Tocal Agricultural college principal reflects on a career born out of tragedy

DAWN TO DUSK: Dr Cameron Archer reflects on his time at Tocal. Picture by: STUART SCOTT
DAWN TO DUSK: Dr Cameron Archer reflects on his time at Tocal. Picture by: STUART SCOTT

Dr Cameron Archer has enjoyed 37 years at Tocal Agricultural College – 27 of them as principal – so it seems unfathomable that this advocate for farmers had never planned a life here.

His tenure started under tragic circumstances as Cameron and wife Jean  rebuilt their life out of the rubble of Cyclone Tracy.

“I lost a very good friend who was a trained agriculturalist while Jean and I survived the cyclone, even though we lost most of our possessions,” he said. 

“You have a different view on life after you come that close to death.”

The couple moved after the infamous cyclone levelled swathes of homes in Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974 and claimed 65 lives.

“The cyclone is really an ­experience you don’t forget and I was not planning to live in the south. I planned to live in the north as part of my career, but coming here after the cyclone ... I clearly don’t regret it,” Cameron said. 

“I don’t know that it was fate but I’m very fortunate in a sense that I have fallen in a place where my interests and my career are really one.”

The college has been a leader in agricultural education and conservation land management for many years now.

It has only grown in reputation over the decades and this year celebrated its 50th anniversary, with Cameron at the helm for more than half of those years.

He has also overseen a preservation program of its revered architecture. 

And in 2013, Cameron was ­included in the Queen’s Birthday honours list as a Member (AM) in the general division of the Order of Australia.

Despite the plaudits, Cameron said his highlight was quite simply the students’ success.

“I’m interested in education, I’m interested in agriculture and I’m interested in people,” he said.

 “I’m also interested in heritage and history – all those things are here – I’ve got them all.

“[The highlight] is the reward you get from being part of people’s lives, training students, seeing them come here as young people straight out of school, following their achievements here, and then their careers.”

Agriculture has changed greatly since he arrived at the college.

There was no digital technology and production systems have swelled drastically based around economies of scale.

The latest trend, however, is toward food with a personal story. 

“Agriculture has a very strong future in this country and I think it’s been talked down by many,” he said. 

“But I think agriculture’s time may well have come because people are more than ever interested in their food and where it comes from, how it was produced. 

“Australian agriculture has sophisticated production methods and has the capacity to produce products that consumers can have faith in, as ­distinct from producing undervalued bulk commodities.”

The college will appoint a new leader who will tailor its course to ­student needs in years to come.

Cameron said his time was up and wished to stand aside in a well-planned resignation. Letters were dutifully distributed to staff, students, the hierarchy and the community.

“I didn’t mention that word beginning with ‘R’ in any of that correspondence,” Cameron said. 

“It’s not retirement because I want to keep doing things.”

He will continue to chair the historic Belgenny Farms trust at Camden, home of agricultural pioneer John Macarthur, give his time to the Paterson Historical Society and plans to write a couple of books. One of them on his unpublished masters thesis on the Paterson Valley.

“This is a window when this can happen,” he said. “My resignation has been organised in principle for some time. I am sad but I feel like I’ve accomplished something and that I can now go onto other things. 

“But crikey, 27 years, what a run.”

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