Janelle and Peter Matus may have retired from full-time work, but life has never been busier … or more rewarding.
It’s lambing season in the NSW central west and the latest additions to Tara Country’s stud books are taking wobbly steps as they find their land legs after the confines of their mothers’ wombs. While the newborns in the nursery paddocks may appear as cute as bugs’ ears, Tara’s owners Peter and Janelle Matus explain that there’s serious business at play here. Their aim is to breed the best-possible genetics in their farmland country cottage to advance their award-winning flock of sheep for meat.
Located on the outskirts of the historic village of Rockley near Bathurst, Tara’s 300 acres (120 hectares) is home to a mix of primarily Border Leicesters, Poll Dorsets and some Texels, though Peter allows that he has a particular soft spot for the latter, which come from an island of the same name off the coast of the Netherlands. While Texels are relative newcomers to Australia, they are prized for their high-yeild meat in the UK, where they make up about 70 per cent of the sheep population. In fact, Peter and a group of fellow farmers were the first to import the breed into Australia, a painstaking process that involved quarantining 100 sheep from Europe for seven years in New Zealand before their progeny could be introduced here.
In many ways, Peter is practising what he preaches as he has taught science and agriculture at Bathurst’s The Scots School for 20 years. He still takes relief shifts and was lured back to the classroom last year to see the current crop of Year 12s through their final exams. Janelle, a registered nurse in her first life, with stints as a florist, event manager and shopping centre manager on her CV, is also retired, but finds herself busier than ever with life on the farm, her work as a mixed-media artist and role as host of two guest farmland country cottage.
Janelle and Peter met in their hometown of Dubbo where Peter’s parents ran a general store and Janelle’s father was a real estate agent and her mother was a florist. Peter went off to study at Wagga Agricultural College (now Charles Sturt University) and then teacher training at the University of New England in Armidale. Janelle headed to Sydney for her nursing training. Their relationship blossomed and they found themselves as recent graduates in the NSW south-west slopes at Boorowa.
“It was a wonderful time of our lives,” Janelle recalls. “It was back in the Flying Nun days of nurses in veils and total subservience to the hospital matron, such a culture shock after my training at the Mater. The doctor commanded complete respect but was a local legend. He used to round with his dog in tow, and he doubled as the town’s vet. I clearly remember him X-raying a horse’s leg in the ambulance bay. Once a week, we’d have morning tea with the ambos, police officer and other health and community workers and you’d find out what was going on in town and who needed help.”
Peter fondly recalls that same sense of community and the energy and enthusiasm of the time, with 14 of the local high school’s 20 staff all in their first permanent jobs. However, opportunities drew them back to the NSW central-west, where they married and Peter studied horticulture at Orange TAFE before they moved to Dubbo, and opened a florist and plant shop. Their son, Nicholas, was born amid the greenery and the family jokes that he was born with a green thumb. Nicholas has carved out a career in the creative world and has lived in New York City for many years. Peter was teaching in Bathurst when they bought their first farm, but then a friend mentioned a great property with good infrastructure for sale at Rockley. “We could immediately see the potential,” Peter says. “As soon as I put my hand on the gate, I knew this was it,” Janelle adds. “Just like Scarlett [O’Hara, from the epic movie Gone with the Wind], I knew it was home, so we had to call it Tara.”
Almost 30 years down the track, the property is unrecognisable from the one they bought. Initially they lived in the former manager’s house while they renovated the cement and cinder-block homestead. “No two windows were the same size,” Peter says. “So we had to take them out and make them standard.” The garden was non-existent, apart from a willow tree out the back, a cotoneaster at the front and a gum near the shearing shed.” Thanks to a combination of decades of hard work, fertile soil that once supported pea and potato farms and a Chinese market garden, Peter’s “green thumb” and Janelle’s “flower thumb”, the grounds are now a three-acre (1.2-hectare) showpiece and a relaxing place for their B&B guests to wander and recharge their batteries.
About the same time as they bought Tara, Janelle switched careers for a challenging, but rewarding second life in shopping-centre management. The job took her all over NSW, from home at Bathurst, west to Bourke, south to Nowra and even a stint in Sydney. She ran a hectic schedule and thought nothing of taking an 880-kilometre road trip for a weekend at home. Hardly surprisingly, when she did finally step back from that, she found she missed the social interaction. “I’m a people person,” Janelle says. “So it made sense to offer accommodation on the farm, I welcome guests with afternoon tea, arm them with information about the region and then leave them to enjoy. It’s been a learning curve, but an interesting one, as we host people from all walks of life.”
Peter says that for the first 25 years on the farm, their social interactions were restricted to their farming neighbours. “But we didn’t really know many people,” he adds. “Now all these interesting creatives have moved to the region and our gorgeous little village has come to life.” The town was given an added injection of energy when celebrity restaurateur Matt Moran, whose family has long had a farm in the district, bought the local pub. “The pandemic had something to do with it as well,” Janelle says. “Lots of people started realising the benefits of moving to the regions. It’s particularly attractive to young families as they are interested in the environment and healthy lifestyle that the country offers. Plus property is more affordable so it’s a chance for them to get established.”
Residents new and old all gather in the village on the second Sunday of the month for the local artisans’ market. Peter and Janelle generally host a stall where they sell eggs from their chickens, plants they’ve propagated, surplus fruit and vegies from the garden, honey from the hives and jams and pickles from Janelle’s newfound passion for preserving.
“For most of my working life, cooking was more of a chore than a pleasure,” she says. “Now that I have more time on my hands, I’m surprised to say I finally get the joys of making jam and baking. Honestly, no one could be more astonished than me.”
Although Janelle studied art at school and dabbled through the years, she says it’s only now that she is finally able to dedicate more time to her creative instincts. Her textured works are finding a ready market at the local arts cooperative called T.arts in Bathurst.
“All my life I’ve been upskilling and we’ve both been so busy working that we didn’t have much time to do the things we love,” Janelle says. “This has been a great home and place for Nicholas to grow up. He recently celebrated his 30th birthday here with overseas guests joining us. We had some amazing events here, but it’s only since retirement that we’ve been able to fully enjoy living here. We’re as busy as ever, but somehow it feels more fulfilling now. There’s lots yet to do and every time I walk into the shearing shed, I can’t help but think what a great gallery space it might be one day.”
Photography by Ken Brass