Inside Western Victoria’s grand properties
Victoria’s Western District boasts some grand old farming properties, steeped in history and hard work. A new book, Great Properties of Country Victoria: The Western District’s Golden Age, by Richard Allen and Kimbal Baker, captures some of them. We hope you enjoy this extract about one property, Ardgartan.
Harry Youngman looks out over the lines of compost maturing in one of his paddocks—a heady mixture of chicken, duck, cattle and pig manure from local farms and wood-shavings from Portland — and takes a deep, satisﬁed breath.
‘Smells beautiful, doesn’t it?’ he says.
This is Youngman’s third year of producing 7000 tonnes of compost at Ardgartan, west of Hamilton. The compost, prepared in long rows two metres high, is blended to give a speciﬁc carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Over a three-month period it is churned over regularly, undergoing a chemical and physical transformation to produce humus—the building blocks that facilitate all the soil’s critical functions, including water-holding capacity, porosity, and element exchange. When it is ﬁnally ready Youngman spreads the compost on his pastures at 1 tonne to the hectare.
Youngman says two years of results have proved encouraging.
‘The four macro-elements in soil are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulphur,’ he says. ‘We have been using fertiliser here for forty years so there are lots of these elements in our soil, but we began to observe diminishing returns and bad soil indicators. Our compost has improved the take-up. I think we can grow and harvest 50 per cent more grass per annum by adding this compost to our pasture. This might yield 30 per cent more saleable product.’
Youngman’s approach is both scientiﬁc and objective—measuring grass-growth, grass composition and soil microbiology.
‘In Europe and the USA the same principles have been adopted for a long time,’ he says. ‘It requires dedication and time to understand the science behind a sustainable soil-management system. You have to look outside farming to get the solutions. Mother Nature works it out beautifully.’
Ardgartan, near Grassdale on the Dartmoor–Hamilton Road, is 7900 acres (3200 hectares) and carries 18,000 ewes—Kelso composite from New Zealand crossed with Poll Dorset rams—and 1400 Angus cows. The business produces 20,000 lambs a year and 1,250 calves. In spring the 16-month-old steers are sold to feedlots where they are fattened before export to Japan.
Youngman and his wife Min, a registered nurse, were married in 1994 and have three children— twins Charlie and Sam, and Millie. Both boys started working on the farm not long after they ﬁnished school, to learn as much as possible before starting at university. They are the ﬁfth generation of Youngmans to live at Ardgartan since it was bought by brothers, and partners, Edward and Charles Youngman in 1888.
When the brothers bought Ardgartan from the Swan family in 1888 it was 13,000 acres (5265 hectares). Within three years they had also purchased Retreat Station, north of Casterton.
In 1928, after both brothers had died, Charles Youngman’s son Henry John—who was born at Retreat Station in 1898—took over both estates. He had already had a distinguished war record, ﬂying Sopwith Camels as a Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, seeing action in France with No. 24 Squadron and in Italy with No. 66 Squadron. He had made his way to Europe aboard the SS Mongara, which had the misfortune to be sunk by a torpedo in the Straits of Messina, north of Sicily.
Youngman wrote of the confusion as the ship sank: ‘I got in (a lifeboat) by going halfway down a ladder and then along a rope which they held in the boat, so I did not go in which was just as well, as I would have spoiled the only clothes which I had (I am wearing the same suit now). After everyone was off we pulled away and watched the boat go down.’The third Youngman to own Ardgartan was Charles Edward (Ted)—Henry’s son—who took over the property in 1956, aged eighteen, when his father died.
Charles died in 1974 and his wife Robbie, Harry Youngman’s mother, ran the property until 1990. ‘She had a series of good managers to help her and she also received great help from her brother Andrew Gubbins and father Norman Gubbins, both of whom lived at Birregurra,’ Youngman says.
In 1990 Robbie Youngman handed the reins over to Harry, who was only six years out of school, during which time he had completed a degree and worked in corporate banking.
‘When I arrived the property was in very good condition and was a sound operating business,’ he says. ‘Robbie had had great success at Ardgartan, and had won the 1986 Dalgety Commercial Beef Producer of the Year award, recognising both her quality production system and excellent livestock. This was a great achievement.’
The early 1990s were a perilous time, though, with the Australian economy in recession and low wool prices. Youngman had to run a ‘low-cost survival operation’ until things improved in the mid-90s.
‘In 1990 our gross income had dropped 80 per cent,’ he says. ‘The only saving grace was that the only direction from there was up. You have to be an optimist in this game. My aims today are simple: for us all to keep ﬁt, healthy and happy, keep our costs of production low, and generate productivity gains of greater than inﬂation.’At the time Youngman took over, Ardgartan was running several enterprises, including stud cattle, cropping, ﬁne wool and a twice-a-year calving operation. With the help of consultants, a ruler was put over all of them and changes made.
Today, Ardgartan pursues ﬁne wool lambs and once-a-year calving. ‘I learned that diversiﬁcation is not always the best thing in agriculture; sometimes it’s best to concentrate on one or two enterprises and do them well.’ Youngman introduced a new grazing system, dividing his large paddocks into 40 × 50–metre cells and grazing them for two days each, which resulted in signiﬁcant productivity gains.
When the twins were born the Youngmans planted 445 acres (180 hectares) of blue gums, which were harvested in the last quarter of 2014, converted to woodchips and shipped out of Portland. While the industry has been through some turmoil, the operation achieved its objective of putting the three Youngman children through private school.
The Youngmans will get another crop out of them, which they will harvest in around ten years. ‘Japan consumes about 45,000 tonnes of woodchips every day, mostly from Australia,’ he says. ‘There is going to continue to be strong demand.’
Youngman sees huge potential for Australian food producers in China. He is a partner in a meat trading business with Chinese partners Mr Jie Ma and his daughter Ashley, and Mr Jeff Xu, operating out of Wuxi, north-west of Shanghai.
‘Mr Ma’s company has a freezer there which can store 65,000 tonnes of boxed meat,’ he says. ‘There is no doubt China is an exciting market for us. Things are going to change a lot in the next twenty years. We farmers need to be professional and united to take full advantage of this opportunity.’Surrounding the Ardgartan homestead—which underwent a renovation in 2013—is a ﬁne garden,1.2 acres (0.5 hectares) in size, designed by Edna Walling in 1935. Walling was commissioned by Youngman’s great-great-uncle Edward Youngman, who was conﬁned to a wheelchair having accidentally fallen down a lift well.
‘He was keen to bring beauty to the property,’ Youngman says. His grandfather Henry John’s diary entry from 5 August 1935 notes simply: ‘EW planting in the garden.’
Despite the fact that Walling had been designing gardens for ﬁfteen years, she clearly didn’t ﬁnd the task at Ardgartan easy going. In a letter dated October 1934 to Edith Cole, Walling wrote: ‘The Youngman’s plan is going horribly slowly… I am going to unravel the measurements this afternoon … it would be so pleasant to go on writing to you, dear, but Youngman’s plan is biting me badly.’
Perhaps she sought musical inspiration, writing at a different time: ‘Music always helps with garden plans that are not materialising as quickly as they might. Often after staring at a blank piece of paper for what seems to be hours someone will suggest Beethoven’s Concerto in C Minor. The result is magical!’
Today, the Ardgartan garden is classic Walling— large expanses of lawn, mature European trees, plantings by a ‘restraining hand’ and sweeping walls built out of local ironstone by local Italian stonemasons.
‘Clearly when we employ local materials … we achieve a far better result,’ Walling wrote in the introduction to Cottage and Garden in Australia in 1947. ‘The materials for the walls must always be simple and inexpensive … that certain ruggedness that makes stone walls beautiful.’
The walls encircle the formal rose garden, with stone paths adding to the symmetry of the design. The garden is full of box hedges, catmint and erigeron. The transition from formal to informal is achieved by three sets of steps leading into the different areas.
‘We have two very skilled gardeners—Michael and Julie Francis—helping us,’ Min Youngman says. ‘They have a deep understanding of Edna Walling and are sympathetic to her ideals. Our aim is to keep the garden very much to Walling’s planned design and condition. Our garden is quite low maintenance compared to other gardens, because we have lots of lawn and mature trees. The key is keeping up good quality water during the hot summer months. An arborist looks at our trees every four or ﬁve years.’
The Youngmans are always running the gauntlet of the weather. Although Ardgartan has average rainfall of 28 inches (700 millimetres), droughts are always a risk. They were hit badly in 2006–07 and 2014.
‘Today we have a rule that, if we get less than 50 per cent of average rain in the ten weeks of August, September and the ﬁrst half of October, we enact our drought policy—we bring in fodder and sell stock,’ Youngman says. Ardgartan has good access to bore water, and 180 megalitres of water in dams.
‘We view ourselves as custodians of the property, and we want to pass on a viable business,’ Youngman says. ‘We especially value having been able to bring up our children in this environment.’
This is an extract from Great Properties of Country Victoria: The Western District’s Golden Age by Richard Allen and Kimbal Baker. Published 1 November by Miegunyah Press. Available now from bookstores and mup.com.au.
You might also enjoy…