RASWA Honours Perth Hills Agricultural Giant as Hall of Fame Inductee
The late politician and agricultural scientist, Ray Owen, has been honoured by the Royal Agricultural Society of WA (RASWA) as the 2020 WA Agricultural Hall of Fame inductee.
Image: Raymond Cecil Owen
In a career spanning more than 40 years, Ray Owen – born and raised among the orchards in what would later become Pickering Brook – would leave a lasting impression upon WA agriculture and horticulture; first, in his many roles for the Department of Agriculture; then for his commitment to various organisations connected to fruit growing; and later as a politician representing the people of Perth Hills.
Ray’s career in agriculture began in 1919 at the Narrogin School of Agriculture where he was awarded a scholarship. The some 160 kilometre, eight-hour journey south-east was covered while perched on the pinion of his brother Les’ motorcycle with his father, Oliver, in the sidecar.
The 13-year old Ray quickly developed a talent for blacksmithing while dividing his time equally between farm-work and the classroom and developing a well-rounded appreciation for farming and agriculture – including care of livestock.
He attended the University of Western Australia – again through a scholarship – between 1922 and 1923 before joining the Department of Agriculture in 1924. However, realising he needed a university degree to progress in the department, he opted to return to his studies in 1933, working part-time and taking unpaid leave in order to graduate with a BSc in Agriculture by 1935. He would continue his affiliation with the university for another six years as a lecturer in horticulture.
Now aged 30, Ray continued his career with the Department of Agriculture as an inspector and later advisor to the state’s highly lucrative fruit trade. His work would take him to each of WA's primary fruit growing areas - Collie; Bridgetown; Mount Barker; Manjimup; Gosnells and the various settlements dotted around the Perth foothills – casting his expert eye over the produce to make sure it was not affected by disease and was of a suitable standard.
His expertise would be required to help control outbreaks of Apple Scab, Mediterranean Fruit Fly and Codlin Moth, among other destructive pests and diseases which threatened the quality of the region’s fruit crop. He also helped to educate growers in proactive measures to improve yields, such as improvements in spraying regimes; pruning; budding and grafting techniques and maintaining a healthy soil. Ray was an early advocate of ‘green manure’ - the modern technique of plowing secondary crops into the soil to produce a naturally nitrogen rich environment for produce to grow – and promoted modern orchard management techniques which helped bring professional standards to the industry.
With Australia joining the global conflict in 1939, Ray’s skills were deemed vital to the war effort and he was sent to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Sydney, where he retrained as an expert in food dehydration and canning. Here he learned to apply his inspection skills to the canned and dehydrated fruit and vegetables issued to Australian and American troops stationed in the area.
Ray continued his climb through the ranks of the Department of Agriculture and his years of service were recognised in 1940 when he attained the position of Assistant Superintendent of Horticulture.
However, a short four-years later, he would resign his position to take to pursue a new career in politics, contesting the WA parliamentary seat of Swan and taking his seat in April of 1944.
He first foray into politics would only last until 1947 when he would return to his ‘fruit salad’ orchard in Kalamunda, growing stone fruit, apples, pears and citrus varieties. He would develop a cash crop of peas, potatoes, carrots and – for a time – daffodils – to expand the orchard and purchase a bush block for a farm in the nearby York District.
Blessed with an innovative and practical mind, Ray would not shy away from getting his hands dirty, particularly when there was an opportunity to put his skills of invention to good use. If a tool or implement were unavailable or too expensive, Ray would modify, make or remodel to get the job done. Many of his ideas and inventions were published in agricultural journals and exhibited at Field Days.
Ray reentered politics in 1950 as the Country Party Member for Darling Range and served in this capacity for 12 years. He was edged out of the seat by a single vote in 1962.
Throughout his life, Ray was heavily involved in supporting the Australian fruit growing industry, beginning in 1936 when he was a foundation member at the Institute of Agriculture. He later served as Chairman of the Western Australian Fruit Central Citrus Council on two separate occasions and then as the President of the association in 1967. He held the position of WA Delegate to the Australian National Citrus Growers Association for 22 years and was instrumental in the creation of the Export Stone Fruit Growers Association in 1965.
Ray’s commitment to his own community was unflinching. He was largely responsible for Kalamunda receiving its first reticulated water supply in 1954 after many years of campaigning.
His decades-long involvement with the Kalamunda Horticultural Show began by exhibiting produce from his father’s orchard. He would later become an instrumental part of that organisation and was the driving force behind the introduction of District Displays, taking inspiration from his time as a judge at the Perth Royal Show while with the Department of Agriculture. In his position as Member of the Legislative Assembly for the Swan and Darling Range electorates he would convince a steady stream of ministers and dignitaries to make the trip up the hills to open the show and used his considerable influence in agricultural circles to attract new exhibits and attractions, such as a plough-horse gallop and the ever popular wood chop competition.
As an elected member of the Darling Range Roads Board for 14 years, Ray championed a more progressive and expansive outlook for the local area. He advocated greater borrowing in order to finance the redevelopment of key areas – such as converting the vacant Dairy Block into what is now known as Stirk Park – and the preservation of Kalamunda’s heritage, including Stirk Cottage, home to one of the early settlers, now in the hands of the Kalamunda and Districts Historical Society.
In 1966, Ray’s continued and considerable service to the district was recognised when he was appointed the first Freeman of Kalamunda. The shire would later name ‘Ray Owen Reserve’ and ‘Raymond Street’ in his honour.
He was a Justice of the Peace for more than 30 years and was committed to assisting local people wherever he could. He was often called upon by the local Yugoslav and Italian families who had taken up land and developed their orchards in the district, assisting the men in applications to allow their wives and families to join them in Australia. In doing so, Ray made many lifelong friends.
In his later years, Ray would dedicate himself to recording his vast experience and contribution in the form of interviews with oral historians and his daughter, Helen, who diligently transcribed and digitized many hours of conversations.
Ray Owen passed away in 2003 at the age of 97. His posthumous induction to the WA Agricultural Hall of Fame cements his legacy as one of the giants of the agricultural sector and his considerable contribution to the successes of the states’ farmers and horticulturalists.
His portrait, due to be unveiled at a later date, will hang alongside the likes of James Drummond - who pioneered agriculture during the first 30 years of settlement in the Swan River Colony.
For more information about the Agricultural Hall of Fame, visit www.raswa.org.au.
We respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Owners, the Whadjuk Noongar People as the Custodians of this land. We also pay respect to all Aboriginal community Elders, past, present and future who have and continue to reside in the area and have been an integral part of the history of this region.