Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where JERVOISE STATION, FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND
Sunlight streams through slow rising clouds of dust, creating an almost ethereal glow around a herd of meandering cattle. The quintessential Australian outback landscape is picture perfect, exactly what you would expect to see on a postcard or tourism brochure. Except of course, for the two young jillaroos and large gruff Texan man on horseback, following the cattle at a sedate pace.
The odd group and unusual method of mustering is just the tip of the iceberg at Jervoise Station, where some rather unique holistic grazing is integrated with land regeneration practices. In fact, there is very little that is typical about this mostly female run, certified organic cattle station.
On their 76,000 acres of land, the Jonsson family – led by matriarch Kerry Jonsson – run around 5,000 head of certified organic Santa-Brahman cross cattle on the banks of the Burdekin River in North Queensland. The station has been owned and run by the Jonsson’s since 1965, and is now home to three generations of the family who live and work on the property. Since gaining their official organic certification in 1996, they have run a thriving business providing quality organic beef to families throughout Queensland, and as far south as Sydney.
The trek to Jervoise is a long one – the station is a four-hour drive from Townsville on the east coast – but visitors can be assured of the warmest of welcomes, and are quickly assimilated into the family. There’s no airs or graces out here and the homestead is a hive of activity. Pam Jonsson (Kerry’s daughter) is moving swiftly about the large kitchen – with the mustering almost done for the day, the troops will be back soon with hungry bellies. She somehow manages to manoeuvre big pots of stews and other hearty farm grub effortlessly around the kitchen and outdoor dining area, while dodging small children and an array of pets, including a three-week old foal.
Jervoise has been predominantly female run since Kerry’s husband Greg started to lose his eye sight several years ago. Helped by her daughters, Pam and Kristine, Kerry took on the main role of running the property and managing their organic meats business. Thankfully, the women out here seem to have an almost superhero strength, and a determination that can only be described as awe-inspiring. And it’s clearly hereditary – Kerry’s 19 year old granddaughter Ashton has been in charge of running the cattle for the past two years.
Things have always been done a little differently from the norm at Jervoise. Back in 1979 Greg Jonsson – known to all and sundry as ‘Pa’ – decided to stop dipping and spraying the family’s herd of cattle. These days, eliminating the use of chemicals from our food production hardly seems radical, but in the late 70’s there wasn’t such a thing as ‘organic farming’ or a certified organic body, let alone the accreditation standards that are now well known in the industry.
It was a move that had others in the area claiming the hard working farmer had simply spent too much time in the sun. But “even back then Greg could see the damage that chemicals were doing to the land, and he wanted better for his children and his farming practices,” Kerry explains.
“Everyone thought we were mad. But when you think about it, people often do the same thing without really understanding why they do it. If dipping and spraying really worked, then there wouldn’t be a tick or fly left in Australia. So why keep doing something that obviously isn’t working? It’s only when you take a step back, slow down and start to question why, that you can focus on finding a better way.”
Kerry reflects on the processes in those early days that led them to where they are now. “We basically reverted back to the old way of doing things and used natural selection to cull on tick resistance. Herd impact was reduced by paddock rotation and encouraging active dung beetle populations, which in turn resulted in a reduced buffalo fly problem. Now our cattle are just naturally resilient. We certainly had our ups and downs and it was a big learning curve. Everyone told us that the cattle would die. But they didn’t die, in fact they thrived.”
Today, all of the animals at Jervoise are completely free of any dips, fly sprays, drenches, hormone growth promotants or injections of any type. “The welfare of our animals is absolutely paramount. Our herds are left to graze freely as nature intended, they are handled quietly from weaning, we use low stress handling methods at all times and we treat them with the respect and appreciation they deserve,” Kerry explains.
Jervoise country is not routinely burned either. Kerry believes that although the storm rains on burned ground might produce beautiful green shoots, the ground is left unprotected from 45 degree Celsius heat and her observations over the years show that shoots are three times higher in a paddock that has dead grass left standing.
“Graziers are grass producers and the cattle are how we harvest it. Take care of the soil, look after the grass and you’ll have the most nutrient dense feed for your animals."
"All our cattle are 100% grass fed. You might be able to achieve great weight gain and turn off a beast quickly with grain feeding, but it’s not natural. Cattle are just not designed to eat grain. The meat is tasteless and it loses all of it’s Omega-3 content.”
In 2004 the family faced a challenge when searching for a certified organic abattoir to process their meat. “The closest one was about nine hours away”, explains Kerry, “but the high transport costs, stress on the cattle from the long journey, and the heavy environmental footprint made it out of the question for us.” So the family decided to take the plunge and open their own abattoir on land they purchased outside of Tully, not far from the station.
“Part of the motivation behind opening our own abattoir was to also ensure other organic producers in the region would have someone close by to process their meats. We are always looking for ways to encourage more farmers to farm in an ethical, responsible way.”
But opening their own abattoir proved more difficult than they first anticipated. “As a grazier you know this tiny part of a whole industry. Actually processing your meat is another thing entirely. We were told you can’t just own an abattoir, you have to have a qualified meat inspector on site and they’re on $140-$160k a year. It was actually suggested to me that I get into bed with one. All the men in the room at the time thought that was hilarious.”
Instead Kerry and daughter Kristine, in true Jonsson style, decided to tackle the problem head-on. They enrolled with the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) and travelled to Townsville – an eight hour return trip – every weekend to complete blocks of study. In 2004, they both qualified as Level Three Meat Safety Officers. Kristine then went on to complete a butchering apprenticeship. Again the women found themselves in a male dominated industry, with lots of head-shakes and disapproving looks going on. “It took about two years for the men in the industry to stop questioning whether we were capable of doing this job,” Kerry laughs.
The Jonsson’s business flourished and over the years they experienced a surge in demand for organic meat as consumers became more aware of animal welfare, a concern for the environment and food free from chemicals and hormones.
Last year however, the family faced their biggest challenge yet. After running their own processing facility for 10 years, the land on which the abattoir sat was acquired from them in a compulsory land acquisition by the Government. “It was a huge blow, to lose a vital part of our business that we had worked so hard for ten years to build.”
Left with no abattoir, a payout from the Government that was insufficient to build a new processing facility, and the bank knocking on their door ready to take their farm away, for the first time the Jonssons thought about walking away. “We were at a loss as to how we could possibly come back from such a huge set-back, and with our main source of business lost to us, the bank’s threats were getting louder and louder.”
Thankfully it was their very own customers that came to their rescue. “Two particularly special customers found out about our predicament and wanted to help, so they told us about the potential of crowdfunding and then set out to film a video, build a campaign and get the word out.”
Although the crowdfunding campaign only raised 11% of their $250k goal, the coverage and awareness the campaign created for the Jonsson’s was huge. “We had people contacting us from all over Australia, from Europe and the UK, all wanting to help. It was completely humbling,” says Kerry.
It was thanks to this awareness that they were able to secure all of the funds required to design and construct a brand new purpose-built abattoir on Jervoise Station.
The Jonsson’s are now full-steam ahead and construction on the new build will begin soon. It will mean things can get back to ‘business as usual’ for Jervoise, but also allow them to grow exponentially, with plans to produce goat, lamb, pork, and chicken, as well as their beef, all raised on Jervoise and fully certified organic.
“Being responsible for the full process is very important to us. It means we can be in complete control of the genetics, the feeding, the nurturing, and the processing of our end product. And that means we can ensure the absolute best for our animals and our customers, every step of the way. We want our customers to be confident that when they buy from us, they are getting the very best in nutrient dense, quality beef from a family business that believes in the vital importance of animal welfare, sustainability and environmental management.”