The exuberant Noel Cook lives life at full-throttle. With his wife Liz and two sons he has used hard work, dogged determination and a steady nerve to amass one of Queensland’s largest farming empires.
Story By Sally Nicol
The crackling fire throws a warm glow over the room. “That’s the original fireplace, built in 1895,” says Liz Cook from the kitchen, where she is preparing a sumptuous roast. Her husband Noel is at the bar pouring pre-dinner drinks. The hospitality on the iconic Kindon Station, in inland southern Queensland, is both generous and relaxed. The ice tinkles in Noel’s glass as he settles himself onto the couch and reaches for his over-sized and well-used calculator. “So you want to talk acreage.” These are people who prefer to talk acres and inches, rather than hectares and millimetres. His work-worn fingers move deftly over the large numbers as he makes the conversions.
Nobody in Queensland grows more grain than Noel Cook. In a relatively short period of time he and Liz have built a family-farming empire that covers 68,393 hectares of prime grain and cattle country. They plant 20,000ha of winter crop and another 4000ha of summer crop and run 7500 head of cattle, including 3500 cows. “You probably can’t do today what we did,” Noel says. “We bought cheap land and developed it into country that was worth money.”
It began in the early 1980s when Noel could see there was a westward push on the grain-growing belt. “I said to Liz, if we don’t get bigger we’re not going to be on the land,” he says. They had good bank managers that went with them. “We began buying unimproved places cheap,” Noel says. “We’d bring in our ’dozers and clean them up for farming.” The price of land also went with them. “Back then we turned $140 country into $600 country,” Noel says.
Noel and Liz worked side by side, spending every spare minute raking and stick-picking. “I told Liz when we started expanding that as long as we ended up with what we’d started with we’d be okay,” Noel says. Liz smiles back, “It’s been a great ride.”
Noel’s journey started in the Westmar district, 160 kilometres west of Kindon Station, on his home block ‘Brushy’ (“Brushy means very thick scrub,” Liz stage whispers). Noel’s grandfather had large holdings in the Tulloona district near Moree, NSW, and travelled all over Queensland buying cattle. “Then he would walk them on to the Sydney saleyards, swimming them over the Hawkesbury River,” Noel says. It was on those journeys he saw the country around Westmar and sent two of his sons to ‘Cherry Park’. “When my father Jack and his brother Tom first arrived they let the sheep go,” Noel says. “The dingoes got into them that first night so for the next 18 months they had to shepherd the sheep while they built a dog fence around the 19,000 acres [7690ha]. Then they used to ride the boundary every week to keep the fence in order.”
Jack Cook bought the neighbouring Brushy in 1934. “Then he went to the war where he was a prisoner on the Burma Railway for three-and-a-half years,” Noel says. While he was away both his parents died. “The family thought Dad was dead so he was cut out of the estate. When he came home he only had Brushy to come back to.”
Noel shakes his head as he considers the country they could have had on the black-soil plains. “I’d have loved to have had some of that country over there to farm,” he says. “You know we’re the only ones of the whole family left on the land.” It was 1966 when Noel finished his schooling and returned to Brushy. “That was the first year we grew grain,” he says. “We planted 500 acres [202ha].”
Noel was 24 and Liz was 19 when they married in 1974. Those early years of marriage were dominated by the cattle crash. “I remember carting heifers from Brushy into the Goondiwindi saleyards and selling them for $9 a head,” Noel says. “That was no money at all, so I had to drive a truck to make a living.”
For Liz it was a lonely existence with Noel away for weeks at a time. She recalls when their first son Kieran was born in May 1977. “Three weeks after I came home one of our neighbours, Gen Perkins, came over with the biggest bunch of chrysanthemums,” Liz says. “She was the first person I’d seen besides Noel’s father and mother.”
A good crop in 1978 brought respite. “We only farmed 1200 acres [485.6ha] on Brushy then but it was a good enough crop that I could finally park the truck,” Noel says.
By the early 1980s the young couple began building a business separate to Noel’s family partnership. It began with the 2020ha Tara district property ‘Rockwell’, which was left to Liz by her father. They bought the neighbouring 2830ha ‘Kilbirnie’ and the 1420ha Meandarra property ‘Lilyview’.
This story excerpt is from Issue #67
Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2009