Leitchville: Surviving in regional VIC against all odds

By Daneka Hill

ONCE upon a time Leitchville was home to one of Australia’s most important cheese factories.

Now, the town faces a future as little more than a dot on a map.

But the fight isn’t over for those who remain.

These residents harbour an impressive passion for bringing jobs and young families back to Leitchville – an idea that isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

Te new owner of Leitchville's bakery left the sights and sounds of Melbourne behind when he bought Leitchville's Red Gum bakery six months ago.

“It’s a lot busier than I thought it was going to be,” Leon McDonald admitted.

The 50-year-old baker said he made the tree change because it was time to “do something for myself”, but the shock of going from 4.8 million neighbours to 558 has taken some getting used to.

“It’s a bit different because everyone knows you. I’m trying to remember everyone’s name,” he said.

“People come up to you and introduce themselves and they know your name before they’ve even asked you.”

Mr McDonald said the bakery has been “pretty hectic” recently as workers in hi-vis shirts drop in from a nearby solar farm for their morning and afternoon smoko.

The 34W solar farm is being built five minutes up the road. Despite how many contractors it's attracted, locals aren't confident there will be any flow on jobs or business.

Leitchville is a town that's learnt to wait and see when it comes to change.

Michael Walker owns the Leitchville IGA and also wears the hat of Leitchville Progress Association president.

He admits to being unsure about the solar farm being a jobs prospect.

“The bakery and the hotel are benefiting at the moment and to a smaller extent ourselves as well at the IGA,” Mr Walker said.

Arriving in town 40 years ago to work in the cheese factory, Mr Walker has owned the IGA for nearly 20 years.

He said the town was “ticking along” thanks to tireless volunteer work put in by locals and he wasn’t “too negative” about Leitchville’s future.

“It is nice and quiet, a good lifestyle. It’s half-an-hour from Echuca and three hours from Melbourne,” he said.

“When the Gunbower Forest became a national park we started getting some tourists down here too.”

When it comes to the decommissioned milk factory which sits empty on Leitchville's main street, Mr Walker said town sentiment was "hopeful" for the building which casts the town in a metaphorical shadow.

When the factory closed in 2010, 80 jobs were lost and families left en masse.

“There has been lots of rumours over the years about possible buyers that have never come to fruition, so we’ve got a bit of skepticism when we hear something, we say ‘well, just wait and see’,” Mr Walker said.

The story of Leitchville is a bumpy one. The original settlement existed near Box Bridge further up the road but when a railway station was opened in 1914 everyone shifted to be near it.

The new train station resulted in a sawmill, general store and butter factory opening in quick succession.

In 1945 the butter factory passed hands to Kraft Walker Cheese Company who turned it into a cheese factory.

Leitchville’s population boomed with the arrival of cheese - at its peak the factory employed 230 workers.

Residents recall that “anyone could get a job” and most local men got their first jobs as apprentices at the factory.

Kraft sold the cheese factory in 2001 after 30 years of steadily slowing trade. New owners Murray Goulburn Co-operative began processing milk on the site.

After drought almost halved milk production in the district, MG struggled for another eight years before closing the factory 10 years ago.

Almost every year there is a new rumour about an interested buyer – a tyre recycler, a pork manufacturer, a poultry abattoir - but negotiations repeatedly fell through.

In 2017 factory equipment was sold to a New Zealand company.

During the partial dismantling process of the factory two workers were crushed under a falling condenser, one of them fatally.

Finally, in 2018, Canadian company Saputo bought the factory for $1.3 billion dollars.

Things were looking up for the first time in seven years – then Saputo decided to sell the plant, and it remains on real estate website to this day.

Retiree Ian Palmer used to work for the cheese factory in the single slice section.

“When Kraft closed up probably $3 million worth of wages went out of Pyramid, and nearly to (as far as) Echuca, Koondrook, Kerang,” he said, describing the reach of Leitchville's old wealth across the district.

Mr Palmer said it was unlikely Saputo will find the right buyer for the half-dismantled factory.

“They want to sell it but they will only sell it to someone who's not going to have milk,” he said.

Nowadays Leitchville is a hardly known retirees paradise thanks to its small grocers, baker, butcher and plummeting house prices.

Despite a decade of living with an uncertain future, locals still love their town - something which becomes apparent during a drive down Leitchville's streets.

There is an unusually high number of beautiful gardens.

Mr Palmer, the former single slice cheese maker, and his wife Carole are custodians of the largest garden in town, although they are only willing to admit it’s the driest.

“It takes a bit of weeding and keeping up to but it’s a good therapy,” Mrs Palmer said.

Mr Palmer now creates metal sculptures and has entered a few competitions with his work.

“It's a hobby, it keeps him out of the kitchen,” Mrs Palmer joked.

Mrs Palmer has spent her whole life in Leitchville and said the closure of the factory was a big loss.

“But that’s what factories do don’t they? They can be shut quickly.”

Responsible for the “greenest garden in town” (according to the Palmers) is hairdresser Irene Fehring who lives down the road. She said gardening was her way of unwinding.

“We’ve all got lots to do but that’s my relaxation,” Mrs Fehring said.

Mrs Fehring said there had been a “huge, huge change” to the town since the cheese factory sold up.

“When we arrived in 1996 there were two cafes, there was a garage and a bank with four people,” she said. All of those businesses have moved on.

“Traffic was incredible because they were doing the slices and you know, the changeover, the router was busy, there were tankers all the time.”

Next door to Mrs Fehring’s salon is Roma Dye’s drapery.

“In little towns you wear several hats,” the 80-year-old businesswoman, Lions Club member and Leitchville Progress Association treasurer said.

When asked about Leitchville's future, Mrs Dye said she was “always optimistic”.

“We’ve got a wonderful little kindy here,” she said.

The kindy has been an area of unexpected growth for the town.

Gannawarra Shire mayor Lorraine Learmonth said enrolments at the pre-school increased 25 per cent in 2019.

The success is an interesting phenomenon for a town in the middle of a ‘young families’ drought.

The mystery is solved when you ask where the children enrolled at Leitchville's pre-school are from. Most live in Cohuna, a small but bustling town 15-minutes drive away, which has little to no day care or childcare options.

The increasing practice of living in one town and commuting to another has been touched upon as an area of growth for Leitchville.

What the town lacks in jobs it makes up for in cheap housing and a perfectly quiet lifestyle.

Currently when a local house goes on the market it’s snapped up by retirees, holiday-makers and even truck drivers looking for a half-way house.

The youngest business owner on the main street is the butcher, Ben North, who lives in neighbouring town of Kerang despite growing up in Leitchville.

Mr North said his business was doing well off the back of catering jobs and a reputation for sourcing local.

“Leitchville has changed heaps, there is less and less farmers and more retired people,” he said.

“There are no younger ones hanging around anymore, they’ve just moved on.”

John Brown is 84 years old and remembers growing up in Leitchville.

“I can’t remember how many went to school then - there would have been 80 kids, maybe 70,” the retired dairy farmer said.

There are seven students currently enrolled at Leitchville's primary school.

Mr Brown said Cohuna and Gunbower both had factories, but Leitchville was unable to grow like those towns because the highway didn't pass through.

When asked, Mr Brown considered Leitchville’s future uncertain.

“It’s just at a tipping point now at this particular time with the water,” he said.

“Nobody can tell you what’s going to happen.”

The solar farm is guaranteed to operate for 15 years and is expected to facilitate pre-apprenticeship courses with Regional Development Victoria.

Whether it brings jobs to Leitchville is a wait and see prospect but it seems the community's spirit will continue to rise and ensure the town's heading into the future.