John Kenneth Leslie AO
Inaugural president, Australian Society of Agronomy Inc.
born Brisbane June 11, 1935. died Brisbane January 11, 2018.
John Leslie was an innovative, imaginative and committed Agricultural Scientist who made an outstanding contribution to the technologies which underpin Queensland’s contemporary cropping and pasture based animal industries. In a career of more than 40 years with what is now the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF), his personal research and leadership of numerous research programs contributed significantly to their national and international competitiveness.
On leaving Brisbane Grammar School with an Open Scholarship to the University of Queensland (UQ), he was awarded a Scholarship by DAF to study Agricultural Science. He graduated with first class Honours and was appointed to Toowoomba in 1957 to undertake research into the establishment of small seeded grasses on cracking clay soils.
His research led to the development of more reliable sown grass establishment throughout the State’s grain belt and in doing so, provided one of the technologies which underpinned the vast brigalow land development scheme of the 1960s and 1970s.
His grass establishment research was wide. He not only conducted field and glasshouse trials, he developed a planter to enhance grass establishment, a planter subsequently successfully marketed. He also worked with the Bureau of Meteorology to study the use of long term weather records to predict when sown grasses might be more reliably established. HThis grass establishment research led to the award of a PhD by UQ in 1971.
While in Toowoomba, he was also involved in other research including studies of long fallow disorder, a condition which appeared in crops planted on soils which had been fallowed to store soil moisture for periods approaching 12 months or longer. Those studies led to zinc deficiency being identified as a prime cause. In the late 1960s, he was a member of the DAF team which surveyed the nutritional status of the State’s winter cereal soils. That survey was the basis for crop nutrition studies in the State’s grain growing areas for the next decade or more.
In the late 1960s, he was appointed the first Director of the then Queensland Wheat Research Institute (QWRI). This was the first research centre in the State to be funded, albeit partially, by the State’s wheat growers. He became a committed advocate for grower funding of research and their involvement in setting strategic directions for that research.
At QWRI, he assembled multi -disciplinary research teams to tackle wheat industry problems. Agronomists, Plant Breeders, Plant Pathologists, Chemists and Soil Scientists formed successful project teams to address restraints limiting wheat production.
In 1973, he was awarded the Senior Research Fellowship (Agriculture) by the Reserve Bank of Australia. He spent the next 2 years as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Western Australia where he developed further his skills in the then new research field of crop and pasture modelling.
On his return to Queensland, he was appointed the Director of Agriculture, an appointment which arguably led to the most influential period of his career. As Director of Agriculture, he led the then largest research and development (R&D) group developing technologies for the State’s broadacre cropping and pasture based industries.
He committed staff to expand research in the emerging use of mathematical models to predict crop and pasture production and the then promising field of biotechnology research. In another project, he guided a small team which harnessed the knowledge of staff at some 30 centres throughout the State in a study which documented the State’s agricultural potential.
He actively sought synergies through DAF scientists collaborating with the then CSIRO Division of Tropical Crops and Pastures and the UQ Department of Agriculture. These collaborative R&D projects of the 1970s through to the 1990s were the predecessors of today’s internationally renowned DAF/CSIRO Agricultural Production Systems Research Unit in Toowoomba and the successful DAF/UQ Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, primarily based at UQ St Lucia. He also encouraged his staff to continue to study, an initiative which ensured many DAF scientists were awarded post graduate degrees and their R&D skills enhanced significantly.
After retirement from DAF in 1994, he became a consultant and was involved in AusAID teams appraising projects in Chile, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. He became a mentor to the scientists studying sugar yield decline and reported on the issues causing low sugar content in crops in North Queensland and in the Ord River Irrigation Area of Western Australia.
Not only was he a far sighted and gifted research administrator, his ability to sum up conference or seminar proceedings and, in doing so, to point to areas for future action, was legendary.
He was a member of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology for more than 60 years, serving as South East Queensland Branch President and subsequently as the 1992/93 National President. In 1986, he was appointed a Fellow of the Institute, the highest award it can bestow. He was also Chairman of the Organising Committee of the first Australian Society of Agronomy Conference.
John Leslie was a rational thinker, direct in manner, strong in his views and he could be intimidating. He also listened to others, he challenged conventional thinking and he delighted in setting a plan and delivering the desired outcome. He was passionate about and committed to agricultural R&D. He was awarded an AO in 1994 for his services to agriculture and the profession of Agricultural Science.
Away from his office, he was a more than useful golfer who enjoyed the camaraderie at Brisbane Golf Club of which he was President in 1994-95. His demand for evidence-based decisions made for an uneasy relationship with God to the extent the Order of Service paper at his funeral ended with “Now He Knows for Sure.”
His 42 year marriage to his first wife Dora ended with her death in 2002. In 2005, he married Helen , a sweetheart from his student days. She died in 2015. He is survived by his daughter, three sons and five grandchildren.
More than 100 professional colleagues were among those who packed the Indooroopilly Uniting Church for his funeral, their presence a fitting tribute to an outstanding Agricultural Scientist.
Donald McNee and others