Sweet evolution of sugar

The evolution of Queensland's sugar cane industry

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HARD YAKKA: Cane cutting gang on the Burdekin in the 1960s. Entire communities in North Queensland have been built on the back of the sugarcane industry. Photo: Burdekin Cane Farm Stay.

HARD YAKKA: Cane cutting gang on the Burdekin in the 1960s. Entire communities in North Queensland have been built on the back of the sugarcane industry. Photo: Burdekin Cane Farm Stay.

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SUGARCANE was brought to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, but it was decades before a viable industry was created in the country.

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SUGAR cane was brought to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, but it was decades before a viable industry was created in the country.

Early crops in New South Wales failed, paving the way for Queensland to become the canegrowing powerhouse that it is today.

Queensland Country Life has followed the evolution of the industry over the past 85 years, reporting on not only the changing landscape of the commodity, but importantly, the people at the coalface who rose to the challenges to create the industry as we know it in 2020.

Queensland Country Life's first editor, H.P. Blakeney, highlighted the importance of the sugar industry when celebrating news that then Premier Mr W Forgan Smith was travelling to London for a world sugar conference in 1935.

"The sugar industry, which is so vital to the economic life of Queensland, could not have a better champion. It needs one," he wrote in his editorial of November 21, 1935.

"This industry... forms the greatest bone of contention among the states of Australia.

"It is constantly assailed in the south, yet it can never be impeached on the grounds of efficiency. It is, in that respect, an example to the whole of Australia.

"There is a national aspect connected with the sugar industry. It is vital, if we are to hold Australia that the tropical areas of the north be populated and developed.

"Darwin is a sufficient danger; but it derives a certain amount of security from the fact that the surrounding country is not attractive, while it serves an interior which, like the famed boarding-house egg, is good only in parts.

"We dare not take the same risk with the fertile lands of our North Queensland littoral. Thus far, sugar has afforded the only answer to the problem of the development of these areas."

Entire communities in North Queensland have been built on the back of the sugarcane industry.

The face of the industry from the get-go was an example of early multicultural Australia.

While early labour included South Pacific Islanders, some brought to Australia against their will, European immigrants, particularly of Italian heritage, arrived in Australia post 1940s, seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

Many Italian cutters worked long and hard and earned enough to buy their own small farm. Growing sugar cane became the preserve of small, family-operated farms and, today, many growers are descendants of the early cane cutters.

Post-war there was a labour shortage and several thousand refugees were sent to assist with harvesting, from the same resettlement camps that sent workers to the Snowy River scheme. Returned soldiers were also some of the founding farmers in the 1900s, with land ballots allocating cane farms to veterans.

In June 1950, Queensland Country Life reported 235 ex-servicemen had received new or increased assignments, and a further 98 blocks of unassigned land had been allotted.

"The first 10 men allotted to tobacco-growing blocks at Clare, near Ayr, had harvested their first crop, and a further 19 farms had been allocated."

The industry was a melting pot of hard working men, and conflict arose. By 1935, disputes were occurring on the ground, and workers were striking. The union was urging members to not work with non-union members. Mills shut down and hundreds of extra police were sent to the north as tensions bubbled.

There is a national aspect connected with the sugar industry. It is vital, if we are to hold Australia that the tropical areas of the north be populated and developed. - H.P. Blakeney - QCL's founding editor

The tropics was considered to be a particularly brutal climate - and harvesting cane relied solely on hard manual labour. Hand cane cutting was a laborious process and picking up and loading the cane proved time consuming.

Innovation came to the forefront of the industry from the 1930s, with growers looking for faster and easier ways to cut and load their crops. Many machines were developed over this time, including cane loaders and cutters.

In 1944, Joe Toft and his brothers in Bundaberg designed one of the first commercial cane harvesters on the market and the 1950s heralded the arrival of a front end loader.

On July 1, 1954, Queensland Country Life reported on one of the first commercially successful sugar cane harvesters, a machine marketed by Moloney Harvester Works, after a film was shown to trade representatives and agricultural experts in Brisbane.

"Three models of the harvester were shown in action - the No. 1, capable of cutting up to 40 tons of cane per acre; a medium size, with 60 tons per acre capacity, and the heaviest model, which can handle cane from 4 feet to 13 feet in height, and of a density of 80 tons per acre.

"The cane is topped as it is rut, the trimmed sticks being deposited neatly on the ground as the machine completes the operation.

"The harvester's performance was astounding compared with hand-cutting: it barged its way through the heaviest growth of cane.

"Up to 150 tons per day can be cut mechanically against an average of 12 tons per day by hand."

Most harvesters being developed had cutters to cut the tops off the cane stalks and in the 1960s a mechanical topper was developed, allowing for the move to green cane harvesting from the 1980s.

By 1979the Australian sugar industry achieved 100 per cent conversion to mechanical harvesting.

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