The Pye Family operations straddle two historic properties in NSW, ‘Calga’ located close to Coonamble on the Central Western Plains of NSW and ‘Caroonboon’ which is 22KM West of Wanganella, between Hay and Deniliquin, on the banks of the historic Billabong Creek. With over 110,000 acres between them, these are two impressive properties. Each has its own unique history dating back to the mid 1800’s, each has its own impressive scale, and each has stories to tell of achievements won through hard work and determination over many generations. But there is another side to this success story, where the distance between things becomes at best, a cause for frustration, and at worst, a multiplier of risk. For the Pye family, that risk has written tragedy into their family story, and indelibly into the pages of Caroonboon Station history.
Calga, traditionally a merino station, was first purchased by the Pye family in 1911, when Charles Pye bought the 40,000-acre property from AML & F Co. This was only to be a brief holding though, as over the next several years he sub-divided Calga and sold it off in three separate parcels: 12,000 acres to the Driver bros, 14,000 acres (known as Calga West) to Colonel Rutledge and the remaining 12,000 acres to the Thompson family in 1917.
We can only speculate if there was a sense of unfinished business or regret for the Pye family with that brief period of ownership of Calga from 1911 to 1917, as in 1931 ‘Calga West’ was repurchased by Frederick Pye.
Tony Pye, nephew to Frederick, went on to buy Calga West from his uncle in 1948. Notably, he was only 23 years of age at the time.
In 1966 Tony Pye bought part of neighbouring Calga (8,377 acres) making Calga West a total of 25,602 acres. He formed Calga West Pty. Ltd, with himself and his three children; Vivienne, Charlie and Bill, each holding 10 equal shares.
‘Calga West’ became well established as the family farm, predominantly running a Santa Gertrudis and Merino operation and as Tony approached retirement, his son Bill and daughter in law Margie, who had spent 10 years Northwest of Jerilderie as owner operators of a 16,000 acre sheep grazing property Delta Station, returned in 1992 to take over the farm management.
In 1994 Bill bought neighbouring Quanda station (8000 acres) which was in-fact part of the original Calga Station holdings. ‘Calga West’ was renamed ‘Calga’ and in subsequent years additional smaller neighbouring properties, all part of the original Calga station, were acquired. In 2004 Bill bought Calga from his father and siblings and today, after several additional acquisitions, Calga station stands at an impressive 40,626 acres in size.
In the early 2000’s Bill made the decision to move towards a large dryland cropping operation and to also replace the traditional Merino flock in favour of Dohnes. In conjunction with taking ownership of the property and with the pivot to Dohne and Dryland cropping operations well underway, Bill embarked on a significant improvement program.
Resilience and independence are recurring themes in the actions taken by Bill throughout his life and this is evident in the sheer scale and outcomes of the improvement program undertaken at Calga. Extensive fencing was completed to optimise the zero till cropping paddocks and separate these from grazing, which was confined to land on the property in which large scale cropping was inefficient. To maximise the return on the cropping operations, a considerable investment was made in plant and machinery, including on farm storage for 15,000 T of grain. Two 1,100T drying silos were also installed along with a certified weighbridge with road train capacity. These improvements allow the farm to maximise yield and take advantage of seasonal fluctuations in grain prices. To maximise the certainty of a successful harvest, the farm invested in four CLAAS Lexion 770T harvesters with 45ft fronts, which minimised the reliance on contract harvesters.
The Dohne operations at Calga are considerable in both their scale and accomplishment. 2002 marked the commencement of the Calga Dohne Stud, with the AI of 50 breeding age ewes. In 2012 was disbursed. Subsequently, 640 of the best ewes from DD Dohnes were acquired in 2017. Each stud line is operated independently but follow the same breeding objectives.
Selective acquisitions of premium rams since 2004 have complimented the existing stock and the resultant awards are testament to the success of the breeding program. Combined, the operation stands today as one of the biggest and most successful Dohne breeding flocks in Australia. Calga owns the #1 sire in the Country (2020), over 50% of the top 20 sires (2020) and has won countless awards for Champion Dohne Fleece, Reserve Champion Dohne Fleece, with commercial fleeces from Caroonboon Station at the Australian Wool and Sheep show and various notable shows across NSW. Commercial success has been met both in terms of fleece sales and stud breeding, including AI export to South America, Europe, United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Genetics at Calga are benchmarked with the commercial dohne operation at Caroonboon.
~ Caroonboon ~
The success of the Dohne stud program at Calga led to the search for a strategic acquisition of a commercial sheep operation to complement the objectives of the livestock side of the business. Historic Caroonboon, purchased in 2014 and located 70km from Margie’s hometown of Deniliquin, fit the bill.
Caroonboon commenced operations in 1851 and saw its first commercial success with sheep in 1865 when the Dickinson family, who had purchased the property in 1861, sold 40 bales of merino wool in England. It was an austere start for the family of John Dickinson, his wife and four boys, who lived in a basic log cabin in those early years as they eked out a living. The farm was to stay in the Dickinson family until their sale to the Pye’s in 2014.
John Stephens is the invaluable manager of the Caroonboon Station operation. His experience as an owner operator of country in the area, along with his family previously owning the Oaklands property on the northern boundary of Caroonboon, plus 5 years of jackarooing at Caroonboon and the Dicksons being family friends, meant he was more than well qualified to manage a property like Caroonboon. He is a highly regarded friend to the Pye family. His team at Caroonboon are Jack and Harry.
~ 2015: The Annus Horribilis ~
Tony Pye died at the age of 89 on the 28th of June 2015. Having purchased the (at the time) 16,625 acre Calga West in 1948, he had overseen its extensive development, expansion, its subsequent transfer to Bill and Margie, and then witnessed its further expansion and Today Caroonboon carries 12,000 breeding ewes and has undergone a massive improvement program that commenced under Bill’s initial guidance. 240km of fencing has been completed since 2015; a new ram selling complex and additional ram sheds have been built, old timber yards have been replaced with new steel yards, new silos and an extensive drought containment program have been completed. Old dams have been de-silted, new dams have been dug, and multiple watering points have been run to less accessible parts of the property. Essentially the property has been redesigned for maximum efficiency when handling sheep, with a Northern and Southern laneway through the centre which allows for the efficient movement of flocks between paddocks. A runway and aircraft hangar completes the improvements and allows for ease of movement between the two stations when required. All building and improvement works development again under Bill’s hand. Tony had his hand in many properties over his lifetime, but without doubt Calga was his ‘family’ farm and is a significant part of his legacy.
Tragically, Bill Pye was to die just a month later, at the age of only 54 as the pilot of a single fatality aircraft accident which occurred whilst he was mustering sheep at Caroonboon. He left behind his wife Margie,24-year-old daughter Georgie and his 20-year-old Son Sandy.
The family was shell shocked when Bills tragic accident occurred. Operating on autopilot, everyone did what had to be done to keep both Calga and Caroonboon operating. Georgie put her work as a Project Manager in Brisbane on hold for 6 months and for harvest that year, Margie, Georgie and Sandy were all on headers at Calga, bringing in the harvest.
Friends, family and close associates all rallied to help. Maggie recounts “We were very lucky with our support crew; our bank, accountant, agronomist and some very close friends, including the Webbs, Skinners, Mackays, Raes and Hannafords, who helped to get the family though with advice, an ear to listen or to put a shoulder to the wheel for many and varied tasks. Stuart Davidson, a Scotsman that came as a back packer took over the reins at Calga and did a great job as a farm manager until returning home in 2020. John Stephens stepped forward to take on the role of manager at Caroonboon within days of us losing Bill and he has been an invaluable support”.
“Pursehouse Rural has supplied our chemical for many years. Our agronomist in the past was Graeme Callaghan form Delta Ag, who had been with us for 23 years. He wanted to reduce his workload to 3 days a week and this was when we moved our agronomy to the services of Pursehouse Rural also. John Redden from Pursehouse Rural has been amazing over the years; delivering chemical, taking parts to Coonabarabran to be repaired and then bring them back out the next day and so on”.
2015 was also the beginning of the El Nino – the long unseasonably hot days of that tragic spring for the Pye family, whilst they did lead to a fantastic harvest for 2016, soon turned into a prolonged drought in 2017 that decimated rural and regional Australia and didn’t officially break until 2021.
If the Pye family could have been called “lucky” up to that point in 2015, it was the type of luck that is earned as a result of intergenerational hard work, determination and savvy business decisions. In 2015, the luck ran out, but it’s clear that the hard work, stoic determination and savvy business decisions that are ingrained in this family remained.
Bill had grown a highly successful enterprise, with his sudden death the baton was passed and with great credit to all involved, the family enterprise has endured.
It must be said that the endurance of the family and the continuation of Bill’s legacy is the result of the stoic determination of his wife Margie. Quick to laugh and instantly good company, Margie is an artist, sculptor and passionate advocate for the Dohne studs and flock under her care. In 2017 Margie oversaw a family decision to purchase 640 of the best ewes from DD Dohnes when the stud was up for dispersal. She is a regular on the show circuit, as the representative of Calga Dohnes.
~ About Bill ~
Bill’s decisions were firm and rarely if ever done by consultation or committee. Once he made his mind up on something, it was final. He worked to get everything he could out of everything he had, with all decisions made with the objective to maximise the returns and minimise the risks. Self-reliance, independence and a fierce sense of competitiveness were his strongest traits. Given his competitive nature, it’s no surprise that his idea of time off was to engage in competitive motor sports.
Highly regarded as a committed and competitive racer, he had great success with Porsche Cup Marque Sports / Production Sports Car and GT3 Cup Challenge competition over the years. Bill debuted in the Touring Car Masters series in 2010 in a 1969 Chev Camaro, which had been previously owned and successfully raced by John Bowe in 2009. The following year he entered a Porsche 911 and in 2012 he was back again in a Camaro, in livery that paid tribute to Bob Jane. Bill was also heavily involved in Group C and A Heritage touring series, where he notably raced one of Dick Johnsons Ford Mustangs from the 85-86 Group A era.
Famously, Bill won a race against the legendary John Bowe at the Muscle Car Masters Round in 2013, where he in a Porsche 911 RS and Bowe in his V8, fought repeatedly for the lead, with Bill narrowly winning in a tight finish.
Bill’s passion for motorsport led him on many quests to find his next race car. One such car, a Porsche, was found as a repairable wreck in a barn in the UK and he imported it to Australia. This was far from any Porsche though, it was the highly coveted and super rare Porsche 959, the fastest Porsche of its era, of which less than 300 production cars were ever built. Once restored to its former glory, it was deemed too rare and expensive to race, and bill sold the car on. Today it would be conservatively valued at over $2.5 million AUD.
~ About Sandy ~
Like his father and his grandfather before him, Sandy was raised on the farm and educated as a junior boarder at Tudor house in the Southern Highlands, followed by six years as a boarding student at Kings College in Parramatta. Both he and his father went on to ag college and all three men spent several years as a Jackeroos on completion of their formal education.
When Sandy left College he spent a year on Carlton Hill, a CPC property north of Kununurra. He then spent 6 months at Caroonboon with Bill in early 2015, which was very valuable as Sandy became aware of Bills hopes and dreams for Caroonboon. The following 12 months, following the loss of Bill, Sandy, Georgie (for 6 months), and Margie all commuted between both properties. In June 2016 Sandy then spent 3 months in the Pilbara with contract musterer Pat Barrett, and returned to Calga in time for harvest.
2017 was a year spent at Marcus Oldham and in 2018 Sandy was the overseer and the only person on 80,000 acres at Ulonga, near One Tree north of Hay for Paraway.
In 2019, four years after his father had passed and with the country exhausted under the weight of a crippling drought, Sandy left his jackerooing position and returned to Calga and Caroonboon to assist with the drought containment build. John Stephens helped a lot with this and was instrumental with his fencing experience. A month later the first of the drought breaking rains came.
Without doubt there is a lot on the mind and shoulders of a man at 27 with his responsibilities, but when he drops his guard, he is quick to smile as easily as his mum. Good natured and outwardly calm, the biggest challenge as he works to get Calga back to maximum capacity has been in respect to building his team. This problem has been exacerbated by the shortage of staff in cropping and livestock at the moment. Sandys team today consists of Olly, Craig, Cory and Luke, Share farmer and friend Tim Cain, and Shane who is a local tractor driver from town.
Aside from the difficulty in building a team, there are of course the daily challenges, like when the trailer carrying 35,000 litres of diesel onto the farm recently got bogged in the soft black soils and could not be retrieved. The only solution was to take a 2 hour round trip each day to bring the tractors to the fuel trailer until such time as it was light enough to move.
More recently, Sandy has had to contend with 6,000 tonnes of barley in conjunction with the constant flooding of the grain yard complex, which has made the organisation of logistics very difficult. He muses that “these problems are all better than the drought though” and sets about putting solutions in place.
Sandy has taken residence on Calga in the original 1870’s Calga homestead. He is joined by his wife Holly, who is due with their first child as this magazine goes to publication.
The Pye family story doesn’t end here. With the next generation on the way it is clear that they will endure long into the future. It’s a quintessential Australian farming family story that we look forward to watching unfold over the years to come.