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Lumen Winter 2013 Issue
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Planting the seed for agricultural achievement

Tony Rathjen's lifetime of agricultural research has had hundreds of collaborators: the farmers, scientific colleagues and students themselves who have benefited from his findings.

After studying and working at the University for more than 40 years, Professor Rathjen 'retired' in 2012 - although he is still active in a number of areas.

Professor Rathjen grew up on a property near Birdwood, and studied Agricultural Science at the University of Adelaide before completing a PhD at Cambridge.

In 1965 he returned to Adelaide to begin his academic career as a lecturer in plant breeding. But it was hardly the career of an academic who sat in their office or in the laboratory all day.

"I think I was very fortunate to be on the scene when there was a huge change in agriculture technology, particularly from the 1970s onwards," he said.

"It was obviously good in lots of ways: farmers could grow their crops more efficiently with better yields. But there was a downside, too: because it was more efficient it meant fewer farmers were needed and it led to a kind of breakdown of the community structure which revolves around farming in Australia."

Professor Rathjen places enormous value on the role the farmers themselves played in driving his agricultural research.

"At a personal level, because I grew up on a farm, farming is what I know and I consider a lot of the farmers I've worked with mates," he said.

"By developing those personal relationships, I think that helped my science and my research. I was able to talk to the farmers and gain an insight from them about what was happening on the land.

"They were in the best position to understand the environment that they were working in, and many of them were very astute observers about practices and processes, about what worked and what didn't work, and about unusual things they'd noticed.

"It's one thing to be in the lab all day, but it's another thing to be on the land with these people and learning about agriculture where it actually happens, and then applying that knowledge to your research."

Dr Rathjen's career achievements are many:

  • Co-founding the Crop Science Society of South Australia, an active organisation of farmers, consultants and scientists which provides a forum for the exchange of information and research into crops and crop production;
  • Developing and releasing numerous varieties of bread and cereal wheats, including the widely grown bread wheat resistant to the pest cereal cyst nematode. His Yitpi bread wheat variety has been widely used across Southern Australia (at its peak, the variety accounted for 35% of all wheat grown in South Australia and 70% of Victoria's);
  • Initiating critical research into plant breeding including investigation of crown rot disease in durum, and the impact of high levels of soil boron on cereal growth;
  • Applying his 'hands-on' research philosophy to his teaching, with many agricultural science students describing his field trips as highlights of their undergraduate studies; and
  • Being patriarch of a high-achieving and academic family, with all five children receiving PhDs (with one, Peter, now Vice-Chancellor at the University of Tasmania).

Quietly, Professor Rathjen has given back to the education system which launched his career.

With the royalties from the commercialisation of the Yitpi grain, he has also set up the Yitpi Foundation. The foundation encourages and promotes research and education in the fields of crop science, particularly in relation to the wheat industry in southern Australia.

The foundation's other focus is close to Professor Rathjen's heart, as it formed the basis for the career of his late wife, Cynthia: linguistics of Australian languages, and studies of the cultures of Aborigines, particularly in relation to land usage.

"It's been gratifying to see my research end up having real application on the land, but also that I'm able to put the proceeds from that towards things I'm passionate about," he said.

story by Ben Osborne

Professor Rathjen harvesting durum wheat in 2010.
Picture by Paula Thompson, courtesy of the <i>Stock Journal</i>.

Professor Rathjen harvesting durum wheat in 2010.
Picture by Paula Thompson, courtesy of the Stock Journal.

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