn’t succeed. As a result of that visit in the US, I returned to Australia and knew that the Victorian-based family hadn’t succeeded with turf and so I started in a small way in Tasmania, with the ability to extend into Victoria. I’d had some inkling that there was an industry there to be developed as a result of my time with Ben Warren in the USA. Funnily enough, I didn’t get back to the USA for many years after that one-day experience I had on my Nuffield Scholarship.

As a result of your study, what management practices changed in your business?

It was good to be home after more than six months but it wasn’t much fun as due to the fires, we lost 15 miles of fencing and the property was very run down at that stage. So I started other business activities. I had been impressed with UK farming businesses, where the farm practices and management were closely associated. For example, it was normal over there for a farm to have several enterprises and I was impressed with that sort of approach.

So we started some other businesses such as development of squash courts and even a furniture business as then we were reliant on crops like mushrooms. But even that was proving a challenge due to lack of water availability. Water has been a whole-of-life issue for me and I call myself a water-holic!

When I returned we went into outdoor pigs as I’d seen that on Richard Roadknight’s property in England. I started putting more nitrate fertiliser on barley and considering implementing things I’d seen in the intensive livestock industries.

But having been fascinated by the one day I’d had spent in USA with Ben Warren, I mostly set about trialling lots different crops. I built the first irrigation dam on the property and we grew peas, evening primrose, fennel and even barley crops. There was a real variety in our trialling as we were desperately looking for something to form the basis of our business.

Turf was one of a number of products that we researched at that time. Gradually, other crops dropped off the horizon as we found new opportunities with turf. We’d been growing mushrooms for 20 years but what the Nuffield experience really taught me, and this is important, we needed to be near large populations in cities like Melbourne to ensure marketing and distribution of crops like mushrooms. We would have had to grow mushrooms near Melbourne and that couldn’t be done then so we expanded in turf. The mushroom industry is like factory farming and for this, you need to be close to your market.

How did you disseminate your study outcomes to the wider industry?

Interestingly, at that time most Nuffield Scholars were graziers or from broadacre industries. However, I was involved more specialised industries and it was more difficult to spread the information I had learnt, due to the smaller industry market size. So, on the one hand I was doing a number of presentations, providing well thought and researched information, but I didn’t fully follow through with some information about areas like mushrooms and turf. This factor is irrelevant for commodity products but very important for specialist industries.

I certainly participated in a number of farm meetings around the state. There was a group of farmers in the UK calling themselves the ‘Grasshopper Group’ where members had to be very large farmers, with a minimum of 2,000 acres to be involved, and I was interested in their approach. My hosts were John Cherrington and John Rowsell. My main contribution with farming groups back then was with Coal River Products Association, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year”. We have recently re-established contact with the Grasshoppers Club which is still very active. Its membership is very exclusive and any caters for very large farmers. The success of the South East Irrigation Scheme has spearheaded a number of other schemes and this significantly changed the face of Tasmanian agriculture.

My formation of the Coal River Products Association probably underpinned my spreading of information to the wider farming community. While the CRPA is very different from the Grasshoppers Club it has proved to be a very productive group having lobbied actively for an investigation of irrigation potential which has helped to spread irrigation across the State.

Apparently the Grasshopper Club is celebrating its 75 years and later this year Coal River Products Association will celebrate its 50 years. It is believed to be oldest farming group in the State and is well respected in Government circles.

About The Coal River Products Association (CRPA)

The Coal River Products Association is a group representing farmers working in the Coal River Valley in southeast Tasmania. The valley supports production of many products including peas, cereals, grapes, vegetable (mainly lettuces and vegetables for seeds), stone fruits (cherries and apricots), wine, lucerne, olives and walnuts. The valley also supports farming for sheep and cattle. The group has been instrumental in developing best practice and innovative farming practices within Tasmania. This was one of the early areas to invest heavily in irrigation.

It is an incorporated association which was established in 1967 after a successful community response to the bushfires which devastated southern Tasmania. A key group of farmers (including Bill) formed the Association to continue to provide support for their colleagues and to help develop new enterprises to assist the valley to get back on its feet economically. The need was identified to for farmers to diversify their operations, and a major goal was to address the irrigation needs of the Valley.

They have promoted innovative enterprises and sustainable agricultural practices. It was one of the main instigators of the South East Irrigation Scheme. This started with the development of the Craigbourne Dam in 1986, and now includes pipelines and other infrastructure. Members of the Association promoted the need for irrigation and led public awareness campaigns. The success of the South East Irrigation Scheme has spearheaded a number of other schemes and this has significantly changed the face of Tasmanian agriculture.

Who has had a long-term positive impact on you within the Nuffield family and why?
This can be hard to say. I had strong relations and at times challenging debates with George Wilson. It was a somewhat challenging but very productive relationship. Bert Kelly was also a key figure. Basically, once I moved into more emphasis on small specialised industries like turf and mushrooms, that took me away from the normal Nuffield subjects that scholars studied at that time.

Please outline industry/community leadership roles you have served.

Synopsis of Leadership Roles

His many appointments include membership of the Richmond Council 1961-1967; Founding Chair and Committee Member of the Richmond Rural Fire Brigade since 1966; Founding Chair and Member of the Coal River Products Association since 1967; Chair, South East Irrigation Advisory Committee, 1984-94 and President of the Tasmanian Poppy Growing Association, 1977-86. He also represented the Tasmanian Poppy Industry at hearings held in Washington in 1980, which led to Australia achieving access to the US pharmaceutical market.

Bill served on the University of Tasmania’s Faculty of Agricultural Science for eight years, was a member of the University Council for nine years and Founding Chairman of the University Farm Committee.

His many accolades include an award presented by the Tasmanian Rural Promotions Committee on 11 September 1987 for “an outstanding contribution to Tasmanian Agriculture” and an Advance Australia award for his “considerable contribution to the rural industry in Tasmania, as a Richmond farmer who pioneered the cultivation of instant lawn, mushrooms and poppies.”

He was appointed a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) 2009 “for service to the horticultural industry through the development and implementation of innovative turf construction and management practices; to the development of irrigation schemes, the poppy industry, viticulture and to the community.

I have been a member of the University of Tasmania both as a chairman of the farm committee but also a member of the council / governing body. I was probably the only non-graduate to hold these positions. I’ve been involved with the science of agriculture through that period with the university.

I initiated and set up the Richmond Rural Fire Brigade and also been on the Nuffield Board and management committee for a period of between 10-15 years using my own resources to travel and attend meetings in Melbourne.

I was also a part of the Tasmanian Poppy Growers Association as I also trialled poppies. I was elected chair of that association. Probably my most valuable contribution was making a presentation to groups in Washington DC and from this we achieved access to the USA pharmaceutical market. The poppy industry isn’t as big as was, but it is still producing about half the global supply. I have received praise for my contribution to achieving access to the US market and for the associated ongoing benefit to Tasmanian and Australian agriculture.

I was also involved in irrigation in south-east Tasmania from my connection with the CRPA. We lobbied hard and achieved the construction of the south-east Tasmania scheme, which has now spread to a range of schemes around the state. The irrigation impact has been significant.

I admit that I have had feelings of guilt about not spreading all that I had learned on my scholarship on the intensive, smaller industries and what I was doing. As a result of feeling guilty, I have made a lot of effort into these other areas like irrigation, Nuffield and poppies.

What were the three major benefits of completing your Nuffield Farming Scholarship?
For me, I think the biggest benefit is to be able to find yourself in a position where you can stimulate change. That you don’t have to follow the tide of usual processes. Following my initial research in the UK and then USA, I found a new opportunity. I still think there is still great scope in Tasmania for more new crops. I’m still involved to lesser degree. I find fascinating, the cycle from innovation and trialling products through to commercialisation, which has been stimulated by my Nuffield Scholarship.

Finally, what are your future plans?

Well, I am 80 now so that doesn’t leave me many options! I am confident that my two sons in the business will continue on with it. We specialise in racetracks and sports fields now. It’s very focused on new technology from around the world for sporting applications. For example, portable tennis court applications are new, drop-in wickets were pioneered by our business. We have the technology to move turf from tennis to rugby. Our business has become more involved with construction rather than just selling turf. In short, we’ve moved from being a grower to being construction designers and developers and both my sons enjoy that.

I am also quietly campaigning for the use of heroin for pain relief. Heroin is by far the best pain relief drug known to man. With the legal changes of Marijuana for medicinal purposes, I am advocating Heroin. People shouldn’t die in discomfort. A new name needs to be arrived at to make this happen in the longer-term. This is one of those ongoing little project that I have quietly behind the scenes.

Summary of Bill Casimaty’s Achievements

Graduated Dookie Agricultural College

Established GlenAyr Vineyards 1975

Established Tod puddle Vineyard 1988

Tasmanian Vineyard of the year Award 2006

Founding Chairman Coal River Products Association

Past President Tas Poppy Growing Association

Past President Rotary Club of Hobart

Past Chairman ABC Advisory Committee

Established StrathAyre Turf Systems in Malaysia, Egypt and UK

Established StrathAyr Rugby League Field systems in Australia and USA

Established StathAyr Racetrack Systems Australia and overseas

Portable Cricket Wicket Systems Australia, New Zealand and Lords in London

Member Order of Australia for Service to Agriculture 2009

Nicola Raymond
Communications Manager
June 2016

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