Lessons from life on the Land

By Kate Raston

To listen to Jim Sullivan’s story is a history lesson in Australian agriculture and environmental change.
The retired farmer from Holt Rock has been elected chairman of Wheatbelt NRM, a group that helps manage the natural resources of nearly 12 million acres in the WA Wheatbelt.
His motivation to take on the appointment was to try and avoid the mistakes of the past.
Jim Sullivan spent his early years growing up on a station near Wilcannia in New South Wales.
“In 1921 my grandparents took out a pastoral lease in the Murray Darling Basin at Yoe Lake Station,” he said.
“My first experience of environmental degradation was in the 1940’s when NSW was in the grip of drought.
“There was no such thing as livestock transport and no roads to shift sheep, so the stock ate any vegetation that was available to them, and what was left was destroyed by feral animals.
“Rabbit plagues had a devastating impact on the land, eating native vegetation and leaving nothing for stock.
“This led to massive problems with wind erosion.
“I remember my mother having to seal every window and door by hanging rugs over them, just to stop the dust from invading the house.”
It was the realisation of just how much damage livestock could do to a property during a drought that forced Jim Sullivan’s family to totally destock the station when drought struck again in the 1960’s.
By then Jim had met his future wife Margaret Knight, and after a short courtship the couple announced their engagement.
“During this time I was part of the Country Women’s Association and at one meeting heard a talk about how the WA government was giving away farming land,” Margaret Sullivan said.
In October 1966 the couple was granted two allocations totaling 7000 acres at Holt Rock, within the Kulin Shire.
“We packed all that we had into our Holden ute and drove across the Nullabor to our new home,” Margaret Sullivan said.
“We left with my glory box in the back of the ute and the cheque book on the dash, and now we joke how we have some things left from the glory box, but not much left in the cheque book!
“When we arrived it was bush as far as the eye could see, not even a road, not even a house.
“It was the 17th January 1967 and we lived in the back of the ute for the first month.
“We then found accommodation at a nearby shearer’s quarters before we could build a shed on the farm with a couple of rooms out the back.
“Jim went to work as a shearer to help pay for the development of the property, and that’s how Cowilden Farm was born.”
The development included clearing a thousand acres at a time, fencing and putting in dams as they went along.
Jim Sullivan said he worked closely with the department of agriculture and local farmers, taking note of their advice to leave ample shelter belts and habitat areas.
“We cleared along the contour and left shelter strips to stop the wind erosion.
“Three main waterways run through the farm, and we knew to leave the heavy woodland to stop water erosion.
“We were lucky we only had two small patches of naturally occurring salt, which we planted trees around, and neither salt patch has grown.”
Jim Sullivan said his experience on Yoe Station cultivated a strong belief in conservation.
“I’d already learnt the lesson that you couldn’t run stock until the vegetation ran out,” Jim Sullivan said.
“Having seen what happens with wind erosion first hand, I don’t want it to happen on my farm and certainly not anywhere else.”
Jim Sullivan admits he doesn’t know how to solve the problems of the catchment he now presides over as chairman of Wheatbelt NRM.
“I’m not sure how to solve the problem of salinity, but there are things you can do to stop it getting worse,” he said.
“While the consensus is you need to plant more trees, there also needs to be a broader approach.
“Finding more salt tolerant grasses is one way.
“Containing saline water on a local level is another.
“There’s no point in sending saline water into local waterways downstream and sending them salty.”
Jim Sullivan said he was keen to work with Wheatbelt NRM and further grow its relationship with landholders and the community.
“Some of these groups can be seen as too bureaucratic and the paperwork involved puts some people off,” Jim Sullivan said.
“I’ve even felt that way, and looking back, remember attending a meeting with the former Eastern Wheatbelt Declared Species Group on wild dog control where we had a representative from Wheatbelt NRM come and speak to us about natural resource management.
“My initial thoughts were here was another organisation that would make it difficult to get the job done.
“But that hasn’t been the case and I’ve discovered the people are ready to pick up the challenge, advise people and help them.
“I think that’s part of my new role, to let people know Wheatbelt NRM is an organisation beneficial to us and keen to engage.”
Jim and Margaret Sullivan have led a busy life, both professionally and personally.
“We were lucky enough to be blessed with five boys, who are now all busy with their own careers and families,” Margaret Sullivan said.
“We thought it would help us into an early retirement, and we often joke about how we couldn’t entice one of them back to the farm.”
But the couple from Holt Rock are quick to emphasise just how proud they are of their growing family.
“We were fortunate enough to offer them an excellent education, and while we’re sad not one of the boys has come home, we’re equally proud of their achievements, and who knows what may happen in the future.” Jim Sullivan said.
“I probably didn’t do what my parents expected of me, so I guess it runs in the family!”