As Rowan Peart sees it, back in the day everyone had cousins in the country and most likely visited them frequently. But with increasing urbanisation that is no longer the case, and the country-city divide is at risk of developing into a chasm. So Rowan and his wife, Maddie, and their extended family are doing what they can to bridge that gap from their home base on Sunnyholt station in the Arcadia Valley in Queensland’s central highlands.
Sunnyholt has been owned by the Pearts since 1964 when Rowan’s father, Wally, and his brother, Robert, both drew blocks in a ballot designed to tame the “tiger country”, which was covered in brigalow scrub, had no permanent water and famously poor soil.
“The Queensland premier at the time, Joh Bjelke Peterson, released 16 x 10,000-acre [4000-hectare] blocks for development,” Rowan explains. “The deal was that if you didn’t improve the land you had it taken off you. Whoever named the region Arcadia Valley must have had a real sense of irony, because it was barely viable for farming. Because it was so crook, no one from 500 miles [800 kilometres] around put their name in the hat and the blocks ended up going to people mainly from NSW. Dad and Robert were lucky enough to draw blocks within 10km of each other. They were also each given £75,000 in interest-free loans. Although initially they weren’t game to tell their parents how much debt they had taken on, it only took them about six months to work out that this colossal amount of money wasn’t even close to what they needed.”
But the Pearts are made of strong stuff and Wally and Robert have been honing their business strategy for almost 60 years. They started out selling rabbit skins as kids, then migrated into share-farming on their father’s land at Armatree between Gilgandra and Gulargambone. In the early ’60s Wally took a life-changing detour to Canada, where he completed first a course in agricultural engineering and then post-graduate studies in agricultural economics. It was an experience that would shape the approach to farming that he brought to Sunnyholt.
With what at the time seemed a massive debt, the brothers moved onto their properties. They bought a crawler tractor for clearing the brigalow and, by always making sure theirs was the lowest quote, contracted out their services. Robert and his wife, Nytha, moved a caravan onto their property and parked it under a shelter — basically four posts with a tin roof — to make a home for their young family, while Wally, who at that stage was still single, lived in a tent for two years. At the end of that time, however, they had cleared sufficient land to run stock and earned enough money to start buying cattle.
As Wally recalls his pioneering phase, the thing he missed most was a bath. Having dug his first dam, he pumped water from it to a tank on a stand. Then he fashioned a bathtub from a cutdown 44-gallon drum and presto, he was on his way to civilisation. The house was next on the to-do list. Having gained permission to dismantle an abandoned oil drilling rig that was on his land, Wally used this to make the framework for his dream home. He liked using local materials and his grandfather was a stonemason, so it wasn’t too much of a leap to make a stone and timber house, admittedly with help from a trained stonemason. By the time Wally met and married Helen, Sunnyholt boasted the relative luxury of the house overlooking one of several wetland dams on the property. When Rowan and his sister, Pauline, came along Wally was well into a side career in agripolitics, which saw him become the president of the Cattle Council of Australia, vice president of the National Farmers’ Federation, and a board member of many organisations including Landcare Australia, Greening Australia, the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation and the Great Pacific Cattle Company.In 1989 he was awarded a CBE for services to the cattle industry. “I loved the hurly burly of politics and lobbying, but at heart I was always a farmer,” he says. “I’d learnt a lot about cattle management in Nebraska and was eager to put that into practice.”
As Rowan takes up the story, Sunnyholt today is run on a hybrid of Wally’s approach to cattle breeding, holistic farming methods Rowan learned during a three-year course with Rural Consulting Services and knowledge gained from eco-tourism studies in Africa. In summer it’s all about the cattle and their management and during the quieter times in the paddock in winter, the focus shifts to tourism and sharing their lifestyle with visitors to the property. Rowan and Maddie have opened several houses and workers’ huts on the property as self-catering accommodation and welcome visitors for anything from several nights to several weeks. The absolute jewel in the crown of their accommodation options is The Outpost, which Rowan candidly admits was born as a Boy’s Own getaway during his single days, when he and a mate sketched out their vision for a drinking shed on the back of a bar coaster. What they ended up with is a spectacularly located, off-the-grid stone hut perched in the foothills of the Arcadia Valley’s most predominant mountain, Castle Hill. The lights and fridge are run using solar energy with a generator as backup, there’s a gas cooker, barbecue and fire pit for meals and a big verandah for taking in the sunsets and breathtaking night skies.
The Pearts also offer station tours where the workings of the property are explained in as much detail as guests want to absorb as well as bird watching, swimming and canoeing on the wetland dams, bush walking and movie screenings in an outdoor cinema.
Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, Rowan turned the potential disaster of a Prado rollover into a positive, by cutting it down to create his very own version of a safari vehicle for taking guests on his station tours.
As Rowan gets behind the wheel to show Australian Country around, he explains that Sunnyholt’s cattle might look like liquorice allsorts, but are in fact, the product of decades of cross-breeding. “Let’s call them Wally’s Special Mix,” he says. “They developed from a mix of Shorthorn, Chianina, Sahiwal and Afrikaner cattle and have a high Brahman content so they stand up to drought well. They might look shotgun, but they are actually very thoroughly researched.”
This mix, when combined with low-stress stock handling techniques and cell grazing, is proving a winning formula for the Pearts. “Instead of flogging a big paddock to death, we’ve broken the paddocks into much smaller parcels and we rotate the cattle through them,” Rowan says.”We do a grid grass assessment on foot every three weeks and the stock are so used to being moved around that we can shift them by calling them. It’s a vastly different system to having dogs and bikes moving cattle from one huge paddock to another, but it results in much healthier stock.” Rowan adds that they are in the process of converting the herd to organic certification, which means eliminating the use of chemicals on the property.
“Our biggest problem is not droughts, floods, bushfires or wild dogs,” he adds. “It’s brigalow regrowth. If we were to walk away the brigalow would come back with vengeance, so we have to keep on top of it. Brigalow strangles everything that grows under it, so first and foremost I am a grass farmer, keeping pasture up for the stock. When Dad came here this was a wasteland, but now it’s viable country. When he arrived there were hardly any birds, and since he created the wetlands there are now more than 200 birds on our list. It goes without saying that we are really proud of what we have achieved here and that’s why we love to have visitors and show them around.”
The complete story was originally published in Australian Country issue 21.1. Click here to subscribe to our magazine
Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass