At the top of the wish list for many visitors to the Highlands is to experience life on a farm. Particularly children, and understandably so. A recent survey found one third of Australian kids struggled to identify fruit and vegetables, and where produce came from. Don and Judy Warner took the bull by the horns 20 years ago with their farmstays.
It’s a sobering thought that many Australian kids haven’t the foggiest where their eggs, meat or milk comes from. And as drought and deregulation bite, it probably doesn’t help that the number of dairy farming families in the Highlands has plummeted from 60 in 2000 to just six today. Not a moment too soon, then, for my youngest, eight, to spend a night at the Warner’s dairy, Fairview Farm, at Wildes Meadow. Don Warner has been a dairy farmer for pushing 60 years. He grew up on this 130 acres of rolling hills, bringing the cows in morning and night for his Dad. Judy joined him as a young bride and they raised a family here. And for the past 20 years the hard working couple have offered accommodation to give visitors a taste of farming country life.
“We’re not flash here, but people seem to like it and we have some guests who have been coming back every year for 20 years,” says Judy as we are greeted by border collie working dogs, Skye and Misty.
We arrive after a school day and it’s action stations as Don brings the cows in for milking. Two years ago, the 74-year-old had a heart attack so he sold off much of his 80 strong herd. Today he keeps 11 of his favourites, to keep the business ticking over and little guests to the property rapt. Mine is. “Mum,’ he says. ‘’I never knew a cow was so big.”
These girls weight nearly a tonne and in a bad mood can give a good kick, says Don, 74, who’s worn a few over the years. They are also prolifically productive: each gives on average between 40 and 50 litres a day. His best cow ever, “never had another like her” says Don, gives 70 litres a day. “Our biggest drawcard is we are a working dairy farm, so children can see milk does not come from a bottle,” says Judy.
They can also get up very close with the animals, which my son loves. Straight after milking, we do the rounds with Judy, bottle-feeding Sean the Sheep, a pushy little Suffolk lamb and feeding about 15 young Holstein calves. There are also chooks to feed, eggs to collect, peacocks to see, Candy the miniature pony to pet and Judy’s homemade cupcakes demolish.
As the cows are taken back to their paddocks and the other animals settle for the night, we take a twilight walk up a lane to the top of a hill overlooking Wingecarribee Reservoir. Land here is some of the most expensive in the Highlands so it is nice to see many of the Warner’s neighbours are still farmers. “Don won’t ever sell,” Judy says when I ask later about any retirement plans. “He could never give up farming.” Our nights’ accommodation is a self-contained unit with a private stairs entrance off the main house. Sleeping five, it has two double beds and a single, and opens on to a verandah with settees that overlooks Judy’s beautifully kept garden, resplendent with hydrangeas and mature trees.
The homely kitchen and living area are spotless and comfy with everything you could need including an oven, microwave, coffee machine, television, DVD player and kids’ books and toy basket. A complimentary country breakfast containing cereals, fresh farm eggs, bread, conserves, tea and coffee and of course, milk, is included for your first morning. Later we treat ourselves to a pub dinner five minutes up the road at the Burrawang Village Hotel. We sleep the sleep only fresh farm air can bring and awake early to sounds of the roosters crowing.
It’s 6am. Outside, Judy and Don are already busy bringing the cows down and before I know it my youngest is out beside them, taking Sean his early morning feed.