HIGH COTTON IN AUSTRALIA : Former Californians Build an Industry in Two Decades

Times Staff Writer

Cotton grower James Kahl, 36, leaned out the driver’s window of his pickup, took careful aim through the sight of his shotgun and fired once.

A flock of galahs, big black and red bush birds, fluttered noisily into the air as the gunshot blasted a hole through a huge black poisonous snake in one of Kahl’s irrigation ditches flanking lush green fields of cotton that stretched as far as the eye could see. The snake jerked violently, then died.

“I’d rather kill the snake than have the snake kill one of my irrigators. Every year, deadly poisonous black snakes like that one kill people in Australia,” Kahl explained as he put the gun away.


When the cotton grower was 10 in May, 1961, he left his Merced, Calif., home with his mother and dad, Jean and Paul Kahl, his five sisters and brothers, to move to Wee Waa, a tiny town in Australia’s outback 400 miles northwest of Sidney, inland and near the Queensland border.

The Kahls were the first of 25 farm families from the San Joaquin Valley who moved to Wee Waa from Merced, McFarland, Clovis, Porterville, Fresno and Chico from 1961 to 1963--109 men, women and children--to launch a cotton industry for Australia.

Australia did not have a cotton industry at the time. The nation was importing $16 million of cotton annually for its textile mills.

Today, thanks to the Californians, Australia is producing some of the world’s highest-quality cotton and is the 10th-largest cotton-producing nation on earth. Last year, Australia produced 1.1 million bales of cotton worth $275 million, 90% of which was exported, 45% to Japan, the rest to Europe, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Eastern Bloc countries and the Soviet Union in that order. In Australia today, Wee Waa means cotton. It is the heart, soul and center of Australia’s cotton industry.

That first year the Kahls arrived in Australia, in 1961-62, the family produced 98 bales of cotton on 64 acres of land. Australia’s cotton industry was on its way.

Now, 26 years later, all but three of the 25 original California families are still growing cotton in Australia. Many of the children of the original growers are running their parents’ operations or farming on their own. They’re not Californians anymore. Not even Americans. They’re Australian citizens.


It was Paul Kahl, 68, and his Merced neighbor, Frank Hadley, 60, who started the migration “Down Under” when they decided that they might be more successful growing cotton in Australia than on their San Joaquin Valley farms.

“Paul and I were at a cotton meeting in Bakersfield in 1960,” recalled Hadley, who owns 35,000 acres of farmland in New South Wales. “All the California cotton growers were complaining about how hard it was to make a living with the tax squeeze, government crop and acreage restrictions.

Welcomed by Government

“One of the growers, Albert Davis of McFarland, told Paul and me that he had been on a recent Farm Bureau trip to Australia. Albert bragged up the availability of cheap, good farmland that seemed to him ideal for cotton in a country that did not have a going cotton industry.”

Kahl, who was 42 at the time, and Hadley, who was 34, flew to Australia, where they were warmly welcomed by the government and agricultural officials. They checked out the possibilities and decided to embark on their great adventure. They interested the other cotton growers, including Davis, to join them. In the beginning, Australia provided generous subsidies to the American cotton growers.

“The best cotton-growing areas in both hemispheres are around the 30th parallel. Wee Waa is 30.3 degrees south,” Kahl explained. “This part of Australia is similar in so many ways to the San Joaquin Valley--the rich black soil. The Nandewar mountain range, our High Sierra, lies a few miles to the east. We get 21 inches of rain a year and the hot summer temperatures.

“A year before we arrived, the Keepid Dam was completed on the Namoi River. The dam was full, with water running over the spillway, and not more than five farmers were using that water. Wee Waa was waiting for us. We liked what we saw.”

Each family spent between $50,000 and $100,000 to make the move, to buy a home, to buy farm equipment and land. Land in Wee Waa was selling for $50 an acre at a time when farmland back home was going for $1,500 to $2,000 an acre.

Received High Honors

Hadley and Kahl were partners for the first three years. When they organized the Namoi Cotton Co-Operative Ltd. in the fall of 1962, they were the sole members. Today, there are 350 cotton-growing families who own and operate the co-op and eight cotton gins--the original cotton growers and Australian farmers who converted their wheat, sheep and cattle operations in Wee Waa and surrounding areas into cotton farms.

Kahl has been chairman of the co-op for all but one year of its existence. The MBE and AM--Member of the British Empire and Member of the Order of Australia--follow his name, high honors presented him by the two governments for outstanding achievement, for providing Australia with a cotton industry. Cotton today is Australia’s fourth-biggest agricultural field crop export after wheat, sugar and rice.

Last year, the co-op produced 660,000 bales of cotton worth $165 million on 220,000 acres of land, 60% of Australia’s total output. “This is the largest combined ginning and marketing cotton co-op in the world,” Alex Mehan, 50, assistant general manager of the giant Wee Waa facility, told The Times, adding:

“The cotton industry in Australia started by the California cotton growers is hailed as one of the all-time great successes of Australian agriculture. Never before in the history of agriculture in this country has there been such a spectacular growth in a single industry.”

Australian government and agricultural officials attribute the success of cotton to Hadley, Kahl and the rest of the Californians who brought their expertise and technology to the cotton-growing area in northern New South Wales.

Gave Up Citizenship

Kahl, who also represents the cotton industry for Australia’s National Farm Federation, was a World War II U.S. Army Air Corps B-17 pilot held prisoner two years when his plane was shot down over Germany.

“It wasn’t easy for me or for the others to give up our American citizenship. But we felt we had to from an economic, not political, standpoint,” he explained. “We certainly weren’t mad at the U.S. It was simply that we had a great opportunity over here.”

The crew-cut cotton farmer told how his World War II bombing crew co-pilot “had a hemorrhage” when he learned he had become an Australian citizen.

For Hadley, his wife, Norma, 56, their daughter, Alice, 36, and son, Tom, 33, it was less of a cultural shock moving to Australia than if they had moved to New England, “where people are very uppity,” or to America’s Deep South.

“Farmers here are very much like us--friendly, down-to-earth people without airs,” insisted Hadley, who named his farm Kangaloon (kangaroo watering place) because of the abundance of “roos” in the area. “The roos don’t bother the cotton, but they play hell with wheat,” he noted.

For Nancy Root, a Bakersfield girl who met and married Michael Root, 35, at Southern California’s La Verne University 11 years ago, and Nadeen Root of Sacramento, who met and married Michael’s brother Rick, 32, at the same school, giving up their American citizenship wasn’t easy. “It bothered me a great deal. You know, ‘God Bless America,’ ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and all the rest,” Nancy sighed.

A Great Adventure

“I miss Winchell’s doughnuts, McDonald’s, the corner library, my mother and my sisters and my sister’s kids growing up,” Nadeen added. “You don’t go to a grocery store and see 50 different brands of the same product on the shelves. In Wee Waa you take what you get and are lucky if you can get it.” But both young women said they like the Wee Waa life style with close family ties and the peace and quiet.

Wandall (Stub) Root, 58, and his wife, Barbara, 55, were the fourth California family to come out. “It has been one great adventure,” said the cotton grower’s wife. “We have survived floods, insects, poisonous snakes. We’ve seen as many as 75 kangaroos on our front yard at one time.

“We had to go back two generations in time when we moved here. There were no indoor toilets when we arrived, no air-conditioning, and it gets hot here like it does in the San Joaquin Valley. TV hadn’t reached Wee Waa. People used wood stoves for cooking. Now we’re as up to date as our friends and families back in California. And so are our neighbors, following our example.”

But there still is the isolation, the remoteness of Wee Waa and Namoi Valley. “We cook our own meals. There are no restaurants. We provide our own entertainment,” continued Barbara Root. Her mother and father, Albert Davis, 81, and his wife Ina, 78, are the oldest of the American expatriates in Wee Waa. Davis’ grandfather started cotton farming in Tennessee after the Civil War.

By now, the former Californians are scattered miles apart from one another. The children of nearly all of the original Californians have married Australians, except for a few like the Roots, who took American brides or husbands while attending college in the United States.

Success Has Spread

The former Californians’ vocabularies are spiced with Aussie expressions like bloke, cheese and kisses (wife), cobber (friend), fair dinkum (it’s the truth), lollies (candy) and nipper (small child). The older generation hasn’t lost its American accent. The younger generations, however, speak the Australian version of the King’s English.

Wee Waa, the sleepy little outback outpost, has boomed because of the California cotton growers. It is filled with farm machinery firms, aerial agricultural companies, earth-moving outfits and irrigation engineers. The San Joaquin Valley farmers introduced irrigation to the area, and other irrigated crops are now being grown--soybeans, sunflowers, peanuts, grapes and grain sorghum.

When the Americans arrived, the nearest high school was in Narrabri, 25 miles to the east. There was no hospital in Wee Waa, no sewer system. Today, Wee Waa has a high school, hospital and sewer system.

The cotton growers have prospered, although there have been lean years and disastrous years when their crops were wiped out by floods and insect infestation.

In 1965, Times staff writer Charles Hillinger wrote a story about California cotton growers in Wee Waa, Australia. Recently, he revisited these growers and filed this report.