How the Northern New South Wales town of Quirindi is striding forward thanks to community driven agritourism projects.
Progress is a word we hear often. But what does it take to keep a rural town moving forward, to keep up with the rapid pace of development in larger towns and cities? The peril of a small, rural town is that they are at risk of aging, shrinking and eventually dying out altogether. But in the Northern New South Wales town of Quirindi there is a group of hardworking local residents dedicated to driving the town forward.
One of those people is Liverpool Plains grain grower, Ian Carter. Ian, and wife Marilyn, own and operate two properties on the Liverpool Plains, Connamara and Romney Vale, both located close to the small Northern New South Wales village of Pine Ridge. It was on a family trip to Adelaide in 2019 that Ian and Marilyn first took note of the Silo Art Trail popping up in towns across Western Victoria.
Their own local town of Quirindi was experiencing an economic downturn whilst in the grips of the drought. The town was tired from tackling years of drought, the ground was dry and burnt, all less than inspiring to most community members.
Quirindi is built on Kamilaroi land with the name of the town taken from the Kamilaroi language. Though the meaning is largely unknown a few translations have been attributed to the town name including ‘dead tree on the mountain’, ‘place where fish spawn’ and ‘a nest in the hills’. A nest in the hills was widely adopted by the town in recent years and is etched into the welcome sign as you approach Quirindi off the New England Highway via Willow Tree. In 1830 George Loder established the property, Quirindi Station, at the junction of Quirindi Creek and the Jacob and Joseph Creek. Before long, one of his stockmen built a slab hut and an inn opened for business in the 1840s, welcoming passing travelers.
The town was formally gazetted in 1856 but land sales in the following year were slow. The 1861 the Lands Act opened the district up to smaller settlers but it was not until the arrival of the railway in 1877 that the town began to thrive. It quickly became a major service center taking advantage of the railway and the population of the town increased to 1139 by 1891. That same year two inns, a public school and a police residence were all completed. Over the years the town drew prosperity from the rich black soils surrounding it, producing sheep and cattle on stations across the district. Today, broadacre cropping has taken preference with growers planting cotton, sorghum, canola, corn, oats, chickpeas, wheat, barley and sunflowers, in conjunction with cattle and sheep operations.
In 2019 the town had been battered by years of drought. The bright colours of the art trail sparked a thought with Ian, could this be a good fit for Quirindi? Could this kick-start agritourism in the town? Located to the northern end of the main street of Quirindi, feeding from George Street and becoming Station Street, are two Graincorp silos, built in the 1930s, with easy access to the train line and main road. Today they are not in use, but with main road frontage and the rarity of being almost in the center of town, they seemed like the perfect fit for an art installation.
With support from friends in the area, Ian created a committee of nine members to oversee the project. They would face some hurdles along the way, taking almost four years to complete the Silo Art project, but Ian insists that no matter what was thrown their way, a better outcome for the town was always reached.
Selecting the artwork was perhaps the most exciting time of all. An expression of interest was put forward to 100 artists with 26 returning their portfolio for consideration. From these, six artists were selected to create a concept piece. It was a tall order to encapsulate the heart and soul of the Liverpool Plains in one image. They were sure it shouldn’t be an individual person but rather a piece that emulated the heart of the region in a story-like fashion. With assistance from Archibald Prize Entrant David Darcy and Nicky Parshall, Art Conservator at the NSW State Library, the committee selected one artist who they thought put forward the best concept to represent the region. That artist could not have come from further away. Western Australian artist, Peter Ryan, captured the heart and soul of the region in his piece, with magnificent use of a burnt orange, yellow and red palette, juxtaposed by his use of blues in the figures depicted in the piece, encapsulating Quirindi in the Silo Artwork.
It took two years to move from concept to completion, with Peter working tirelessly and in tricky conditions to complete the project. A viewing area was constructed to accommodate passing tourists. But the committee would not stop there. The thought was raised that tourists should stay for longer than snapping a quick selfie with the art and moving on. But how to get them to do that? A light show was installed as part of the art installation. Commencing at 8.15pm AEDT and 6.45pm AEST, each evening with a countdown complete with a cuckoo clock, the show gets underway at 8.30pm AEDT or 7.00pm AEST. Sound is currently connected via radio but plans are in place to install a weatherproof sound system. The light show moves the art installation across the silos under the cover of the night sky. This means tourists are more inclined to spend a day or maybe even two in the town, to see the light show in the evening and perhaps check out other tourism attractions in the area. The light show can also be modified and updated, maintaining interest from tourists and locals alike.
A survey was conducted to assess the impact of the art project on businesses in the main street of Quirindi. It showed that on average, businesses saw a 20% increase in turnover post artwork installation. With the project in its infancy this is a magnificent accomplishment. The artwork has drawn tourists off the nearby New England Highway and the Kamilaroi Highway into the town. They may browse in the shops scattered down the main street, grab a bite to eat at a local café or pub and check out other local tourist attractions such as the heritage village and railway, Windy Woolshed or complete one of the tourist drives in the area.
Upon his final return to the town for the grand opening ceremony of the Quirindi Silo Art, artist Peter Ryan was accompanied by his family on the trip from Western Australia to Sydney and on his drive four hour north to Quirindi. Passing through regional towns along the Hunter Valley Expressway and onto the New England Highway, Peter’s children frequently asked, “is this town like Quirindi?” To which Peter always replied, “no, Quirindi is better.” The Silo art project is one instance of the immense effort the town has gone to in the years during and since the drought, investing in their businesses and other agritourism projects to pick the town up and drive it forward.
Opening night welcomed 1500 local people to celebrate the achievement for the town and district. Despite an intimidating thunderstorm brewing on the horizon, the first official viewing of the nighttime light show went ahead to the amazement of those in attendance. The first of many more shows to come. An air of celebration has lifted the town, all centered on the Silo Art Project.
Today the Australia-wide Silo Art Project stretches 8500kms across five states including New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia. The Silo Art movement is said to be ‘infusing Australians with newfound energy and enthusiasm’. And this impact can certainly be demonstrated by the pride Quirindi has for its new tourism attraction in their Silos on Station Street.
Alongside the art project the district has undertaken a number of agritourism drives to keep the town alive. The business group The Plains Inc. encourages business and tourism amongst groups across the Liverpool Plains. A highlight of their events calendar is the Sunflower Trail, also supported by Ian and Marilyn at their Romney Vale property. The Sunflower Trail began three years ago, as the world was beginning to move between waves of the Covid-19 virus. Ian planted a small 1-acre plot of sunflowers after some pressure from his friend Nikki Robertson. As Sunflowers are not usually a commercially viable crop in the area, due to no crush in the northern region of the state and the bird seed market being so small, Ian was initially hesitant. But a small 1-acre plot by the road, with easy access for visitors, had little impact on the daily operations of the farm, so he thought why not? The sunflowers grew so tall that if you were brave enough to venture to the center of the plot, you could have been in 1000 acres not just one.
In that first year, the small plot welcomed 5500 visitors to Romney Vale. It was something we see very rarely, a farmer welcoming visitors to their land and into the paddock. Visitors were welcome to pick the sunflowers and take them home with them for a memento of their visit to the Pine Ridge property.
Last year, flooding in the area meant the Carters were unable to plant cotton or sorghum. But on Australia Day 2022, around 200ha of sunflowers were planted, making it a commercial crop in that year. Once again, visitors were welcome and a viewing platform was constructed under a shady tree to encourage visitors to stop and take in the breathtaking scene of the sunnies in full bloom on the Liverpool Plains.
Three years later the sunflower trail in the region continues. However the project is not immune to the usual ailments of farming. Wet weather prevented several willing farmers getting their sunflowers planted this year. Coupled with poor germination in some seed, just three plots were successful this plant. Planting conditions were less than ideal at Romney Vale also, so a much smaller plot was planted this year and from the perspective of a farmer, Ian thought the crop was a little poorer than previous years but they were loved by visitors nonetheless. Photographer Sally Alden loved the varying heights of this year’s sunflowers which made for much better photos than the ones that had come before them.
The hard work and tenacity of Ian Carter and his community has not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year Ian was awarded the Liverpool Plains Citizen of the Year Award in recognition of his dedication to the region and agritourism on the Liverpool Plains.
Ian’s work in the area has inspired other local people to once again be proud of Quirindi, the little town still reliant on agriculture but now a town that celebrates it and all it has to offer, showing it off to tourists from far and wide. It is thanks to the dedication of people like Ian, all those involved in the Silo Art Committee and the Plains Inc. that Quirindi and the surrounding towns of Spring Ridge, Pine Ridge, Willow Tree, Werris Creek and Wallabadah will continue to grow and thrive despite the trying conditions endured in recent years.