Couple back home after adventure into 'never never'

HOME IS WHERE FAMILY IS: The O’Deas moved back to Elbow Valley after a stint in the Northern Territory three years ago.
HOME IS WHERE FAMILY IS: The O’Deas moved back to Elbow Valley after a stint in the Northern Territory three years ago.

IT'S a long way - some 2900km plus of highway - from the high altitude, Southern Downs grazing country of Elbow Valley to the vast stretch of cattle country that is Numul Numul station, near Mataranka in the Northern Territory.

But Andrew and Rowena O'Dea made the move in 2005, because they joked "we needed to get out of town for a while".

So in a bold move they leased their 800ha property, Kelvin Falls, to the neighbours, sold their cattle, packed a truck and a horse float with their precious possessions and headed into the Never Never.

We were fortunate when we started the solar farm to be able to lock in at 44c a kilowatt in an arrangement that lasts until 2028

In truth it was part adventure: Andrew a fifth generation South Downs cattleman with an agri-business degree, had always harboured a dream to work in the Territory.

For his wife Rowena, a qualified pharmacist from a grain and sheep property at Felton, the moved represented a chance to take advantage of the Northern Territory's progressive inter-country adoption laws and in doing so start a family.

They were a long way from home, but for three years it worked for them.

"We had a profit share agistment arrangement with the O'Brien family, who leased Numul from an Aboriginal Co-operation," Andrew explained.

In contrast to their southern experience, Numul was a vast 50,000ha (125,000ac) and had a carrying capacity of more than 3000 head.

"We bought about 300 Brahman breeders and ran them in conjunction with the O'Briens and it was a really great experience," he said.

Yet there was a catch to their initial arrangement: Rowena had a fulltime position as a pharmacist in Darwin more than 500km to the north west and the distance apart was daunting for the young couple.

"We did it for a while. I'd drive out one week and Andrew would drive in the next," Rowena explained.

"But Numul was two hours drive south of Mataranka, so it was fairly isolated."

So they revised plans shifting their livestock to agisted country on the Edith River, near Katherine, which allowed Andrew to live and pick up work with AQIS and customs in Darwin.

"It was something different, I'd worked in the banking sector before and then back on the property," Andrew explained.

"So I loved working on the wharf and out at the airport, and then doing cattle work in between. Three years went pretty quickly for me."

During those three years, courtesy of an effective adoption system in the Territory, they became parents to Taiwanese-born Jia.

"We had already started the process to adopt again when we decided to move back home," Rowena explained.

"We felt it was important for our children to know their grandparents and their cousins."

They adopted their second child, Hughie, not long after they moved home to Kelvin Falls in 2009.

Today they run the property, which has been in the O'Dea family since 1860, with trademark flexibility.

Although Andrew describes them as being in a "rebuilding" stage with their primarily Angus herd, when and what they sell each year differs depending on the market and the season.

"I am not locked into any specific marketing plan: we change depending on what's happening in the market."

Their Elbow Valley property is breeding country and at the moment they run about 200 females, including a line of Angus Drakensberger cross cows they bought in calf.

"We liked look of these crossbreds they seem to have a better foraging ability in this lighter country than purebred Angus," Andrew said.

"This year we have had a dry spring, after a cold winter with a lot of hard frosts, so we have been supplementary feeding since the middle of the year, but cattle are holding condition okay."

The couple also lease country at Surat, backgrounding heifers and steers they have bought in, before on-selling them depending on the market.

"Having the country at Surat lets me get my fix of red dirt," Andrew joked.

"It also helps us spread our risk when it comes to generating income from cattle."

Diversity is something close to his heart.

Last year they made a "significant investment" developing a solar farm on Kelvin Falls.

Mounted on two purpose built sheds the 90 kilowatt enterprise generates a 15% return and Andrew calculates the amount will allow them to repay their loan within eight to 10 years.

"We were fortunate when we started the solar farm to be able to lock in at 44c a kilowatt in an arrangement that lasts until 2028," he said.

"What I like about it is it represents a guaranteed income, not dependent on the seasons or the cattle markets.

"We used German-made solar panels that were more expensive, but I like to think we paid for peace of mind: they are guaranteed for performance and breakdown for 20 years."

The panels were custom mounted at a specific angle on two sheds the first is 36m x 15m, while the second measures 30m x 9m.

The O'Deas opted for shed mounted panels as opposed to ground mounted so they could utilise the space under them for farm storage, while the roofs increased their rain water harvesting capacity.

"There is really no maintenance you just sit back and the collect solar energy," Andrew said.

"For us the key was being able to lock into an agreement at 44c/kilowatt, now it is back to about 8c/kw, which means we got a pretty good deal.

"And interestingly we have been told that our high altitude, we are 700m above sea level, makes our panels very effective. Apparently, because the panels collect UV rays, they can be less effective in really hot conditions.

"So they work most effectively when it is sunny and cool, which works here."

For the O'Dea's investing in a solar farm - that continues to attract neighbourly attention from local road users - is just another case of thinking outside the square to make the most of life's opportunities.

Topics:  rural lifestyle

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