STANDING in the middle of a paddock, knee deep in fresh spring growth, Wayne Sullivan’s phone rings.
One paddock over, a small mob of Dorper ewes lift their heads at the noise.
Behind them, cockatoos rise sharply into the sky.
Half a world away, Peter McCormack is standing in the kitchen at the Railway Hotel in Windsor.
Straining to hear over the sounds of cooking, he can vaguely make out the birdsong through the phone – with their call, he knows his father-in-law is on the other end of the line.
“Wayne, I think we might need more mushrooms for the menu this week,” Peter says.
“How far away are the pigs from being ready to butcher?”
It is an idyllic situation, and one that is almost certainly unique in this part of the world.
Wayne, a hotel veteran of 40 something years, has spent almost two decades developing his country property, Oak Valley, at Euroa.
In Melbourne, his son-in-law, Peter, runs the eminently successful Railway Hotel in Windsor.
Together, they have helped create a genuine paddock to plate experience.
“It was a collective idea, but it depends on the day,” Peter said.
“When we are having a good week, when the cattle are growing how they should and the veggies are producing, then we all like to claim the enterprise.
“But,” Peter joked, “when things don’t go smoothly – when the birds eat out the orchard and we have to change the menu in a hurry – then things are a little less rosy.”
Peter has been managing the Railway Hotel for three years.
Before that, he worked in the meat and livestock industry – giving him an inside advantage when it comes to deciding when and what to butcher.
“I ring the boys on the farm, and they will tell me what’s best to use – I try to organise the menu to compliment what’s available seasonally,” he said.
In the last 12 months, the success of the Railway Hotel’s dining experience – called Highline Restaurant – has skyrocketed.
Customers are not only charmed by the idyllic vision created by paddock to plate dining, they cannot get enough of the people behind the menu.
“A lot of it comes down to timing, and we just use what we have available,” Peter said.
“The quality of the food and the service we provide is every bit as important as what is on the plate.”
No doubt, the combination is what has earned Highline Restaurant its long list of awards: a coveted Chefs Hat from The Good Food Guide in 2017 and 2018, Australian Hotels Association National Award for Best Restaurant 2016, The Age Good Food Guide top ten degustation menus in Melbourne 2016 and a Chef’s Hat three years running from the Australian Good Food and Travel Guide.
“It is a very idyllic situation, and people really like that,” Peter said.
“But there are a lot of variables in producing a menu like this.”
Back in the paddock, Wayne Sullivan knows all about variables.
So far, spring 2017 has been good to Oak Valley – the grass is growing, lambs have been born and the spring drop calves look good.
“There is a lot to do with an operation like this, but I have always maintained that you may as well do the best job you can,” Wayne said.
Although Oak Valley is not a stud, Wayne and his team run just shy of 300 Angus breeders – crossed annually to a Charolais bull for hybrid vigour.
Around 40 of the best producing cows are artificially inseminated with imported genetics – because, in Wayne’s words, “you don’t have to be a stud to want to produce the best cattle you can”.
Run across 2000 acres, Oak Valley farms more than just beef.
There are Dorpers, Berkshire pigs, free range poultry and a vegetable garden Stephanie Alexander would be proud of – including trees for truffle hunting, mushrooms and a small plantation of macadamias and avocados.
“There’s nothing we can’t produce here,” Wayne said.
“It’s a very fertile patch of land.”
Once he has finished work in the paddock, Wayne will slowly make his way back up to the Oak Valley homestead, in search of a cup of tea.
Along the way he will pass the large chook run – where Highline Restaurant’s weekly delivery of 30 dozen eggs originates from.
Not far from the main kitchen is the extensive herb garden, and further on still is the orchard – with the pomegranates, plums, pears and nectarines all just coming into flower.
Further on from the homestead is the horse yards – complete with a thoroughbred mare and her newborn foal.
Horses are another of Wayne’s passions – and one he has been able to incorporate into the farm’s pasture improvement program.
Already this season, Wayne has bought in three truckloads of manure from David Hayes’ racing stable.
At 300 square metres each load, there is a lot of nitrogen rich fertiliser waiting for attention.
The horse manure will be added to a chicken manure mix, at which point Wayne will let it sit until next winter – slowly decomposing until it is ready to spread on his paddocks.
“You get an instant effect from chook manure, but if you mix it with compost you get a long term result – that’s what the latest research suggests, and it’s working for us,” Wayne said.
Farming is more than just a lifestyle choice for Wayne, and his methods in the paddock are continually evolving.
It is further proof that Oak Valley is more to the Sullivan family than a profit and loss statement.
The farmhouse, set in eight acres of gardens, is a show-stopper – a glimpse back into a way of life that has all but been forgotten.
“You have to take pride in what you have achieved, and what you are trying to do,” Wayne said.
“There is so much we can produce ourselves, and Oak Valley is an example of that.”
If you would like to know more, visit the Highline Restaurant website at www.highlinerestaurant.com.au.