Toolangi Potato Research Station (The Spud Farm)
Today, potatoes make up an important part of the Australian diet, but in the 1930s the potato was an even bigger part of what Australians were eating every day. So when potato yields started dropping dramatically in the 1940s, the Victorian Agriculture Department realised that something had to be done, and by 1944 the Potato Research Station (PRS), commonly known to Toolangi residents as ‘the Spud Farm’, had its beginnings. The main aim was to establish a seed potato certification program to control disease and a potato breeding program to develop better varieties for Australia.
In 1945, 235 acres on Myers Creek Road, Toolangi were selected, on the recommendation of Mr Exton Snr, a potato farmer from Kinglake. The land had been burnt in the 1939 bushfires, so minimal clearing was needed, and the high rainfall and deep mountain soil made it ideal for potato production. Lindsay Harmsworth, a fresh young Agricultural Science graduate, was appointed the first manager (1946–1975) and had to overcome post-war shortages of equipment and building supplies.
The first area cleared was on Myers Creek Road, at the site of the old tramline and timber transfer station, last operated by W.C. Cone & Co, sawmillers of Healesville. To this day the area is still called Cones Landing (look for the sign on the shed when you drive past). After a severe erosion caused by summer rainstorms in 1952–53, when soil and potatoes were washed down into Cones barn and down the Myers Creek Road, the land was re-established with grassed contour banks (cutting-edge farming practices in the 1950s) still visible today. Further land was cleared and a road established to Blue Range and this was where the main farm buildings were established in 1963. The area to the north of Blue Range was cleared in the early 1970s and called Mick’s Creek.
The potato breeding program used over 200 potato varieties to cross-breed new varieties. Rigorous selections were made and potato breeds with high disease resistance, good yield and excellent cooking and storage quality were all tested in the cooking lab. Many a potato was sliced, fried, and boiled to make sure the sugars did not result in black chips and to check for sloughing (turning to soup) and after-cooking darkening (grey potatoes). The staff in the cooking lab were always popular when they cooked hot chips for the PRS team. Potato varieties from this breeding program are still in use, such as Toolangi Delight, White Star and Ruby Lou, Sebago and Atlantic.
Potato and Strawberry Certification Programs
Not only were the Victorian Seed Potato Certification Scheme and the Victorian Strawberry Industry Certification Scheme developed at PRS in the 1960s, but pathogen tested material was grown and supplied to farmers throughout Australia to improve production. The national potato tissue culture collection and disease-tested mini tuber project were both established in the 1990s, to supply the Australian seed potato industry. Both the strawberry and potato certification schemes were privatised in 1995, but the PRS managers John Baker and Keith Blackmore remained on-site as tenants.
Accommodation and staff
Housing was scare in the 1940s and two houses were built opposite Cones Landing, and a war-time potato inspection depot was relocated from Dandenong, for single men’s quarters. In 1951–52 two more houses were built at Blue Range. As well as staff and their families living on-site, workers were ferried from Healesville in the department minibus. This continued until the 1990s, when head office put a stop to the ‘free rides’, much to the disappointment of staff. Eventually the department decided it no longer wanted to retain accommodation at their research farms and the three houses opposite Cones Landing were titled and sold and one of the Blue Range houses (the original manager’s home) sold for removal.
In the 1990s the Research Station had over 25 permanent staff and during harvest season many more casual staff were employed. By 2008 the department decided to close most of its research farms across the state and the Research Station employees and research trials were relocated or made redundant. The land was returned to forestry, and Cones Landing and Mick’s Creek areas were leased to a local farmer. The Blue Range area, with its polyhouses, office, sheds and other facilities, was leased jointly to the Victorian Strawberry Industry Certification Authority (VSICA) and the Potato Certification Authority (ViCSPA). Over the last 11 years these industry-based organisations have continued to produce disease-tested material that underpin the production of certified strawberry runners and certified seed potatoes.
This is a very brief overview of the Toolangi Potato Research Station and you will find many more anecdotes, photos, details of staff and research in the reference below.
L.J. Harmsworth, G.H. Mattingley, A.W. Kellock, R.J. Pockett, J. Bates (1995) Potato Research Station Toolangi: The First Fifty Years 1945-1995, Natural Resources and Environment Victoria