News about former students
Vale Strath Brown (Course 7)
James Strathearn Brown, known as “Strath”, was born in Salisbury in 1937, the third eldest of seven children from Jim and Molly Brown. Strath’s father, although a farmer by upbringing and training, had volunteered to fill in as the temporary General Manager of the Farmers’ Co-op, a job that transformed into a thirty year permanent position and which he held with considerable success and it is why the family moved into town from their farm in Sinoia and lived on The Ridge in Avondale.
Strath attended Avondale Primary School in Salisbury and then Prince Edward School for his secondary education.
Having applied and been accepted to attend Gwebi Agricultural College with Course 7 Strath did his pre-College practical with Archie Black, the well-known Hereford breeder, on Mgutu and Maryvale Farms in Mazoe.
Strath excelled at Gwebi graduating in 1957 with a First Class Diploma and Distinctions in Engineering and Practical and picking up the Lilford Medal for Leadership and Example, the Stewarts And Lloyds Prize for Practical Engineering and the Johnson Prize for the Engineering Essay. Due to his leadership qualities Strath was elected Student Chairman by his peers in his final year at the College. For many years after graduating Strath was invited to return to the College to address the students and share his farming experiences with them. This commitment to the College culminated in Strath being appointed to the Gwebi College Advisory Council.
Strath then returned to work for Archie Black for a season after graduating before setting off with his Gwebi friend Mike Edgar to backpack for three years around Australia and New Zealand. He counted 36 different jobs in three years including milking cows, shearing sheep, cutting cane, stomping grapes, wood cutting and finding the time between all of these jobs to take his Private Pilot’s Licence and finally become a flying instructor in New Zealand.
During this time, in 1961, he met and married Beryl Bond in Rotorua in New Zealand who was an Australian mid-wife working there and it looked as though Strath might settle down in either Australia or New Zealand. However, after his son Andrew was born, the pull of his home country was too strong and the family headed back to Rhodesia.
Strath returned with no money and no employment arranged but soon secured a job with Wally Hustler growing Tobacco on Squatodzi Farm in Trelawney. Here the family stayed from 1962 and left in 1969 but not before Strath and Wally had jointly won the Rothman’s Tobacco Grower of the Year for their work on revolutionising the handling and curing of the tobacco crop with their design of the Hustler-Brown curing tunnel.
In 1969 Strath stepped out on his own and purchased Mkonono Farm in Darwendale where he grew Tobacco, Seed Tobacco and Seed Maize. He expanded his farming operations until at one stage he was the world’s largest single producer of Tobacco Seed. He then bought another two farms, Squatodzi, where he had originally managed for Wally Hustler, and Mpanda Farm in Darwendale concentrating on Tobacco.
Once he was established and thriving, and knowing how difficult it was for a young and enthusiastic farmer to start out on his own, Strath financially supported dozens of undercapitalised managers who had worked for him to buy their own tobacco farm. Obviously he put in safeguards to protect his investment but this scheme worked well and many emerging tobacco growers owed their farming independence to Strath’s farsighted ideas.
Having installed competent managers on all three farms Strath now involved himself in an Engineering business in the city called J.S. Brown Industries where he manufactured all the components required for his curing tunnel and then expanded into other engineering projects including the ‘Manipula’ clip used in the reaping of tobacco, designed by Strath, and which proved to be popular and much in demand. This successful company was managed by Andrew, his oldest son, who later bought it outright.
Strath loved experimenting, solving engineering problems and building so it was inevitable that he would be called on to advise on many projects including the improvement of the tobacco bale handling facilities at Tobacco Sales Ltd. and then, due to that success, being asked to design and manage the construction of the brand new auction floor for T.S.L. which became the largest tobacco auction floor in the world, selling in excess of two hundred million kilograms of tobacco for two consecutive years.
Strath, ever since his New Zealand days, was passionate about flying and about instructing new pilots and he taught all five of his children to fly. He entered more than thirty Zimbabwe Air Rallies, sometimes as a pilot, and sometimes as a navigator for one of his children or other young and enthusiastic pilots, winning the event three times and finishing in the top three most of the other times. Strath owned over the years a Mooney, a Piper Super Cub and Cessna 210.
During the Bush War Strath, flying his Mooney, was a member of the Salisbury Flight of the Police Reserve Air Wing (PRAW), and later the Lomagundi Flight, and during his seven year commitment probably landed at nearly every airport and bush airstrip in the country.
During 1969 Rob Gee along with Dave Higgins, a friend from C7 Gwebi, who later obtained a B.Sc. in Animal Science, approached Strath about starting a commercial crocodile farm based at Spencer’s Creek in Victoria Falls. Strath was not enthusiastic about this project to start with but was gradually won over by his two partners’ enthusiasm and, after meeting with National Parks in Salisbury, they were given the go-ahead to start Spencer’s Creek Crocodile Farm. Although the aim of the project was to collect eggs from the wild, hatch them, grow the crocodiles to the correct size, slaughter them, have the skins tanned and then sell the skins on the lucrative overseas market the partners soon realised that this project would take some years to come to fruition. So they made the decision to buy in a hundred live crocodiles of varying sizes from the van Jaarsvelds at Binga and get a head start on this process. This soon became a tourist attraction in Vic Falls and provided some welcome income to this new venture.
Over the years the Spencer’s Creek partners learnt much about breeding crocodiles, worked hand in hand with National Parks, and were often consulted by people also wanting to get into the crocodile business. This included flying to Greece to look at a possible start-up for some Greek businessmen on the island of Rhodes as well as selling over a hundred live crocodiles to a crocodile farm on a Kibbutz in Israel. Spencer’s Creek did well, expanded, and by 2014 had 40,000 live crocodiles in their pens and were selling 12,000 skins to overseas markets. As all three of the original partners have passed away the company was owned and managed by Strath’s two sons, Andrew and Jim, who in turn have sold it on to Zambezi Crocodiles in order to enlarge Ilala Lodge.
Strath, never one to shy away from controversy, felt UDI by the RF Government was a retrogressive act which would lead to hardship and disruption of the country’s economy. Having the courage of his convictions he joined the new Rhodesia Party, at that time under the leadership of Allan Savory. Following the death of the RF incumbent of the Sinoia-Umvukwes constituency, a by-election was called for in February 1974, and Strath found himself standing for election against three other candidates. Strath came a credible second and although not elected to Parliament, was satisfied that he had, as he put it, ‘stirred it up.’ Another project that he became involved with in 1989, again rather hesitantly, was the purchase of a piece of prime land in Victoria Falls that he was offered by the Gardini brothers where the Sprayview Restaurant had previously been situated. The Brown family, together with Rob Gee, gathered a team of competent and capable employees who got stuck in and built the 16 room Ilala Lodge. However they did utilise a local construction company who built intermittently but used a professional architect, Richard Beattie, and interior decorator Thelma Newmarch who worked well together and the Hotel was opened in 1991. Over the years due to its success the Lodge has expanded to 32, then 56 and finally to 73 rooms at present. The family still own and manage the Lodge to this day.
In 1994 he and Roy Hacker were invited to invest in Spurwing Island on Lake Kariba and they joined eight other shareholders who were mainly farmers from the Bindura area. With this injection of finance Strath was able to indulge in his flair for organisation and building which he did with great enthusiasm.
Strath now had a taste and understanding of tourism so built an eight chalet camp called Chizarira adjacent to the National Park of the same name which had magnificent views overlooking the Zambezi Valley. At 2000 square kilometres this Park was home to an abundance of wildlife, including the largest population of Black Rhino in the world. The Lodge specialised in walking safaris to find and observe these Rhino and although the Lodge was now doing well, poachers started to decimate its main attraction and National Parks made the decision to relocate what was left of the Rhinos to Conservancies in the middle of the country and the Lowveld. This led to a decision to sell the camp and invest that income into building more rooms at Ilala Lodge.
In the late nineties Strath was approached by some young financial experts in Harare who understood the complicated money market operating in the booming economy that Zimbabwe was enjoying at that time. Foreign governments and NGOs were all clamouring to invest in the country. CFX was a local financial services company that wished to take advantage of this bullish market but were undercapitalised and asked Strath to join them as a partner which he did. From CFX grew KFX and CFX Merchant Bank plus a merger with Century Bank. This venture into the world of finance was successful in the early stages but as time went by and the catastrophic economic policies of the Government took effect, hyperinflation started to kick in and the land invasions gathered momentum resulting in the economy beginning to decline, Strath realised that this financial arena, with all its shenanigans, was not a place where he felt comfortable, so he withdrew much to the relief of his family.
Due to his down-to-earth and successful approach to business Strath was invited to join the Board of many agro-industrial companies in Zimbabwe. One such company was Interfresh, one of the largest suppliers of fruit and vegetables in the country. Under his Chairmanship, Strath negotiated the purchase of Mazoe Citrus Estates from Anglo American and this acquisition proved to be very profitable for Interfresh.
Strath had long learnt to delegate authority to the managers of his numerous business interests which freed him up to travel locally and internationally, either for work or pleasure. He was often asked to speak at field days, farmers’ meetings and agricultural workshops and also undertook a tobacco handling and curing consultation to the Philippines. On the recreational side he visited the Antarctica and Indonesia. One of the hobbies that Strath enjoyed and took to like a duck to water, literally, was scuba diving, graduating from the Oriel Girls’ swimming pool, to the submerged Ethel Mine and then to the Chinhoyi Caves. It wasn’t long before Strath, now PADI qualified, was diving in the sea off Mozambique, Mauritius and the Red Sea. Other interests Strath developed over the years were bee keeping, playing bridge and cycling which he took to with his usual enthusiasm in his mid-sixties and completed three Cape Argus Cycle Races.
Strath had been plagued by varicose veins in his legs for most of his adult life which often turned into varicose ulcers causing him to wear pressure bandages but in spite of many visits to specialists in South Africa these ulcers refused to heal and often caused severe infections particularly in his left leg resulting in a loss of strength and health. Tired of continuous medication of antibiotics that didn’t seem to work Strath made the decision himself to have his leg amputated just below the knee at a hospital in Cape Town. He had no regrets and claimed that his life, both mentally and physically, improved immeasurably after the operation.
Strath, married to Beryl for thirty-seven years, had five children – Andrew, Jim, Keith, Laura and Marion all of whom made their parents very proud as they have all made their mark in their particular field of interests and expertise. Sadly Beryl passed away from Cancer in 1998. Strath, several years later, married Dawn Beirowski to whom he was married for fourteen years until he too passed away on 28th March, 2014.
Extract from his book “Strath – A Biography” with kind permission from his family.
A F S Millar (Course 7).
Was Branch Manager for Dulys in Sinoia.
Vale Terry Searson (Course 7).
Terence James Searson began life on Bath Farm in Wedza before the family moved to ‘Garway’ in Borrowdale to join his grandparents. Terry attended Highlands Junior School and was a foundation pupil at Churchill High School. He attended Gwebi Agricultural College from 1955 to 1957 followed immediately by his National Service out of Llewellin Barracks, Bulawayo.
Terry met Fortune whilst at Gwebi and they were married in 1959. Terry and Fortune had four children: Tim, Robin, Simon and Juliet with Tim and Simon joining their father on the land later in their lives. Terry began his farming career on a dairy farm called Glen Nora (now the Township on the outskirts of Harare) before moving to Karoi to work for Lionel Jacobson growing tobacco. The move to the Beatrice / Harare South area in 1962, firstly to work for Count Lazanski on Canterbury farm, followed by a managerial position on New Retreat farm (Shore Hall Pvt Ltd), and then to Whitham working for Mark Chester, proved successful as Terry went on to buy Beatrice Central farm in the early 1970’s.
Terry was a varied and successful farmer, trying his hand at many ventures before settling for winter wheat, soya beans and maize which led to being able to purchase New Retreat farm in 1982, thereby gaining the water rights on both sides of a stretch on the Mupfure River. The extensive irrigation systems implemented by Terry on both farms, including a large off river water-storage dam, lead to highly successful cropping yields and national recognition for winter wheat production.
Terry contributed extensively to the community during the civil war, as well as during the land invasion debacle, establishing himself as a natural and respected leader. He could be relied upon to keep a level head in moments of extreme stress and was a man of great integrity.
Terry and Fortune lost the farms during the land acquisition programme and moved to Harare in 2002, settling in Highlands. Terry secured work at the Celebration Centre on the Borrowdale road as the Maintenance Manager, which kept the wolf from the door.
Terry and Fortune immigrated to Australia in February 2015 to be closer to their children, despite their sadness at leaving Zimbabwe. They successfully settled in Werribee, Victoria where he passed away in December 2017 aged 80.
Colin Lowe from CFU