One morning, flicking through the pages of a local magazine, Stewart Murray and Kathy Lau spotted an advertisement that would change the course of their future. The ad was for the sale of historic Beaudesert homestead, Bromelton House. By Christmas 2013, the family had purchased the property. Bromelton House sits proudly on 330 acres and sports an interesting history, as well as curious features such as the irrigated polo field, an ancient native bean tree and a lagoon that, legend has it, is haunted by a bunyip. Over time, since the mid 1800s, the property has been used for dairying, and for raising beef cattle and sheep. Now plans are well underway to breed Hays Convertor cattle, as part of Stewart’s genetics project. The property is also home to an orchard of nearly 3000 pecan trees of different varieties, the planting of which began around thirty years ago. Stewart hopes to have the pecan nuts organically certified within the next few years.
How did you come to be here?
Interesting story. One Sunday morning, the wife and I were sitting down having coffee at home, as we do. We were looking through the Brisbane News as we were going to buy a property on the Gold Coast — a little unit. The wife said, ‘Oh, look! Horses!’ — because we have horses. So, we thought we’d go and have a look at it. It had pecan trees on it, and at that stage we didn’t even know that pecans grew here in the Scenic Rim. So, we came out, drove up the driveway and fell in love with it, and made an offer within a few weeks, which was declined. We came back and made a lower offer, and it was accepted. That was just the way it worked. The plant and equipment and water licences were included in the price, so it was pretty good. And it is a beautiful property. It is one of those things that just grabs you.
So, then we had to learn about pecan farming. When we took over in January, it was very dry and very hot. They are huge consumers of water. If you give pecan trees nothing else, they need water. So, water, sunlight and then fertiliser, in that order. I think the area is very good because you get cold winters here, and they need about three weeks of five-degree temperatures. We have that here, and we get good rainfall, usually in summer. We have lots of water and sun, so it is a great pecan-growing area, probably one of the best. You go down to NSW and the pecan trees get a lot of fungus and moulds, and that sort of thing. We don’t tend to get that here because it is dry.
So, that’s how it came about. We knew nothing about pecan farming. I bought the property for my genetics project for the Hays Converter cattle, which we’ve been running for a couple of years now over in Canada. Beautiful meat, and we have animals that grow very efficiently and so we’re bringing them over. There’s a herd in Canada and there’ll be a herd here, hopefully, this time next year.
Can you tell us about the pecan truffles and oil?
There are pecan truffles under the roots, because the rootstock came from America and they have that. There is another pecan grower that has the truffles as well. It is kept a bit quiet, although it is not so quiet anymore. The flavour of the pecan truffles is supposed to be very good, equivalent to the blacks and the whites of the French and Italian areas. We will develop that. We are also going to do a pecan nut oil in the next few weeks, and we’ve developed a pecan nut beer, which is pretty tasty. We’re mixing it up a little, trying a few different things, and once we get our little cracking plant organised, then we can take our own produce … It is all vertically integrated and then we just value-add and make a good product. And if we can get it organically certified … We are still another eighteen months or two years off that. Three years, maybe. We’d like to. We will get there.
I think, as a western society, the people who can afford organics will tend to have it because, let’s face it, it is likely better for you. It is more natural and I think we are seeing a whole change in consumer approach to food. Like it or not, shows like My Kitchen Rules have been very good for developing food culture in Australia. I think it is good. I think organics is important and, let’s face it, all of our parents grew organic vegetables in their gardens and we’ve got away from that. We started going to supermarkets, and now certain financial pressures and constraints have pushed people back towards a better way of living.
It is like all things: provenance is very important. You buy art and you have provenance. Food is the same. You can see it affect longevity, health and all the other things. So, it is important. And this is why we’ve bought the Hays Converter cattle, too. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get them organic as such, but environmentally it is a better breed.
Can you tell us about the Hays Converter breeding program?
So, the Hays Converter were developed in Canada by the minister for agriculture, Senator Hays. Back in 1974 they were registered purebred. He decided he would like cattle to grow very quickly so he selected a cross between Fresian and Brown Swiss and Hereford. He selected them for rapid growth and hardiness. I lived in Canada and I am a veterinarian specialist, so I came to know his son, who was also Senator Dan Hays and Speaker of the House, back in 2000. I said to him, ‘We have to do something with this cattle,’ because he was getting on in age, but his family wasn’t interested, so we set up a project.
Basically, these animals grow to 500 kilos in one year, which is fine, but animals eat a lot of food to do that. And that’s the problem: they produce a lot of methane. But these animals … We’ve found a way to measure how efficient they are — how much food they eat to how much muscle they put on — and we’ve found they are thirty per cent more efficient than any other breed.
I think we have to rethink everything about the way we produce food and the way we consume food. So, this is just rethinking the way we produce it. It is simply efficient animals.
We have just built a big embryo transfer centre up the top of the property. That’s it — our project. That’s the Hays Converter, and we think there’s a role for them here, in Australia. We have pecans and we have cattle, so it is all very interesting. We are incredibly fortunate.
Who inspires you?
Lots of people inspire me. My dad, I suppose. He had a great work ethic. In life you meet … they are called nodes … you probably meet about ten nodes in your life, maybe. People who change your direction or who help you on your direction. You have important dates in your life: the day you are born, the day you die, a few things in between … get married, have kids … But nodes come along and I think they are really important. Dan Hays certainly was. People I’ve worked with and other vets inspire me. My wife inspires me.
Where do you sell your pecan nuts?
A company, Swiss Gourmet, sells our nuts into China and Switzerland. The guys in the shed are grading the nuts now. We try to do it independently. Swiss Gourmet has been good to us. We have a good relationship. They are very fair, they work hard and they give us a good price. So, we bag them up and they go straight into China. Some of them go to Switzerland too, depending upon what they’re doing. Some of the broken pecan bits go to make crumble or pie bases. There’s actually more money in that than the whole ones, believe it or not. That’s the way it is. The nuts this year are graded at a premium. They’re good nuts. We had a little bit of a setback because we had a dry spell when I was out of the country and they didn’t get enough water, so some of the small ones cracked. The Chinese do all sorts of things to them. They crack them and soak them in Chinese herbs. And they sell them for about $10USD for a little tiny bag. Ten nuts! There’s a little metal cracker that goes with the bag.
What time of year do you harvest the pecans?
We start harvesting on Mother’s Day, which is in May. It is usually done pretty quickly. We bought a brand-new harvester from Italy, which is amazing. We are the first people to use one of these harvesters in Australia. I think it will change the industry. It was developed for macadamia nuts, but we’ve used it here for pecans. It is brilliant. We work through the orchard all day and get it done in ten days. The whole harvest! It is more than sixty tonne of nuts. We should be able to get up to one hundred tonne — that’s a lot of nuts. We are changing the place. We originally had two silos, and I said we’d better have three. The first year we had those three and they were full to the top. We have just under 3000 trees on eighty acres. We have trees up here that are pollinators — a certain variety. Believe it or not, traditionally, pecans are not pollinated by bees moving from one tree to another, but I think if the bees are rustling through the trees the flowers release more pollen.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
We play polo here. It is one of the best polo fields in Australia. It is an interesting place. It is quite incredible. We have the Logan River running through here, too, so we have two kilometres of river. We are pretty lucky, actually.