Making their mark


Trevor and Jeanette Hulcup retired to Northcliffe to farm marron but found themselves hosting Bibbulmun Track walkers in three former tobacco drying kilns that have been converted into accommodation.

“We have a complete set of tobacco buildings — kilns and grading room — that are heritage listed,” Trevor said.

The Hulcup block was originally part of a group settlement scheme that aimed to turn British soldiers returning from World War I into dairy farmers.

When the Great Depression struck, many settlers had to walk off their properties. Few had any agricultural experience and only 3 per cent survived in farming.

After World War II, the WA Government wanted to get the abandoned farms producing again.

When several Macedonian immigrants showed it was possible to grow tobacco in WA, the government saw an opportunity. It sponsored returning WA soldiers into the farms, supplied them with a standard range of farm buildings, fencing and a one-tonne ute each.

“They were better supported than the group settlers. Potential farmers spent a year at a tobacco-growing school near Manjimup,” Trevor said.

“Tobacco growing is very labour-intensive. The district had more people than at any other time.

“Tobacco plants grow like tomatoes. The laterals need to be pinched out to get a strong single-stemmed plant. The farmers planted seedlings in October and took three harvests of leaves during January.”

Women either tied bunches of tobacco leaves to battens or threaded them onto sharpened wires attached herringbone fashion to the same battens for setting in the kilns to dry.

The kilns were set on the ground to seal the flue. They were heated by a furnace on the east side and a flue ran along the dirt floor of the kiln, then up the west side. The flaps under the gable could be adjusted to control the drying temperature (they are now used to control air movement in the accommodation).

The industry lasted from 1951 until 1961 when eastern state buyers refused to buy WA leaf, claiming it was inferior in quality.

Since then, the buildings have been used for a variety of purposes including bees, hay sheds, machinery sheds and pigsties.

Many collapsed during Cyclone Alby in 1978.

But with the Bibbulmun Track near their front door, Trevor and Jeanette decided to convert the buildings into accommodation.

“We can accommodate up to 20 people,” Trevor said. “A notice at the nearby Bibbulmun Track hut offers the lure of showers, comfortable beds and washing machines.

“We get people returning with their families and sometimes a craft group books all the accommodation.”

The former tobacco grading room has been converted into a studio for artist Tony Windberg, who lives with his family in the original farmhouse.

“With its south-facing windows, it is a studio that many artists would kill for,” Tony said.

Tony works in oils and vinyl engraving, producing images of local vegetation and landscapes. They generally explore the theme of the uneasy interaction and intervention of humans with the Australian landscape.

He has a fine arts degree from Curtin University and teaches art classes throughout the region.

He is working on a CSIRO contract illustrating a coffee table book on the Triassic fauna of Antarctica.

Tony trawls through journals and the internet to research the ancient fauna and flora.

“When I’m fleshing out the fossils, creativity kicks in,” he said.

Trevor retired from teaching English at Scotch College to farm marron. Jeanette works part-time as an educational psychologist with the Education Department. They have 14 small marron ponds.

“We are struggling for water at the moment. Marron are choosy; they need a good environment. Pollution kills them and they are not tolerant of too many nutrients,” Trevor said.

“Shags are our number one problem, followed by water rats, kookaburras, crows and people who poach our ponds.”

Trevor said marron were not properly promoted as a gourmet food.

“There are four competing wholesalers in WA and they are not putting money into marketing them as a gourmet product,” he said.

“The industry needs to consolidate and use more imagination. When marron are promoted properly, the industry gets swamped with orders.

“We run on a shoestring with no aeration and minimum inputs. That way, we are just making a profit.”

The Hulcups’ other enterprise is a Dexter cattle stud.

The Watermark stud has 43 registered animals including two bulls.

“We sell sides of beef mainly to people who stay in the kilns. A Dexter side of 60kg to 80kg doesn’t overwhelm a freezer,” Trevor said.

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