IN THE early 1960s the papers were breathlessly calling cotton “white gold”, but there really was an element of goldrush in the building of the cotton industry.
At few points in history have farmers been able to borrow to buy land and then pay off most of their equity – if not all of it – with a year or two of good crops.
But it was possible in the early days of Australian cotton.
The NSW government finished Keepit Dam, west of Tamworth, in 1958, before it knew what would be grown with the water.
Cotton promised a return on the investment, and the government threw ample resources and a lint bounty at the fledgling industry.
The agricultural banks were similarly expansive and the black soil around Wee Waa was as naturally fertile as Australian soil can be.
But these advantages hadn’t been exploited for cropping when, in the late 1950s, Nick Derera, former director of the Hungarian Cotton Research Institute and a refugee from the Soviets, began trialling cotton varieties near Narrabri for the NSW Department of Agriculture.
Mr Derera wasn’t the first to grow cotton in the district – it had been experimented with going back to the 1920s – but he was arguably the first who knew what he was doing.
It was a time of heightened interest in all things agricultural, and a few lines from Narrabri found their way into a paper in Merced County, California.
The information piqued the interest of Paul Kahl and Frank Hadley, cotton growers who felt their expansion in Cali-
fornia’s Central Valley was being stifled by a thick web of government regulation.
“I detested more and more having to go to the government office in town to find out how many acres of each controlled crop I could plant in the spring,” Mr Kahl wrote in his autobiography.
Early excavation work at Auscott Narrabri in 1963. Click on this image to see more photos in our online gallery.
The pair visited the Australian trade commissioner in San Francisco, learning that “Australians spoke a form of English that would take some getting used to but was better than learning Spanish or Portuguese”.
They also learned that the Australian government was busting for some know-how in the cotton business.
Most of Australia’s 10,000 bale cotton crop was grown in Queensland, and most of that was poor quality.
Kahl (pictured below) and Hadley grew their first crop, with help from Nick Derera, on a 65-acre field east of Wee Waa in 1961-62.
It yielded a creditable 1.5 bales an acre (3.7 bales/ha).
Mr Kahl, now nearly 95, recalls that Wee Waa was the last place the Australian government wanted them to set up.
The Snowy Mountains hydro scheme had just been built at vast expense, but it was mostly being used to water pastures on unviable soldier settlement blocks.
Government officials kept nudging the Californians toward the Riverina; when nudging didn’t work, they were offered free land and water.
Alternatively, they were pointed north, to where cotton was being grown in Queensland.
But the the Californians correctly decided the south was too cold for available varieties, and Queensland didn’t have the right infrastructure.
Wee Waa’s climate was right, the block size was right, Keepit Dam was right, and the district was home to Nick Derera, “the only man in Australia who understood cotton”.
When the first crop was picked on “Glencoe”, Wee Waa, in April 1962, a NSW Department of Agriculture field day drew 1200 people – who, Mr Kahl noted, were insistently pointed towards the Riverina by government officials.
The “Glencoe” harvest had to be taken north of Brisbane to be ginned, a 1200 kilometre round trip over a route that was only tarred for a third of its length.
After driving the 1950 International truck on two of the 10 trips it took to transport the crop, Mr Kahl decided a local gin was a priority.
More Californians and some Austral-
ians began flooding into the district in 1962, enough to allow the formation of the Namoi Cotton Co-operative that year.
The following year, when the first Namoi gin was built, there were about 50 Americans in the district.
A reporter for Woman’s Day dropped by Wee Waa and found that “American cornmeal appears on Wee Waa grocery shelves, American accents demand a ‘middy of New’, and American misses in tight Bermuda shorts give a new interest in life for Wee Waa males”.
In 1963, an Australian farmer told a paper that he would earn 165,000 pounds from a 1250ac cotton crop.
Undeveloped land was valued at less than 100lb/ac.
A big Californian agribusiness, Boswell Farming, scented prosperity.
In 1964 Boswell began building what became Auscott.
Cotton’s growth curve arced up strongly for the best part of a decade.
The 1971 floods wiped out 80 per cent of the Namoi Co-op’s crop and the cotton pest heliothis (now Helicoverpa) began its reign over growers in 1973.
But the industry had momentum that drought and low cotton prices have occasionally stalled, but not halted.