The engineer trapped inside a farmer’s body

Ian Allen, mid 1950s

Losing his left foot while trying to clear a blockage on a corn picking machine never slowed Ian Allen down.

He once told how he took up ballroom dancing to improve his dexterity. Friend of 80 years, Joe Tomerini once said he thought it was so he could meet women, and whichever is true in the 1950s he met Joycephine Greenfield, a NZ dairy farmers daughter on a working holiday. The two become well known at dances across the north and were married in early 1956.

Born in Atherton at Nurse Austin’s Clinic, to Margaret (nee Rae) and William Stephen Allen, Ian was the youngest son in a family of six children.

He grew up on the family farm near Tolga on the Atherton Tableland in North Queensland, and spent most of his life in the area, buying his own farm just across the road.

A bright student he went away from home to high school in Cairns where he seemed destined for a career in engineering. In 1944 however his father fell ill, and since his older brother Bill was away with the army during WWII, Ian had to return to Tolga to run the family farm.

This interruption to Ian’s education didn’t stifle his love of learning, and over the next 30 years all five of his and Joyce’s children received tertiary educations at a time when such was uncommon in FNQ farming families.

In another era Ian would have been considered a Renaissance man, teaching his children to play chess, read Shakespeare, and tell the difference between a Whitworth thread and a British Standard Fine when taking the engine out of a tractor. While his educated children were more familiar with calculators, he could normally calculate volumes of silos or dams just as quickly with log tables and a slide rule.

An engineer trapped inside a farmer’s body, many of his contemporaries described him inventing and building shelling machines for velvet beans, pullers for peanut plants, and tree pushers for dozers. A number of farmers described him as the “go to guy” when they had mechanical problems they just couldn’t work out for themselves, or which they felt needed a better solution.

In the 60s he opened his own machinery business, with Case self-propelled combine harvesters arriving in boxes and Ian assembling them on the floor of an old peanut factory. “It’s just like Meccano” he said at the time “you just start putting the pieces together and eventually you will have a combine harvester”.

Ian in one of the combine harvesters in 1970s

Ian Allen always gave freely of himself and was a staunch advocate of farmer welfare. He served on the Atherton Tableland Maize Marketing Board, the Peanut Board, and the Potato Growers Coop. He also served a term on the Queensland Agricultural Council. His vision for farm produce from the Tablelands saw: A $1 million sale of maize to a Japanese firm; Meeting the Shah of Iran at an Agricultural Council meeting in Sydney; and working on the marketing of potatoes to Singapore.

In later years he was disappointed with the deregulation of these farmer owned organisations. The destruction of the infrastructure such as silos and rail that these organisations had built up was also a sore point. Ian felt the losers were the farmers themselves.

Suffering from Alzheimer’s and cancer, Ian died in Cairns Base Hospital of complications following a fall and a broken leg. He was buried in Atherton in the red Tableland soil he had given his life to. He left behind a culture of innovation and a history of service .

Obituary: Ian Rae Allen
Farmer and Innovator
Born: Atherton, Qld August 8 1929
Died: Cairns, Qld, June 11 2013

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