Pushing the boundaries of broadacre cropping across New South Wales.
Story by Jessica Rea
Photography by Jessica Rea and Thomas Eather
For six generations the Eather family have developed their farming practices on their property, Bellevue, located near Narrabri, New South Wales. Their story is one of innovation, aspiration and hard work.
Thomas Eather travelled from England to Australia aboard the second fleet . Doing things his own way from the outset, it is thought the family originally bore the surname Heather, dropping the H to become Eather upon Thomas’ arrival in Australia. It was Thomas’ son Michael who first crossed the Murrurundi Gap, droving his cattle over the range to Tamworth, then across the plains, eventually settling at Henriendi (Baan Baa NSW). Once again, it seemed Michael had to do things his own way, with some accounts of his travels stating he took his cattle in the opposite direction to most others crossing the Murrurundi Gap. Nonetheless, the family made their home at Henriendi.
It was the fourth generation of Eathers who established what would become the Bellevue property we find today. Sid Eather, the youngest of his brothers, was gifted a small parcel of land on the Namoi River, which he named Bellevue in honour of his new wife Isobel. There he built a modest home and woolshed to support a small flock of sheep, establishing Bellevue Pastoral Company in 1938. When his elder brother decided to sell and move to Moree, Sid took the opportunity to increase his land holding and bought his brother’s share, making Bellevue 800 acres in total. In no time at all, he once again added to his property portfolio with the purchase of neighbouring land at Amaroo.
In 1956 Sid’s only son, Warren, left school and began working the property which remained a sheep grazing operation. However, large floods impacted the Narrabri region throughout the 1970s on an unprecedented scale, and it soon become clear that the sheep grazing operation was limited by Bellevue’s proximity to the river, sheep being less productive in wetter localities and more prone to blowfly strike. A shift to cattle production proved a more favorable endeavour for the Eather family, with the fertile river soils having the ability to fatten just about anything. The family maintained a few sheep but shifted their farming practices to push their cattle production forward, growing crops to feed more cattle and soon setting up a small feedlot to boost production even more.
Darren Eather recalls fond memories of working with his father, Warren, in the early years, sheering sheep during his school holidays. But as a young man, leaving Gatton college in the early 1990’s, it was clear to Darren that the land at Bellevue could be doing much more. With easy access to river water on the 800 acres at Bellevue and a further 1000 acres down the road at Amaroo, Darren developed a business case for an irrigation farm.
Upon his grandmother’s passing in 1993, Darren bought into Bellevue Pastoral Company aged just 20. His aspiration for growth in the company was clear. He identified a weakness in their beef production, limited by the number of cattle produced by their breeding herd each year, and already pushing their feedlot about as far as it could go. Darren was intrigued by the emergence and growing popularity of cotton cropping in the Narrabri region. Darren’s father, Warren, was just as ambitious and supported his son’s plans wholeheartedly. So, in the spring of 1995, their first cotton crop at Bellevue was planted.
With much of the farm’s budget being ploughed into their new cotton crop, and money needed to keep their livestock operations afloat, that did not leave much in the purse for new machinery. So, Darren and his father got to work assembling their own machinery to grow and pick their cotton, whilst also adding to their feedlot and growing fodder crops for the cattle. The 1990’s were a particularly busy time for the Eather’s at Bellevue, and an early glimpse of their enterprising spirit.
In 1996 Darren met country music queen of Tamworth, Leanne. Shortly after, Leanne moved to Narrabri and quickly become the powerhouse of operations at Bellevue, with Darren assuming the helm as ideas man, and Warren still working on the farm. The dream team came together, a team that would drive Bellevue pastoral company forward at an amazing rate over the coming years.
Before long, Darren and Leanne were adding to their property portfolio in the local area and establishing a development pattern that would set them up for future success. But this was not an easy path, it was one that required hard work and tenacity from the Eathers on all fronts. With each new property purchase, Darren and Leanne would pack up their two children, Julia and Tom, and move onto the new property themselves. This way they got to know the land, got to know the ins and outs of working that property and the cropping operations that would best suit the typography of the land. Then, they would put the best group of people possible on that property, from farm workers to managers and their families. It was all about building a strong working family that reflected their own family values on each property they invested in. Good people attract good people.
It would be a trip to the Riverina in 2013 that would extend the Bellevue Pastoral Company property portfolio further than ever before. It just so happened that at the same time as their trip to the region, a property close to Carrathool was advertised in The Land newspaper. That property was Quindalup, a rundown farm located on a flat, open plain and with a rather extensive Bathurst Burr problem. Darren was able to see potential, particularly in the scale that the property offered by the relatively cheap price per acre compared to land around their home at Bellevue. An offer was placed and quickly accepted. Then the real adventure began.
The first challenge was that Quindalup was located a long eight hours drive from Bellevue. In the early days, Darren and Leanne would bundle Julia and Tom, aged ten and eight respectively at the time, into the car and drive between the two properties at all hours of the day or night as operations of the two properties allowed. This, of course, was no long-term solution, but it was one that Darren and Leanne persisted with for eight months. A conversation with a neighbour sparked yet another idea with Darren, who by this point had driven the sixteen-hour round trip more times than he cared to count. Perhaps flying was an option. All the neighbouring property owners could fly. So it sounded to Darren like buying a plane would be a good idea. He soon learned how to operate his newest purchase, ferrying the family back and forwards between Bellevue and Quindalup in record time. In time more planes were bought, and more pilot licenses were acquired for staff and family alike.
The Riverina property was fortunate enough to have access to an abundance of water, something Darren and Leanne pinpointed as a valuable resource early on. With the development of an irrigation property underway, it was time for Darren and Leanne to hand over the day-to-day running of the property to a more than capable manager, found in Narrabri and taken to the Riverina to manage Quindalup. This left an opening for yet another project for the dynamic duo to take on, and it was not long before a prime opportunity came along in the form of Blackwood Park, a property located near Conargo, NSW.
Blackwood Park was purchased as a rather worn-out rice farm, and once again Darren and Leanne packed up the kids and set about their usual practice of getting to know the ins and the outs of the property. It is this intimate knowledge of each of their farms that gives Darren and Leanne a unique advantage in the management of their business. Typically a wool producing area, Darren and Leanne set about establishing a broadacre cropping operation at Blackwood Park, using all their knowledge and experience to do so. Today, Blackwood Park is considered 90% developed with more opportunity to come. It is managed by an experienced team, overseeing day to day operations on behalf of the Eather family.
With the ball at Blackwood Park well and truly rolling, Darren turned his imagination back to Quindalup, where an opportunity for growth had been brewing. Sat around the boardroom table at their offices at Bellevue, the team began to explore the process of producing almonds. As with anything the Eather family turned their hand, they had to be quick learners.
At the advent of 2020, the planting of the almond trees commenced. Just as they did with their early cotton plant, the Eather’s developed their own machinery to plant their almond trees at Quindalup. The first plant saw 70,000 trees established at the property. That is a lot of holes to drill and tape to roll out! A sophisticated irrigation system was developed, making use of the water at the property, and laid out around each almond tree to nurture them individually. Pump stations were built, and money was invested into water infrastructure to support the new venture.
The Eather family continued to add to their workforce at Quindalup, in some rather imaginative ways. They found that good pollination of the almond trees had a direct correlation with higher yields at harvest. So, a bee broker was engaged to source the best bees possible, adding to the Bellevue Pastoral Company workforce. The movement of bees from farm to farm is the largest movement of livestock in the country, and Darren and Leanne knew they had to invest in good quality bees. Pollinating almond trees is hard work for the small but mighty workforce, and they have just a two-week window to ‘bee the trees up’. So, a total of three boxes per planted acre of almond trees were brought in to pollinate the new crop and proved to be an investment into higher yields.
The harvest itself was yet another learning curve for the Eather family and their team at Quindalup. First they shake each tree, allowing the almonds to drop to the ground where they will stay for the next four to five days, drying out in the warm January sunshine. Next, they are collected from the ground and sorted into their varieties for processing. The Nonpareil almonds are highly sought after overseas and often sent to India for consumption. Any almonds with imperfections or any pollinated varieties are processed in a number of ways, into meals, slivers, for confectionery use or ground into almond milk. Just 25-28% of almonds produced in Australia are consumed domestically. Looking back after their first harvest, Darren and Leanne were more than pleased with their efforts and far surpassed their expectations for their new venture.
Not being ones to rest on their laurels, development by the Eather family at the Quindalup property continues with plans to make the almond production as sustainable and successful as it can be. The initial 200-acre plot of land allocated to the almond project didn’t quite suffice and the team have since added a further 400 acres of almond trees to their operation. Darren has plans to install solar panels, making the pumping stations and the irrigation systems they service fully automated. This will increase the efficiency of water used on farm delivering water to each tree as the temperature of the day demands.
Once managed for three years, the almond trees at Quindalup will require relatively little maintenance. This business model has got Darren thinking once more, particularly considering the long-term implications of the most recent drought, and the inevitability of drier periods to come. The Eather family continue to research and invest into sustainable irrigation practices, heralding water as their most valuable asset on-farm. Their investment into permanents further diversifies their operations, supporting their business in drier times when broadacre cropping options are limited.
It is clear from their hard work and dedication to each of their properties that the Eather family are just as enthusiastic about agriculture as ever. They offer the use of their Bellevue property to schools and university groups, facilitating on-farm tours and talks to encourage the next generation of farmers. And their encouragement of the next generation begins at home. Bellevue Pastoral Company remains a family business despite their rapid growth in recent times. Darren and Leanne have encouraged their children to take an active role in the business from a young age and today their daughter Julia, having completed her education at Marcus Oldham College, is responsible for managing grain and produce marketing as well as contracts across the many properties in the family portfolio. And their son, Tom is about to embark on his further education at Marcus Oldham also, taking a few years of experience working at Bellevue and assisting in the office with him. Darren and Leanne believe that keeping the Bellevue Pastoral Company in the family is one of their greatest achievements, with multi-generational farms becoming harder to keep a hold of as the landscape of agriculture in Australia changes. They believe that they are custodians of the land at Bellevue and they work tirelessly to grow and improve their farming operations, enabling them to pass the company on to the next generation of Eathers.
From a relatively short conversation with Darren and Leanne, their enthusiasm and determination is almost infectious. They speak about their entire staff at Bellevue Pastoral Company as if each were an important family member, and this feeling permeates through the bones of what they have established in their company, a true family business. They share photos of each property and management team with parental pride whilst recalling the time they spent at that property and how they got it up and running. Their passion for agriculture and sustainability is plain to see and something that continues to drive the Bellevue Pastoral Company forward with each new project they embark upon.
If you would like to find out more about Bellevue Pastoral Company, you can find them online at bellag.com.au.