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Home is where the heart is… Glenellerslie’s family legacy

They are treasured photographs that take pride of place on mantelpieces in most farmhouses – young children with cheeky grins wearing oversized Akubra style hats – showing a dream to extend the family farming dynasty which already spans generations.

This typical image, along with other family snapshots capturing the joy as excited siblings gather over a birthday cake to help blow out candles, fun on holidays, or in formal wear for a special celebration, are a glimpse of life’s journeys. For Ross and Mandy Smith of Adelong in the NSW Riverina region, their traditional hopes for the future of their cattle stud to prosper with one of their four children to eventually take over the management are no different to most other family enterprises. Their stories told through the photographs adorning the walls at their home overlooking a beautiful mountainous countryside are no different. But, as Rosie O’Keeffe discovers, one tragic accident three years ago means these memories are even more cherished than most…

Ross Smith carefully unfolds a large map with slightly frayed edges. It’s a very rare artefact – an original map of the district surrounding his family’s property on Yaven Creek Road when land was divided into soldier settler blocks after World War II. And it outlines the special beginning of a future dream to start a family farming dynasty. Ross is proud of the productive and profitable Hereford cattle stud set on a picturesque landscape in the Riverina overlooking rolling hills and valleys that’s been grown over time. It was his father, Gordon, having originally grown up on a 600 acre farm at Koetong, who took over block 8 part of Ellerslie Station on the Darlow Creek, after having spent time in the army and being sent to New Guinea during the war. It was then he set to work building a life on the land, not just for his own wife June and children Stewart, Ross and Sandy, but hoped to be many future generations to come including Ross and Mandy’s children, sons Lachlan and Blake, and daughters, Rebecca and Alicia. “He was actually really lucky to have selected this one, other surrounding blocks are very hilly and timbered, but we have lovely country here,” Ross tells me. Gordon, who sadly passed away last year, had a long contribution to the Adelong community and loved showing cattle, and was always described as a hard worker, and famed for the weight of the hay bales he made. He had initially bought 500 Polwarth ewes to graze on the native pastures before replacing them with Keraberie Merino ewes and rams, and in the mid-1950s Gordonbrook blood heifers were purchased from Goulburn. In 1974 he started Glenellerslie Hereford Stud and neighbouring land was acquired in 1977 and 1993 to bring the total acreage to 780 hectares. Eventually as Ross took over the management of the farm when Gordon retired in 2007, sheep numbers have decreased to focus on breeding cattle. Over the years the stud has attracted attention for its quality livestock and through its 22 annual on-property sales, around 735 bulls have been sold. The best result for the stud at Goulburn Show and Sale was in 1989 when ‘Glenellerslie Nemesis’ was sashed grand champion selling for $7,500 and in 1993 ‘Glenellerslie Richie’ obtained a blue ribbon at the Wodonga Show and Sale and sold for $21,000. The Herefords, and as introduced in more recent times, Poll Herefords, are bred for their traditional traits, and temperament is a key quality of the bloodline. Ross maintains a focus on improving Breedplan figures and has loyal clients from as far as Gippsland, northern Victoria, and local areas including Tumut and Adelong, Goulburn and Yass. Ross doesn’t sell to feedlots and keeps the cattle until they reach around two years of age and a weight of 600kg before selling them to abattoirs. It was bittersweet for the family when the highest on-property price for a bull was achieved in 2013 (at the 20th annual sale) when ‘Glenellerslie Lynch’ made $15,000, as just days earlier, Ross and Mandy had very suddenly lost their eldest son, Lachlan in tragic circumstances.

It was 6 February 2013 and the Smith family were welcoming several visitors for a special Beef Week field day event. It was a successful occasion, and one that Ross and son Lachlan, aged 26, had been working towards since Lachlan had finally realised his own and his family’s dream of working on the property six months earlier. It was also a prime opportunity to showcase the thriving cattle stud, which runs up to 250 head of cattle on improved pastures, to more than 50 fellow graziers and industry experts.

“He’d had such a good day, everyone was just such abuzz with how successful the field day was and how many people were there…” Lachlan’s sister Rebecca’s voice trails off as she explains speaking with him that evening from her then Sydney home, not realising at that moment, it would be the last time she would hear his voice. The very next day her family’s lives would be changed forever. The next morning was a hot one, and Ross had planned to move just one herd of cattle to a different paddock for the day with Lachlan, who would then travel to Wagga later in the day to see his girlfriend Phoebe who had just returned from an overseas trip. Lachlan was working to fix a hose into a water trough near the house when Ross decided to make a head start on moving the cattle. After some time later, Lachlan hadn’t arrived at the paddock, so Ross returned to the house, and after noticing he wasn’t there either, went looking for him. Ross entered a flat, partly scrubby area, and one that members of the family had ridden quad bikes often and saw the large 550cc quad bike Lachlan had been riding lying on its side. Then, in an instant his world was torn apart as he found his son had been killed. Whilst Ross and Mandy’s younger son Blake lived in Wagga at the time, Rebecca and Alicia both lived in Sydney and they recall the heartbreaking moment they were informed of their brother’s death and the difficult journey back to “Glenellerslie”. “It wasn’t until we got home that we were really informed of what happened, and all we really know is that the quad bike fell on its side and he was under it. When we arrived the ambulance had taken Lachie… it was disappointing not to be able to say goodbye and it made me realise how important family are,” Alicia says. Rebecca likens the feeling of losing Lachlan to a sentiment Bryce Courtenay made in his last interview when asked about losing his son, “he is my first thought in the morning and the last at night” but she also adds, “he is a constant thought that takes shape in all moments, discussions, memories, actions and wishes for change”. Ross comments: “People ask me how I’m going and I still say ‘I’m hanging on’. Or, you’ll say ‘I’m good’ because that’s what people want to hear. People who haven’t been through something like this are confronted by it, those who have are wonderful. I remember a bloke ringing me, and he’d lost his son 10 to 15 years earlier and said ‘it’s still just as shitty as it ever was’, and that’s what we’ve got to look forward to.” Mandy gets teary as she reminisces about her son’s caring and careful nature, always helping and looking after others. The gifted sportsman, especially excelling at soccer for the Tumut Eagles and Lake Albert teams, had studied Mechanical Engineering at Wollongong for a year after having completed his schooling at Hurlstone Agricultural High School before returning to the Riverina and working as a welder, but farm life was always what he enjoyed the most. Even from an early age, he was always assisting with farm chores, Ross remembers him being around 11 years of age helping in the truck carting small hay bales. In recent years he had also enjoyed going on adventures with his brother Blake shooting foxes and rabbits and there are plenty of anecdotes about his innovative ways of eradicating carp in the creek. While all the family have involvement in the farm and reside much closer to home, (both Rebecca and Alicia have now returned to the Riverina region since the accident), brother Blake is poised to carry on the family farming tradition, now working and living on-farm since learning a carpentry trade and taking on building jobs in the local area. “Getting on a quad bike after what happened was a horrible feeling for me. It’s a part of everyday farm life and you’ve got to suck it up and carry on somehow, but it does make you more cautious, not that Lachie wasn’t cautious, he was such a sensible guy,” Rebecca says. “I’m so proud of who we are, even with what we’ve gone through, we’re still caring people and we’re trying to get on with life. It’s hard for Mum being here and it’s hard out in the paddock but Lachie just loved it, and it’s the only thing that keeps me going.” As the sun sets on another day at “Glenellerslie”, there’s a strong sense that the feeling of something being missing will always be there, that there will always be the sadness of a lost son and brother. But the incredible closeness of the Smith family is where the hope lies and that they will all have an input into continuing the “Glenellerslie” success – and not only the legacy of their late grandfather Gordon, but the dreams of Lachlan too, who will always remain in their minds and hearts.

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