Matthew and Tina Barrett – Avon Downs Station, NT

Matthew and Tina Barrett - Avon Downs Station, NT 1

“A Bit of Everything”

In Lyle and Helen’s Outback Travel Diary, the phrase “You can’t miss it” has often been recorded. Numbers of times the ‘can’t’ has proven to be a ‘can’, and another embarrassing story of our ability to become lost is added to the Travel Diary pages.

Avon Downs Station is a destination which can definitely be put in the ‘can’t miss it’ category. Fifty-seven kilometres West of Camooweal on the Northern Territory section of the Barkly Highway, Avon Downs Station is situated just off the highway on the left and if you get to the Avon Downs Police Station on the right, just over the James River Bridge … you’ve gone a bit too far!

Another aspect of ‘can’t miss it’ is the flat, open nature of the Barkly Tablelands countryside, where driving towards a distant windmill seen on the far horizon can take … a very long time.

In 2013, Matthew and Tina Barrett and their children, Claire, Jack and Brady, were into their second year at the Australian Agricultural Company station where Matthew is managing eight thousand eight hundred square kilometres of country; a combination of Avon Downs and neighbouring Austral Downs Station.

The Barrett’s first impression of Avon Downs demonstrates another common perception of this unique part of the Australian landscape. Tina comments ruefully, “It all looked the same… every blade of grass the same from one end of the Station to the other.”However, after a time this opinion changed and the family “can now drive anywhere on Avon and we notice lots of differences in the landscape.”

Both Matthew and Tina were born and raised in Central Qld, Matthew’s childhood spent mainly on his parents seven thousand acre property near Cracow, situated inland from Maryborough and about one hundred and sixty kilometres West of Gayndah. Tina was raised in the Emerald area, and she attended school at a little place called Gindie, between Emerald and Springsure.

They attended the Rockhampton Boys and Girls Grammar school respectively. Tina chuckles and says “Put it this way, we knew of each other … we had mutual friends I suppose you could say.”

Following secondary education Matthew went to Uni for twelve months to study Rural Technology and reflecting on that chapter of his life he concludes “I was doing pretty well at it but it just wasn’t where I wanted to be.”

Meanwhile Tina, on finishing High School, had embarked on a graphic design course, but then found “I wasn’t such a good graphic designer after all.” She shifted her efforts to hospitality and this resulted in a management position in the bar side of things at a Rockhampton hotel. At the same time, she returned to university study and began an accountancy degree. Somewhere in there, she and Matt had decided that their friendship had moved from the ‘having mutual friends’ category to something more serious.

Matthew had been ringing on private places around Moura and Nebo and also at Comely Station, then owned by the Prudential Pastoral Company. Then, as is the case with many young Aussies, he was bitten by the travel bug. He travelled overseas to Canada and spent twelve months expanding his knowledge and experience by working on mixed cropping and cattle properties.

Half way through Matthew’s Canadian adventure, a certain young woman by the name of Tina, and some of her friends, also decided it would be good to cross the Pacific to visit Canada and… meet up with Matthew! Tina worked around Canada for about nine months, then returned home; back to a management role in the pub scene. She laughs, “that was until Matthew decided he missed me too much and we got engaged.”

In 2001, Matthew had assumed the role of Head Stockman at the Australian Agricultural Company’s South Galway Station near Windorah, South West Queensland. Tina joined him there as a “Jack of All Trades… office work, cooking,
whatever needed doing. “In 2002 they were married and stayed on at South Galway for another two years before transferring to Canobie Staton in the Qld Gulf. During 2004, while at Canobie their daughter Claire was born.

People talk about “the pull” of certain areas of the Outback and for Matthew and Tina maybe it was “the pull of the Channels” that in 2006 drew them back to South Galway. Their son Jack was born in 2007 while they were at the station and Tina jokes that she was eighteen weeks pregnant when they moved from South Galway to Canobie and eighteen weeks pregnant when they shifted from Canobie back to South Galway. In 2009 their second son Brady was born and life at South Galway and within the broader community around Windorah proved to be satisfyingly stimulating for the young family.

At South Galway Tina was determined to provide the best social experiences possible for Claire, Jack and Brady, so she instigated a play group at nearby Windorah. At Avon Downs, the petite dynamo has lost none of the drive needed to establish another play group and she has also helped to organise regular sports days for school aged children. She is encouraged by the community response and is optimistically matter of fact about the initiative. “There are a lot of young people around here and the mothers make an effort to get together.”

Concerted dedication and effort is involved in every aspect of a seemingly laid back Outback station lifestyle. Matt and Tina are representative of numbers of younger management people who have involved themselves wholeheartedly in the industry; consistently looking for ways to contribute to improvements in cattle care and land management as well as quality of life for the people involved.

Matthew, while reflecting on the possibilities of ‘doing something different’ when he left school, concedes that “there’s a strong calling once you’re in the industry and its pretty hard to ignore it”. He sees the cattle industry as “one that is
constantly changing… not necessarily big shifts but hundreds of little changes, due mainly to technological advances. You’ve got to do it right, and do all you can to make it profitable.”

Avon Downs runs in conjunction with neighbouring Austral Downs and together they have recorded over ninety thousand cattle in the past two years. Because of the open country, every animal on the station has been accounted for. “There’s no need to miss any” Matt adds. On Avon / Austral, Santa-Angus cross and Barkly composite cows are bred exclusively with Wagyu bulls. Every calf is an F1 Wagyu and they are sent either to Goonoo Station or another AACo feedlot. Replacement breeders are sourced from Brunette Downs and Headingly Stations. Matt explains that “the Wagyu steers and heifers grow very well in the feedlots and although they are not real pretty to look at, they produce quality marbling. This has resulted in a strong domestic and Japanese market and a demand from the restaurant trade in the US of A.”

All in all, the Barretts conclude that life on the Barkly “is pretty good”. They are grateful for good staff, some of whom came from South Galway when they shifted. These include a loyal and talented cook, Kaye Whitehead and Leading Hand, Hayden Schnitzerling. “It makes a big difference” Tina affirms.

“Many of the staff are back for 2013. You can’t expect people to stay forever, but it is good to see them commit to a few years. It’s satisfying to see some of the stock staff go from being green and inexperienced at the start then in two years transferring to another station as someone capable and handy enough to do most of the work they need to do.” The shift to Avon Downs has definitely been a challenge. The combined area of Avon Downs and Austral Downs is twice the size of South Galway and there are twice as many cattle. “This is big enough,” warns Tina, looking to Matthew. No worries; it’s a cheeky look and she’s laughing.

In May of 2013, preparations for a birthday party for Claire were in full swing. Claire had chosen an underwater theme and she was energetically folding aqua coloured streamers to hang around the room. Kaye had made the cake and Tina had demonstrated her amazing talent in culinary design by decorating the cake in keeping with the underwater theme. Claire and Jack and Brady were excited and looking forward to meeting with children from other stations, the police station across the road and nearby Camooweal. It was looking like a great day ahead for everyone at Avon Downs and Matt and Tina’s opinion about life on Avon Downs was reflected in their final comment. “It’s definitely pretty good. It’s the lifestyle we like; there’s a bit of everything”.