Merriwa bids farewell to highly-successful herb farmer, community leader and philanthropist John Penninger

MERRIWA local John Penninger is one very tough bloke, having battled cancer, drought and recession.

However, he's also run a highly-successful herb farm, is a husband, father and foster father, community leader and life mentor.

Mr Penninger was farewelled recently where his achievements - especially as an outstanding philanthropist, were honoured.

"My parents were from Sydney and bought a small block of land in Merriwa for their semi-retirement in 1973," he said.

"They connected three-phase power and built a few kit homes and were kindly helped by Ron Crouch who often guided them on many aspects of country life.

"My dad continued to develop the property and started small scale pig farming alongside our herb business - he also planted a bed of rosemary that's still there.

"In 1989 we decided to re-locate our business and family to Merriwa seeking a much better lifestyle.

"We grew our business and acquired some other small businesses, always experimenting to see if we could locally grow herbs that were being imported.

"We also tried getting others to grow herbs for us."

Local farmer Amanda Kemp fondly remembered the time they grew coriander.

"Some people said that our lambs had a coriander flavour - probably because they were eating the stubble," she explained.

Mr Penninger continued; "I had admired the work of Legacy for a long time and contacted them one day in 1993, asking if they were interested in receiving rosemary grown in Merriwa for ANZAC Day - free of charge.

"Legacy jumped at the offer and we have over the years, contributed enough rosemary to have allowed Legacy to raise in between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000 for their charitable work.

"The growing of rosemary has truly been a community effort and a great source of joy - now we have our local schools, fire brigade station and RSL Club, together with the Upper Hunter Shire Council and others, all growing rosemary for Legacy."

Among the many people Mr Penninger thanked, he was especially appreciative of the publicity generated by Mike Pritchard of ABC Upper Hunter Radio.

"It was fantastic being interviewed by the radio stations - especially for this 'media tart'.

"I remembered being interviewed over the phone while on my way to Sydney to deliver the rosemary."

Former Merriwa Herb Farm employee Julia Carberry was among the many people sad to see Mr Penninger and his family leave.

"Thank you for the years of employment where you understood our individual family issues," she said.

"It was a dirty, grotty job where we ended up smelling like a baked dinner after work, but it was a lot of fun."

Retired teacher Jenny Johnson also extended her thanks.

"I was the careers advisor for Merriwa Central School and for many years John and the Merriwa Herb Farm took on a lot of our students (especially those with special needs) over many years for work experience," she added.

"Often the work experience was for an extended period and they were absolutely wonderful."

With Mr Penninger's departure, Merriwa farmer Annie Rodgers has now assumed the substantial role of coordinating the collection of the rosemary.

"Last year we worked with the Merriwa RSL Club; that helped us store and pack eight, slightly over-loaded pallets of rosemary for Legacy".

So, what now for this self-confessed former "media tart"?

"I really don't know, I have a few business contacts in Port Macquarie and Taree, so I might move up towards there."