The Start of an Era
The history of Fairbanks Seeds can be traced back to the early 1920s. Charles Herbert Fairbank started a General Store in Cheltenham, then an outer suburb of Melbourne. Subsequently, other stores were opened in Parkdale and Bentleigh. All of these stores were in the heart of the main vegetable growing district of Victoria at that time, with the local growers supplying the city of Melbourne with fresh produce. Being surrounded by such large scale vegetable production, it was a natural expansion of the business to stock supplies for vegetable growers such as seed, fertiliser, ploughs, tools etc. Mr Bert Billings, who started with Fairbank’s in 1926, became intensely interested in seed and would use a bicycle to service the growers.
Vegetable Seed was all open pollinated and mainly produced locally, but some seed was also imported. Before the Second World War, Fairbank’s imported seed from Coopers in New Zealand and a broker in Sydney arranged purchases from Holland and the United Kingdom.
The founder of the company, Charles Herbert Fairbank, was killed on the 29th of September, 1931, aged 50. In what would be considered a bizarre incident by today’s standards, he struck a cow whilst riding his motorcycle and side-car along Boundary road, Bentleigh. The Argus Newspaper of the day reports that the machine overturned and Fairbank was thrown heavily on to his head, He died a few minutes after the arrival of a doctor. Despite the death of Mr Fairbank, the family continued the business with Mr Bert Billings playing a key role in continuing to develop the company.
As Melbourne developed, and vegetables were being grown in other areas of the city, Mr Billings saw the need to expand. In 1935, he managed to persuade Mr Rod Fairbank, a son of Charles, to open a shop adjoining the Queen Victoria Market. At this stage, the Queen Victoria Market was the central wholesale market for meat and vegetables and therefore many growers attended the market. Fairbank’s Seeds was able to supply seed and other essentials to the growers, in a central location, increasing the efficiency of operations.
During the war Bert Billings commenced purchasing seed from the USA. To do this, he had to apply for a licence from the Government. In wartime, imports of seed were restricted to vegetables of a proven food value. Fairbank’s were allowed to import carrot, cabbage, lettuce, parsley, swede and turnip. They were not allowed to import watermelons or rockmelons, presumably because the government of the day did not think of them as food.
During the war….to our current story
After the war, Bert expanded the range of seed imports to include watermelon, rockmelon, asparagus, cucumber, beetroot, broccoli, endive, silverbeet, fennel, onion, snowpeas and spinach, and with the exception of one variety of broccoli, the seeds were all open pollinated. By this time, Bert Billings had gained a sound knowledge of seed and was highly regarded in the industry. Many growers grew seed crops for Fairbanks long before hybrids were the norm. A list of seed grown for Fairbanks would include cabbage, cauliflower, onion, pumpkin and tomato.
The business remained in the hands of the Fairbank family and Mr Bert Billings until December 1973, when the business was purchased by Mr Max Muir, who was also one of the directors of the horticultural supply company E.E. Muir & Sons. From January 1974, Max Muir built on the sound foundation laid by the Fairbank family and Mr Bert Billings. In 1996, Fairbank’s Seeds was further strengthened by the investment of South Pacific Seeds into the business.
The range of varieties at Fairbank’s continues to grow as existing varieties are improved and new varieties are developed to meet the ever-changing market needs. In 2013, Fairbanks took on the exclusive distribution of the Syngenta leafy and brassica range. In 2015, Fairbanks was designated as the genetic manager and distributer of the Solana potato range. This new direction has introduced Fairbank’s to the largest vegetable crop in the country and now enables growth into a segment that no other Australian vegetable seed company has ventured.