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We bought this land and it was a run-down dairy farm. We didn’t dairy on it, we started to grow bananas. Then Dad leased probably over 100 acres to different banana growers, mostly Italians. There were a couple of Australians. By the 1950s there were seven prosperous banana-growing families making their living off the farm, where the dairy-farmers were starving.
The farm was 169 acres, I believe, and the next-door farm had some others, too, but we rented 100 odd acres of that land to grow bananas. It looked actually as if you were in Coffs Harbour, you know how the hills in Coffs Harbour grow bananas? We had 120 – because there was someone on the farm next-door – there were 120 acres of bananas in that valley.
Dad got lung cancer and he had to sell it, and although I’d worked on the farm, I was more interested in trucking. The story about how I talked Dad into buying a truck to cart some bananas, our own to start with, and then because these growers were leasing our land off us, I convinced them that they should give the carrying of their bananas to me and from there the transport business grew.
Okay. Well, you did tell me you had three siblings; is that right? And did everybody work on the farm once you got it?
No, when they arrived from Italy they did, because my sister and elder brother worked on the bananas at Rosebank. And when we left the Rosebank plantation, my elder brother bought bananas off Dad and continued the lease of the land at Rosebank. Then he eventually came to Nimbin as well, but not on our farm. He bought a farm of his own. My sister was married before we went to Nimbin.
And the farmers, all the banana farmers on your Dad’s land, were they Italians, or were they mixed?
No, they were mixed – mostly Italian, but there were a couple of Australian people. Ted Hamilton, Norm Smith, and then another one, I think.
How much land did you actually have to have to make a living from bananas in those days?
Well, the biggest grower had 20 acres and they were two partners, two brothers-in-law on the farm that Dad worked, Dad only had about nine acres altogether of his own, because once I got into the trucking I wasn’t much help.
See, that’s what ruined the banana industry on the North Coast. The refrigerated transport came in and they could grow bananas in North Queensland before, but they couldn’t get them to market. It was too far away. Refrigerated transport came in, and then they could get them to Sydney and Melbourne markets quite easily in a couple of days on the truck, but they could get them there in good order.
Up there, a grower can grow 100 acres, because it’s all flat country out of the frost, whereas on the North Coast you had to grow them up the side of the hill to get out of the frost, and that made hard work – you couldn’t work machinery on the steep hills. Everything had to be done by hand.
On the farm that we had at Nimbin, they used to carry the fertiliser up by pack-horse to fertilise the bananas. It was fairly steep land. That’s why it wasn’t a good dairy farm. There is some flat land, but they couldn’t grow bananas on it because it was too down on the frost line. You had to get above the frost line.
Can you describe what that land looked like?
Well, it had a fair bit of bush on it and had to be clear-felled and planted. They actually tilled some of the land with a bullock team, with the bullock plough behind…
In your Dad’s day? So ’49?
Eric: Yes. There was a chap called Jim Falls from Tuntable Creek, who used to bring his bullocks over and camp them, have them on the paddock, and I’d help him yoke them up. Well, I didn’t have anything to do with it, but as I was there I used to help him, you know, bring the bullocks in. Then he’d take off up the hill and they’d plough this land with a big Mouldboard plough.
Marie: Tell Jo about the flying-foxes and everything.
Eric: Yes, the way to get the bananas out of the hill was we had, there was a gully in the thing like that, and they had the packing sheds on one side, on the Northern side, and the bananas used to come down on a wire, and then they’d sort of have a slack wire, on a single wire system, and they’d come up and they’d be slowing down as they come down out of the thing at 100 miles an hour on a pulley. Then they’d slow down as they came up the hill.
Then they’d stop them with a rope with a hook on it over the wire, and the pulley used to hit that, and you’d have a bag on the rope so you wouldn’t burn your hands as the rope went through your hands, and you’d slow the bunch up until it got to the packing shed. Then it had to be unhooked by hand and carried into the shed to be packed – treated and packed to be sent away.
And who’d be doing that work on the farm?
Eric: Husbands and wives.
So it was very much a team sort of thing?
Marie: Yes, wives worked very hard. I didn’t have to, but a lot of girls my age did.
And Marie, let’s get some of your background.
Marie: Eric was in the trucks at this time. By the time we were married he wasn’t doing this kind of banana work. He was in trucking and transporting.