Ethical Merino Breeding at Martindale Farm – A Conversation with Dianne and Graeme Johnson

‘The Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb is an opportunity to engage with people and take pride in what we do’, shares Graeme Johnson and his wife Dianne, owners of Martindale Farm, as they offer a warm country welcome and morning tea in their homestead kitchen.

Martindale Farm is a major supporter of the Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb and Graeme is an adviser for the committee. Their ethical lamb features annually in the delicious ‘Mintaro and Muleteer sausages’ which have now become the annual tradition each spring for the local community and feature during the festival. Even the wild garlic and fennel used in the sausages is foraged from Martindale Farm.

What does one do  after retiring from many years of running their own agricultural machinery business? Most people would be keen to enjoy a relaxed life tending to their garden, but for Dianne and Graeme Johnson their ‘garden’ is 4000 acres of historic farming land with 2000 merino sheep at Martindale Farm in the heritage town of Mintaro. As Graeme puts it, ‘After the global financial crisis of 2008, I felt more comfortable investing in another business than leaving it in the bank’.

Wide, open spaces at Martindale Farm
The beauty of wide, open spaces at Martindale Farm 

And I can see why Dianne and Graeme fell in love with Martindale Farm. Driving along the farm road to the homestead, I’m mesmerised by the striking colours of lush green pastures contrasting with red earth, dotted with merino sheep happily grazing. It’s breathtaking in its beauty.

Graeme and Dianne’s story goes right back to when they met each other at school. Dianne grew up on a farm in Melton in Victoria and Graeme from a farm near Deniliquin in southern New South Wales. The Johnsons bought their majestic merino farm around a decade ago – and their love for the land and their sheep is evident. ‘Martindale Farm is so pretty with all the trees – and if you go up to the top of Flagstaff Hill, the view is magnificent – it’s magic! And we love the history of Martindale Farm, even the paddocks are named after people who were shepherds or had involvement in the farm and area in the past’, enthuses Graeme.

Graeme and Dianne Johnson in front of beautiful wattle on their farm
Dianne and Graeme Johnson in front of the glorious wattle on their farm

Martindale Farm sits across the road from the famed Martindale Hall, a grand, 32-room Georgian style mansion which still opens for visitors. Martindale Hall was built in 1879/80 by Edmund Bowman Junior, whose father ‘followed the Wakefield River’ and bought 9,000 acres of land around Mintaro. Edmund Bowman Senior established what became a famous merino sheep stud and named the property ‘Martindale Station’. Martindale Hall is a historic landmark in Mintaro, always remembered as the location for ‘Appleyard Girls’ School’ in the acclaimed 1975 Australian film, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Martindale Hall aerial view *photo from Martindale Hall Facebook page
Aerial view of Martindale Hall *photo from Martindale Hall Facebook page

Dianne and Graeme Johnson are ethical lamb producers. They use all-natural fertiliser across all their sheep paddocks and keep their stock clean with no mulesing. They are an MN3 status farm, which is the highest accreditation given for the animals’ health. Dianne and Graeme also take pride in community partnership, such as supplying two whole lambs every Sunday to the award winning, nearby Watervale Hotel. The hotel’s sustainable ethos and respect for animals is such that nothing is wasted. Watervale Hotel co-owner, Nicola Palmer, ensures complete nose to tail on their menu.

The electronic sheep weigh scale at Martindale Farm with Travis Cooper
Travis Cooper next to the electronic sheep weigh scale at Martindale Farm

Technology is an important part of Martindale Farm. The animals are weighed, sorted and categorised using an electronic Gallagher weigh scale which Dianne, with her accounting background, was keen to introduce. Each animal has an electronic tag for traceability.

Dianne and Graeme Johnson, owners of Martindale Farm
Dianne and Graeme Johnson from Martindale Farm with a mob of  their sheep about to be weighed

The team at Martindale Farm consists of Dianne, Graeme, their son-in-law Travis and some assistance from their son. They have four grandchildren who live on the farm, enjoy the land and spend time with the sheep. Martindale farm also has crops and hay, but the sheep are their main focus.

Stock agent Josh with Graeme and Simon Millcock (centre) the coordinator of the Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb
Stock agent Josh (far right) talking to Graeme (far left) and Simon Millcock, coordinator of the Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb (centre)

Graeme’s philosophy for success is to take risks and work hard, and Martindale Farm is a testament to this. Graeme works around 80 hours a week which includes doing maintenance. Dianne says they both do ‘too many hours’ and would like to ease their hours back. For Dianne, any spare time is spent growing trees along the Wakefield River where she’s involved in revegetating the area, as part of the Four Catchments initiative. Dianne and Graeme tell me it’s incredibly pretty down by the homestead dam – a fully fenced off area where the Wakefield River and Wookie Creek join together.

Martindale Farm restored shearing shed was built in 1878
The beautifully restored shearing shed dates back to 1878

Shearers play an important role on Martindale Farm and they have shearers quarters onsite – a rarity these days. The beautiful, old shearing shed was originally built in 1878. The shearing shed was extremely run down when they purchased the farm, and has been lovingly restored by them both. ‘It’s a beautiful old shearing shed and when the shearers are shearing, they keep coming over and look through the window to see how many sheep are left and say to each other, ‘Do you know what boys? We can finish this today.’ Graeme continues, ‘Shearers are unique people – they do heavy work – I really love their enthusiasm, they’re an important cog in the industry.’

Martindale Farm merino
Merino wool, the softest and finest sheep wool

Dianne and Graeme Johnson ‘love their sheep and enjoy what they do’. Graeme says his favourite part of running Martindale Farm is the animals, ‘They’re smart and sensible, and if you treat them humanely, they respond accordingly and you can have a good relationship with them.’ He enjoys some of the seasonal challenges but finds the increasing frost, which he believes to be a result of climate change, difficult to manage. Graeme points out, ‘Our farm is 400 metres high so frost is always an issue.’ Rabbits, foxes and weed infestations also need to be managed on the farm – the map pictured at the end of this article will give you an idea of the vast size and layout of Martindale Farm.

Sheep are free to wander the farm at Martindale
Merino sheep are free to wander the farm at Martindale

The Clare Valley Festival of the Lamb is all about engaging with producers, chefs and community to celebrate the area’s premium lamb and spring buds on the grapevines. When I ask Dianne and Graeme their preferred way to enjoy lamb, Dianne tells me that crumbed lamb cutlets are her favourite, while Graeme maintains you can’t beat a wood oven roast lamb in the shearers’ quarters.

Thank you to Dianne and Graeme Johnson for your hospitality, and for taking time out of your busy life to talk about your wonderful farm.

Martindale Farm map (*please note that some areas in the legend are not accurate)
Map of Martindale Farm (*please note that some areas in the legend are not accurate)




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