LeBruns' legacy begins with great escape

LeBruns' legacy begins with great escape

Grains
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No one could have predicted that a fleeing French Baron in the 1850s would lead to the LeBrun family proudly calling Wullara, Tumby Bay, their home.

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EVENTS often foreshadow future circumstances, but not even a huge dose of psychic aptitude could have predicted that a fleeing French Baron in the 1850s would lead to the LeBrun family proudly calling Wullara, Tumby Bay, their home.

Born in Paris in 1827, Frederick LeBrun left France in the 1850s in a bid to escape military service. After initially fleeing to the United States, he was sent back to France by an uncle in the US, but left once more, this time arriving on Australian shores, where he spent time working at the Ballarat, Vic, goldfields. He relocated to Port Lincoln in 1853, after the French military travelled to Ballarat looking for him, and then 'went bush' to hide.

PAVING THE WAY: Stephen LeBrun, pictured in the early 1900s.

PAVING THE WAY: Stephen LeBrun, pictured in the early 1900s.

Nearly 150 years later, the story of Frederick's escape to SA is still a favourite among his farming descendants, who enjoy musing about the exact details of the tale.

While there are no records of Frederick going farming himself, early signs of a commitment to agriculture were shown by his son Stephen, who, according to Stephen's grandson Bill, used to walk from Port Lincoln to Port Augusta and the Gawler Ranges - and back - each year to go shearing in the late 1800s.

"He would only have been carrying a pair of hand shears and something to keep them sharp, but it was a heck of a walk to go to work," Bill said.

Following the days of the year-long treks, Stephen and his wife Rose sharefarmed on White River station, working with sons Frederick and Charles before buying a 450-hectare block of land closer to Tumby Bay in 1911.

Margins are tight in farming, and to stay alive, you have to stay cutting edge. Cutting edge is your budget, and so that's where we've gone. - DION LeBRUN

Charles left the farm to go to World War I, and upon returning, bought a section of the land his parents had originally sharefarmed, while Frederick stayed farming with Stephen.

Since then, the 450ha block has grown considerably. What was once covered by large piles of stones that were removed by horse and dray, has - as a result of multiple land acquisitions through the years - expanded to a 3500ha continuous cropping operation, with another 1000ha being leased, and 800ha set aside for grazing 2000 crossbred and Merino sheep.

Leonard LeBrun is the fifth generation to take the helm at Wullara. Before him, his father Dion and grandfather Bill - who is the son of Frederick - had each taken their turn holding the reins.

Other siblings through the generations have left to work in other areas of the Eyre Peninsula - Bill, Dion, and Leonard are each one of four siblings, while Bill's father Frederick was one of five - but Dion said he felt honoured to be working on the multi-generational family farm.

If you don't let the younger generation come in earlier, you can miss a lot of the changes, because you get into a groove and don't want to go anywhere else. - BILL LeBRUN

"When I think that my great-grandfather (Stephen), who I never knew, started it, that's pretty special," he said.

"It was scrub when (Stephen and Rose) took it on, and all the generations have tried to make it better than when they have each taken it over."

Bill, Dion and Leonard work together on the farm, along with Leonard's brother Jordan, and the LeBruns show a healthy balance of utilising wisdom and input from older generations, while the younger ones have the final say.

"If you don't let the younger generation come in earlier, you can miss a lot of the changes, because you get into a groove and don't want to go anywhere else," Bill said.

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"If they don't want to take over, you get behind the trend, and when you're behind the trend, you're missing out."

Dion said keeping up with the latest farming methods was important in order to stay financially viable.

"Margins are tight in farming, and to stay alive, you have to stay cutting edge. Cutting edge is your budget, and so that's where we've gone," he said.

"Leonard is at the stage where he is always looking for that extra 2 per cent or 3pc pickup."

Like everyone, you want to pass a good, healthy sustainable business onto the kids, you want to leave it in a better state than what you got it, so we're always improving things. - LEONARD LeBRUN

Leonard started working on Wullara full-time in 2008, with a diesel mechanic apprenticeship, a stint of crayfishing, and a year of overseas travel under his belt.

"When I was younger I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I do love being home," he said.

Since returning to Wullara, Leonard has moved seeding time from May and June back to April, introduced variable inputs, navigated the change to satellite control of machinery, switched to using Dohnes, and moved shearing from July to February.

"Like everyone, you want to pass a good, healthy sustainable business onto the kids, you want to leave it in a better state than what you got it, so we're always improving things," Leonard said.

WONDERFUL WOOL: Leonard LeBrun with some freshly-shorn wool.

WONDERFUL WOOL: Leonard LeBrun with some freshly-shorn wool.

Dion also remembers changes he himself made on Wullara, including the idea to adopt direct drilling seeding methods in the late 1970s, upon returning home from an agricultural course at Cleve Area School. The idea was one that did not originally take Bill's fancy.

"Dion came home and said 'Dad, we're going to go direct drilling next year, modern technology has proven it', and I said I'd compromise, and we'd put half in my way and half in his way. After harvest, I told Dion he wouldn't make much of a salesperson, because his half really was a lot better than my half," Bill said.

Bill said the changes he had seen in harvest methods through the years had been considerable.

"The first thing I remember, we had an eight-foot (2.4-metre) Sunshine harvester towed by an Oliver Cletrac tractor, then things progressed, and you got up to 10-foot (3m) and you thought that would be a bit big, that would have been back in the 1940s and 1950s," Bill said.

"I used to come home from school in the holidays and drive the tractor, while Dad sat on the back and worked the controls, and we bagged as we went along."

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Dion also remembers working with Frederick, affectionately known as "Poppy Tobe", such as when the pair stooked hay together when Dion was a child.

"He (Frederick) was on top of the trailer catching the hay, it didn't matter how fast you were throwing them up, he'd always yell that you weren't throwing them up quick enough," Dion said.

"You looked at the blisters on your hands afterwards, and thought 'bugger this for a living'."

Dion enjoyed working with Frederick, who worked right up until the day he passed away in 1980.

"We were down ploughing some land, and Poppy Tobe just knocked off at lunchtime, he said he didn't feel well, and he went home and laid down and died."

Although Frederick did not have a retirement, having some time off later in life is seemingly not a desirable outcome for the LeBruns, with the interest in the farm far outweighing leisure time, according to Bill.

Bill, who is 87, is still out and about on the farm most days, checking the sheep, and checking water infrastructure for leaks.

"You can do a lot of running around that doesn't require much work, and that leaves someone else to do something possibly more important," he said.

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Bill and his wife Lynnette - who first saw Bill when he was dancing on top of a car in his football boots - named the farm Wullara in the 1960s, when they took the reins from Frederick.

"I was reading a paper one time about Aboriginal words and their meanings, Wullara was down as 'place of many white stones', and I thought, how appropriate, we had limestone everywhere, and its meaning was ideal for what was here," Bill said.

Apart from Dion, Bill and Lynnette have three other children - Christine, who lives at Wirrulla and runs N&C Ag with husband Noel, Amanda, who lives in Adelaide and works for the government, and Steven, who farmed at Wullara with Bill before passing away from melanoma in 2003.

"Steven and myself farmed with Dad for quite a few years when we left school, and the farm wasn't big enough for all of us, so I went fishing for almost 20 years, and worked in the tuna industry at Port Lincoln," Dion said.

Dion returned to Wullara in the early 2000s, when Steven became ill.

"Coming home was an easy decision to make," Dion said.

He has lived on Wullara ever since, with his wife Maria, who hails from Cleve. While two of their four children - Leonard and Jordan - work on the farm, son Isaac is a refrigeration mechanic in Port Lincoln, and the youngest, Harry, is 12.

Although Dion has worked on the farm for more than four decades in total, he does not have a preference for either cropping or livestock.

"They both have their place," Dion said. "It's all part of running a farm. With our mixed soil types, where there is non-arable land, sheep have got their place."

We are a fifth-generation farming business still moving ahead, we have stayed a viable business for a long time, and that certainly makes me proud - DION LeBRUN

Bill, along with his brothers Reg and Keith, used to shear the sheep, shearing up to 1200 head each year while Bill was at the helm. These days, local shearing teams are used to get the job done, and between three shearers, the 2000 sheep are shorn across five days.

The LeBruns' flock used to be purely Merinos, but these have been replaced by Dohnes and White Suffolks in order to capitalise on the dual-purpose market.

Half of the Dohnes are mated to Dohne rams from Coolibah stud, Tumby Bay, and the other half are mated to White Suffolk rams from another Tumby Bay stud, Yanta.

About 1200 Dohne wether lambs, crossbred wether and ewe lambs are sold over the hooks in February, with all Dohne ewe lambs - roughly 400 - kept on as replacements. Ewes are sold over-the-hooks when they are about six years old.

Cropping and livestock aside, the LeBruns are very involved in their community.

"I sort of got involved in thinking if you're a farmer, you have to be involved in the industry, so I got into agripolitics a little bit for a while," Dion said.

Formerly involved in the SA Farmers Federation, Dion is now president of the Tumby Bay Progress Association.

SILO ART: Dion LeBrun features on the Wirrabara silos, which were painted by artist Sam Bates.

SILO ART: Dion LeBrun features on the Wirrabara silos, which were painted by artist Sam Bates.

But his presence extends well beyond the Tumby Bay community to Wirrabara, where he features prominently on the town's silo mural.

"Wirrabara decided they didn't want a local on their silos, so they thought they'd have an outdoor farmer-type worker, and (artist Sam Bates, known as Smug) had seen me at the Tumby Bay Street Art Festival and said 'right, you're it'," Dion said.

But Dion is not the only LeBrun to star in a mural, with son Harry also the subject of a piece in Moscow. The mural, painted by Argentinian artist Martin Ron in the lead-up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, features Harry looking to do a throw-in on a soccer pitch.

"Martin Ron painted the Tumby Bay silos, and he had a commission to paint two murals in Moscow leading up to the World Cup, and so he bailed Harry up for one of them," Dion said.

With wings seemingly spread on an international scale, the LeBruns are very much at home in Tumby Bay, with Leonard's wife Deb, who hails from Scotland, also having grown to love Wullara.

Related reading: Long line of farmers behind Mid North operation

Dion said the female members of the family had all been actively involved in Wullara through the years, and encouraged everyone to be involved in farmwork.

"The girls have always been interested, and female farmers do a great job," Dion said.

When pondering about what makes the LeBruns most proud of Wullara, Dion says the multi-generational aspect is hard to beat.

"We are a fifth-generation farming business still moving ahead, we have stayed a viable business for a long time, and that certainly makes me proud," he said.

And with Leonard and Deb's eldest son Rory, 2, having 'tractor' as his first word, the future looks promising.

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