CARRYING on a rich tradition of excelling with sheep and tourism in a region many would call harsh, Pandurra Station's Bruce and Julie Nutt, via Port Augusta, consider themselves lucky to live in the area.
"We think it's the best pastoral country, it's just so robust, and responds so well to even a little bit of rain," Bruce said.
"It's reliably dry, you're not expecting anything else."
The pair have proudly managed Pandurra since the late 1970s, with Bruce being the fourth generation of the Nutt family to run the station.
The history of the Nutt family on Pandurra dates back to 1895, when Bruce's great-grandfather Henry Lloyd Nutt, who hailed from Yatina, bought a 155-square kilometre block named Part Pandurra, using money he had saved up from about a decade of droving.
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"At that stage, the land (at Pandurra) was terribly degraded, there had been various owners beforehand but most of them went broke," Bruce said.
"They shore 72,000 sheep here in 1870 (across 777 square kilometres), which was probably five times too many, so that just destroyed the country. It took an awful lot of courage to take on something like that, and HL did," Bruce said.
Initially, expansion at Pandurra was slow, but Bruce said by the 1920s, things had started to progress.
"HL must have been going well, because there were additions here, there and everywhere, it was a real growth spurt through that decade, and then it slowed down again," Bruce said.
"He bought other properties around Orroroo and up to the Flinders Ranges, just to diversify. He did a bit of property trading, too. We haven't sold anything in my lifetime, but in those days, when you're building up an empire you have to do what you have to do."
One of the notable acquisitions during that period was Curnamona station, north of Yunta, which HL bought in 1925. The opening bid came from Sydney Kidman and HL took particular pride in that purchase. The station is still in the family, being run by Jeff and Lynnette Pumpa, who are distant relations of Julie.
"HL borrowed every penny to buy Curnamona," Bruce said.
"It was a big gamble, but as he was droving as a young fella he would have come down through that country, he would have known what the country could do.
"I've got a copy of all his calculations of how much he paid, his interest rates, his repayment schedule, he planned to pay it off in five years and he did. It cost him 90,500, so equivalent to about $15 million today. People think wool prices are good today, but I challenge anyone to achieve that now."
Bruce had settled at Pandurra in the mid-1970s following a few years of wool classing across SA and NSW, while Julie, whose parents Ron and Daphne McDonald had managed Myall Creek and Pandurra for 35 years, had lived at Pandurra since she was 10 months old.
I'm a Merino person - I'm a woolclasser, and wool is my thing, but Dorpers are good for us.
Bruce and Julie married in 1978, and invested in many neighbouring stations in the years that followed. Myall Creek station was purchased in 1979, further expanding to buy Lincoln Gap station in 1997, Oakden Hills station in 2002, Yalymboo station in 2003 and Coondambo in 2014.
Oakden Hills has been using Karawatha Park Merino rams for 13 years and produces elite non-mulesed wool, which is highly sought-after by processors.
Coondambo was converted from Merinos to Dorpers and produces chemical-free and sustainable premium lamb and mutton. Dorpers were sourced from Nonning Pastoral and most rams are still sourced from there.
"I'm a Merino person - I'm a woolclasser, and wool is my thing, but Dorpers are good for us."
"We don't have goats to fall back on as many have been able to during the dry and our country can only carry a few cattle, so we have introduced the Dorper to satisfy the meat craving."
The Merinos are shorn at Pandurra, Curnamona and Oakden Hills, starting in March. Since 1974 shearing has been conducted by trainee shearers from across the country.
"In the early 1970s, shearers were hard to come by and sheep numbers were high. Tony Ryan, who was a shearing contractor and instructor working for Australian Wool Innovation, and Andrew Brown from the Department of Agriculture had a concept of setting up shearing schools," Bruce said.
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"Tony came to my father, and my father agreed, and we've run shearer training every year since 1974."
In the early years of the training, shearing was carried out at Pandurra and Curnamona, which, by 1997, had been converted to 13 stands each to make up for the lost efficiency due to the slower shearers, with training also occurring at Oakden Hills from 2004 onwards.
Many shearers who were trained in the sheds have come back in later years to teach their skills to the next generation.
"Hundreds have been through the school since it started," Bruce said." There aren't many shearing sheds that you can walk into where there isn't someone who has been through this scene.
"We are considering having a shearers' reunion on the 50th anniversary in 2024. If there is any interest it could also be an opportunity for a competition, to make a weekend of it."
Despite the vast area, Bruce says the properties are mainly managed with "skeleton staff", which consists of himself, Julie, their five children - Christie, Trudie, Melissa, Tamara and Daniel - the children's partners, and livestock overseer Lochie Heinjus.
"We employ technology, using Farmbots to monitor most waters. When you've got that, you don't need as many people," Bruce said.
Julie said she was very proud to have all her children still involved in the business.
Their eldest, Christie, is the bookkeeper and payroll officer for Pandurra, while her husband Jason looks after livestock on the property. The second eldest is Trudie, whose partner Mark works as a contractor on the stations. Third child Melissa is the promotions officer for Nuttbush Retreat, the Nutts' tourism venture that they launched in 1995, and looks after the premium meat and wool marketing initiative.
Located 40km west of Port Augusta, Nuttbush Retreat offers accommodation in the form of luxuriously refurbished shearer's quarters, which were built in 1860. Caravan and camping facilities are also offered, as well as a dining room.
"We wanted to diversify from pastoral activity, and we wanted something for the family, we wanted to give the kids an opportunity to have something at home," Julie said.
"The other driving force was to preserve the old buildings and to give them a purpose again".
The Nuttbush name is a logical choice.
"We're the Nutts, and we live in the bush, the name has nothing to do with Tina Turner, but we get lots of people out the front doing the line dance under the sign," Julie said.
In the early years of Nuttbush, the Nutts accommodated mining companies, road workers and contractors, before offering four-wheel-drive tours, horse-riding, and ventures into the Flinders Ranges and Gawler Ranges. The increased offering led the retreat to house many school camps, making for busy times.
"There were times when we were doing two school camps a week, we were raising five kids and running the properties at the same time," Julie said.
Bruce and Julie have enjoyed seeing and meeting the guests at Nuttbush Retreat during the past 25 years, with many guests visiting multiple times.
While there is much to promote at Nuttbush - including the Nuttbush Cafe, which was launched last month - Melissa is also working on developing and promoting lamb and wool brand Pandurra Premium.
"Pandurra Premium will highlight the ultimate clean, green, paddock-to-plate concept, we can guarantee everything about the life of the animal - we know when it was born and we can tell you everything about it," Bruce said.
Because we've been here for such a long time, and done most of it, we get called on to do a lot of little bits here and there.
"There are no chemicals in the sheep we produce on Coondambo, and they have absolutely minimal contact with anything or anyone. They come into the yard and are marked, and then sold at the next muster. It's the perfect production system and the meat is exceptional."
Bruce and Julie's fourth child, Tamara, runs Edge Rural Supplies, which sells solar pumps, fencing materials, diesel engines, generators and many other supplies for the Nutts and other businesses. She has helped all the properties transition to solar.
"We don't have any windmills operating, and we're constantly putting in new solar pumps. The more you get into it, the more you realise how you can use them," Bruce said.
Daniel is the only son of Bruce and Julie and is operations manager of the properties. Working with Lochie, who has been working with the Nutts for 12 years and is affectionately known as the "adopted son", the pair handle about 300,000 sheep in a normal year.
"Dan was born to do this job, there was nothing else he ever wanted to do, and his four-year-old son is showing similar characteristics," Bruce said.
While the children's roles are clear cut, Bruce and Julie are unsure about official titles for themselves, but Julie's main focus is on the tourism, while Bruce heads up the pastoral side of the business.
They prefer to describe themselves as "polyfillers", "directors of traffic", and "peacekeepers".
"Because we've been here for such a long time, and done most of it, we get called on to do a lot of little bits here and there," Bruce said.
Through the years, a common mantra has been passed down from generation to generation, being "too much water is worse than not enough". This came from HL, who witnessed the degradation caused through ignorance in the late 1800s.
"I put a proviso on that - too much water is not a problem, it's a lack of management which is bad," Bruce said.
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While the Nutts have been trailblazers in terms of growth and expansion for more than a century, a compulsory acquisition by the Department of Defence in 2013 meant the family lost 20,000 hectares at the southern end of Pandurra. It was the same piece of land that HL bought in 1895.
The acquisition announcement was made in 2005, and Bruce said there had been a significant amount of stress caused in the 15 years since, which was unrivalled by anything the weather gods could throw at the properties.
"I've never lost sleep over it being dry, it's part of the game. It's the things that are enforced on you by an outside party, that's what causes you stress," he said.
Having only received a small down payment, which Bruce said was immediately used to pay "enormous" legal fees, he said the biggest problem with the acquisition was the uncertainty.
"On a stress scale, the compulsory acquisition is a 10 (out of 10), compared to three years of the worst conditions ever, which is a four," he said.
We've survived, we've thrived, we've kept the family together and achieved something worthwhile, and hopefully that can continue in the future.
"There is absolutely no one to turn to, it's the most isolating thing you can imagine. You are dealt the harshest of penalties, although you have done nothing wrong."
The stone wall surrounding the Lincoln Gap homestead was built in 2018, and is constructed from stone that HL and his father Roland quarried from Tank Hill in 1895. Bruce said it signified the "rock solid" foundation of Pandurra - a force to be reckoned with when challenged by external forces.
Having recently become a member of the SA Pastoral Board, Bruce plans to make a stand for the rights of pastoralists.
"The fact that we've held a pastoral lease for 125 years without a blemish, I'm proud of that, and there are an awful lot of pastoralists around who are doing a good job," he said.
Bruce and Julie have 11 grandchildren, with another on the way, and they hope that a career on pastoral land is something the grandchildren can be proud to do, should they choose to do it, rather than looking at it as a "last resort".
"We've survived, we've thrived, we've kept the family together and achieved something worthwhile, and hopefully that can continue in the future," he said.
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