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This website aims to develop case studies of the development of farming practices and attendant transformations of local ecologies of defined blocks of land. Through these biographies of particular plots of land we are developing localised analyses of the wider historical trends in the political economy/ecology of the Northern Rivers.

Go to: Family history | The Farm | The River | David, Jenny and the Farm | Self-sufficiency and Aquarius | Cattle and floods | The landscape | Other on-farm agriculture | Buying and selling land | Poor economic times | Family partnership on the farm | Mill politics, harvesters and cane cutters | Changing methods | Chemicals | Market impacts and government subsidies | Generational change and succession | Impact on cane growing | Environmental issues | Politics of cane and the mill | Neighbours

Mill politics, harvesters and cane cutters

Have you had much to do with … I don’t know … the politics around cane or?

David: no I haven’t had any.

Jenny: what about that time you went to Canberra in a small plane full of people, blokes, to protest about something – what was that?

David: I forget now.

Jenny: mustn’t have been very important.

David: it was Bob Hawke doing something, some policy of his.

Jenny: there used to be strikes at the mill, when all the farmers were on the farmer’s side and mill workers were on the Mill workers side and the mill was all the farmers side and they’d sit out and make little tent embassies out the front of the mill wanting more pay and that sort of thing.

The mill workers wanted more pay?

Jenny: the mill workers.

David: when I first came here the mill was still run by the CSR, or was it? Probably early 70s it was turned into a cooperative and it didn’t sort of have the back drop of a big colonial power hanging over your head any more. They were sort of…. fought us…. a bit over bearing.Their policies went, and to hell with what anybody else thought. And also just when I started, up until then we’d had cane cutters and just when I started, the cane harvesters came. And the cane harvester actually started in this area because on the other side of Broadwater there was a better transport system and here the cane used to go to the mill and you used to have to cross the highway and the highway was getting a bit busy then. And also down south, probably south of Ballina and north of Broadwater, all the cane farms had little trains systems, train lines that ran the sugar to the river to be loaded onto the barges up this side. It all had to be dragged in by horses originally but then the tractors, so that was a bit cumbersome. And so when they started thinking about cane harvesters they selected this area to start in and that was just in about 1970.

Jenny: I remember seeing cane cutters just at the very end of it when I came here in 1971 – there were still gangs of cane cutters.

David: they weren’t cutting here though were they?

Jenny: I think when it got very wet they brought in some gangs, cause the original harvesters weren’t very good in the wet.

David: they didn’t have tracks, they used to just drive around the paddocks on a truck, direct from the cane harvester onto a truck, so when it got wet they got bogged out badly. And I do think you might be right they did have some … a few gangs of …. that used to pick up bits that the cane harvester couldn’t get.

So in your childhood you remember the cane cutters don’t you?

David: cane cutters yeah. The cane cutters were in a gang, and the gangs, there were various. I’m not sure how many gangs, but there were various gangs around the river that would cut a specific area. They would have a few, say eight farms, and they’d go and start on one farm and go round in a circle and come back a month or so later, starting again.

Jenny: a bit like shearing gangs, shearing contractors do you remember them?

So on those lists that we were looking at, the one at the top, he was the ganger…?

David: ganger yeah who used to deal with the farmer and decide how much the cane was worth cut, you know, how much value they thought the cane had developed because of problems it had – so it made it more expensive to cut

And you said if there were rocks in the field or …

David: yeah or the cane was bent or on the ground or badly rat eaten or whatever they would think of, not a good fire…

Oh – so did you do the fire and then they would come in after that?

David: I sort of think they might have helped with the fires actually.

And then an arbitrator would be brought in if the farmer and the ganger…

David: only if they couldn’t agree. That wasn’t very common but it used to happen and they used to try and avoid it, I don’t know why, but it probably made them more agreeable. The arbitrator would be angry by the time he’d driven up here from Wardell or wherever he came from.

What else did the arbitrator do or is that all… what he did all day, in which case…?

David: I don’t know, he might have worked in the Cane Growers Office. Not sure what he did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one but I know they were there.

Did you actually have to buy your harvester or were you given some support to …?

David: no the first harvester was a private contractor who just set up and said “I’ll try and harvest the cane” and he did that for about… I don’t know.

Jenny: what was his name?

David: Ray Austin.

Jenny: Ray Austin.

David: he was a good worker and didn’t mind getting dirty. And after a few years – after they realised the cane harvester was going to be the way forward – the whole river got into the groups and bought co-operative cane harvesters. And I think there probably were 10 to 15 farms in our co-op and they harvested a bigger area than the cane cutters used to do, but does the same thing, comes to every farm, just goes in a rotation round the group. Comes to each farm about three or four times a year.

Jenny: harvesting. Different problem to planting, planting – you’re on your own. I can see in the future that planting’s going to be something like that too wouldn’t you?

David: I don’t know.

Who made the decision that this area would become the place where the harvesters would start?

David: I think it was made by the crane driver in Wardell that this area had more problems because it didn’t have the transport system.

Could you compare this cane growing area to say, the Tweed or say Tully. How does it impact on you to be here?

David: the cane industry in New South Wales and Queensland are different because they’re a different crop, although the Tweed is getting to be the same as Queensland. In fact this cane growing here is predominantly two year cane whereas in Queensland it’s grown over a one year period. Or a long one year period because they haven’t got to worry about frost, that’s one of the big factors that restricts where and when you can plant cane.

So that impacts onto your harvester and all the technology doesn’t it? Do I remember something about that we still have cane fires down here? Tell me about that because lots of other places don’t have cane fires, is that right?

Jenny: yeah.

David: you need to be able to burn two year old cane. With the machines they had up to ten years ago, because they weren’t big enough to push through unburnt two year old cane when it’s wet – whereas with year old cane where it’s usually upright the small machine can get through and take everything off the paddock. But here if it’s a big huge crop and it’s wet, they can’t push through it. So that’s one reason why they still had to have the fires. But the machines are getting bigger, and better extractors to blow the stuff -you know the rubbish – away so they probably can manage now.

Why did you still have the fire then?

David: well we didn’t have fires the year before last because they had the cogeneration plant going at the sugar mill. But the cogeneration plant was proving not to be that efficient at getting the sugar out of the trash and stuff that they were trying to extract, so a lot of the profit was going away with the residue. It wasn’t being made into sugar which means it was getting hard to run it, the mill, economically, because the profit was being burnt rather than being made into sugar.

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