Family prospers out of Africa

Claire TyrrellCountryman

The challenges of farming in WA must seem insignificant to Roland and Celia Labuschagne, who fled the perils of South Africa to take up life on the land in Tenindewa, 80km east of Geraldton.

Roland, wife Celia, their daughter Margaret and son-in-law Adriaan Frick left their farms on either side of South Africa in 2007.

Roland and Celia ran a 2000-hectare sugarcane, timber and cattle farm in the Natal province, 1500km east of Cape Town, with their son, Rowley.

For Roland, the decision to leave came down to a matter of personal safety.

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"There was no law and order to protect you," he said. "We had to deal with murders and killings on a regular basis. Three of my neighbours got murdered.

"We had a six foot fence and a firearm next to us all day. It was not safe to live there."

Roland said mistrust between workers and farmers would sometimes result in bloodshed in his home province.

"We had 300 sugarcane cutters and they all carried machetes," he said.

"We used to go out and burn our paddocks at 3am and if your worker had something against you he would cut your head off."

Roland said he was grateful nothing happened to his family but still holds fears for his father who stayed behind.

Rowley remained for another two years before leaving in 2009 with wife Lizzette and child Janeske to join his family in Tenindewa.

For him, the move came down to ensuring a better future for his children.

"The political situation over there wasn't getting any better, so we left to find a better future for our kids," Rowley said.

Margaret and Adriaan initiated the family's move in early 2007 after farming in similar terrain to WA on the outskirts of Cape Town.

"We cropped 2000ha of wheat and oats and ran about 10,000 Merino and Dorper ewes near Cape Town," said Adriaan who worked on a farm in Williams before he and his family bought the Tenindewa farm.

Into their fourth season in WA, Adriaan said he had not looked back.

"Farming in Australia is a lot different politically and financially to Africa," he said.

"We wanted to get our family to a safer place and if you invest in something you want to know it's safe."

Adriaan said he noticed a marked improvement in infrastructure once he made the move to Australia.

"The road, rail and port services are not as reliable in Africa as they are here," he said.

The grain market was slightly more stable in Africa because he could count on a reasonably set return for his wheat.

As South Africa consumes more than 90 per cent of the wheat it produces and Australia exports more than 70 per cent of its wheat, Adriaan said Africa had a much more stable grain market.

"The market here fluctuates a lot more but politically and even financially it's a lot safer," he said.

For Adriaan, growing conditions in WA are similar to those near Cape Town.

"We get close to the same amount of rain here - about 450mm per year," he said. "The soil is a bit better over here but is fairly similar."

But Rowley and his father are experiencing a vastly different growing environment from what they were used to.

"We were in a similar rainfall zone to the Atherton Tablelands of Queensland, with more than 1000mm of rain a year," Rowley said.

He said a lot of that rain fell during the summer months.

Rowley said his farming operation was a lot more labour intensive than in WA, which he sees as more mechanical.

On average, Rowley and Roland produced about 50,000 tonnes of sugar and 2000 tonnes of timber per year. They also ran 500 to 600 Beefmaster and Brahman-cross Simmental breeders.

The family left cattle behind but stayed in sheep when they moved to WA.

Adriaan said he was building a Dorper flock in Tenindewa and had about 200 sheep.

"We eventually want to get up to 2000 sheep but for now they are just killers," he said.

"There is money in sheep at the moment and we see Dorpers as very low maintenance compared to Merinos."

This year, the family expanded its cropping program by 2700ha by taking on leased country in Yuna.

They started seeding at Yuna on April 30 after receiving 14mm two days prior.

With more 40mm of rain so far for the year, Adriaan said it seemed like an ideal start.

"This year we have had 45mm at Tenindewa and 40mm at Yuna, so the soil is still wet," he said.

By mid-May, the family had sown 2450ha of wheat and 350ha of lupins.

Rowley said he was fairly confident about the season ahead but last year's record results would be hard to match.

"We should be looking at an average season but it's hard to judge anything after last year," he said. "We can only hope for the best."

Last season, the family averaged 3.1 tonnes on wheat and two tonnes on lupins, their best results since coming to WA.

Rowley said this was comparable to a good season in Africa.

This season the family planned to sow 3000ha of Mace, 2000ha of Wyalkatchem and 700ha of Westonia wheat.

Adriaan said they had not yet sown a canola crop and decided against it this season.

"We haven't got the courage up yet to sow canola," he said.

"The idea was to plant some canola this year but we didn't think we had enough summer rain."

When asked what he liked most about farming, Adriaan said the family-oriented lifestyle was by far the best aspect.

"I love the lifestyle," he said.

"The best thing about it is you get to be with your family all the time," he said.

Adriaan and Margaret have a two-year-old son, Peter, and Rowley and Lizzette have a four-year-old daughter Janeske and one-year-old daughter Leah-May.

Fast facts *

Who: Roland and Celia Labuschagne, Rowley and Lizzette Labuschagne, Adriaan and Margaret Frick

What: 5700ha wheat, 350ha lupins, 700ha chemical fallow

Where: Yuna and Tenindewa

We wanted to get our family to a safer place and if you invest in something you want to know it's safe.


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