Occupation: Cane farmer
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Location of Interview: Rickard’s farm, Yandina
Date of Interview: 25 September 2003
Joy Rickard (nee Thorogood) was born in Nambour in 1949; married local cane farmer Gary Rickard in 1968, and the couple now have three adult children, who are also involved in growing sugar cane. Joy and Gary work together on their farm and Joy can often be seen driving a tractor and putting in long hours tilling soil or driving a bin-out tractor at harvest time. Other farmers have described Joy and Gary as a ‘tight unit’ and the couple have made a success of their farming venture. Combining the role of mother, wife and co-worker has been hard work, but a task that Joy Rickard has not shirked from and is seen as a role model among the women in the industry. Like many others, her and her husband’s families share a long association in the Maroochy River cane growing area and they are not looking forward to the day the Mill closes. It is an uncertain future but one gets the impression that people like Joy and Gary Rickard will fight their way out of it.
GM: This is a recording of an interview with Joy Rickard, recorded on Thursday 25 September 2003, at the Rickard residence, 200 Toolborough Road, Yandina for the Maroochy Library’s Last Crush Project, recorded by Gary McKay.
Joy, firstly thanks very much for taking part at this really busy time of the year. Can you just give us a bit of background on your family history in this area?
Thorogood family history in the sugar industryJR: Well, my actual grandfather first came to Valdora in about 1922. They had 11 children. They came from Cedar Grove near Beaudesert and Grandma stayed there. She opened and shut the gates on the railway line at a crossing. Grandad came over here and bought this farm, about 250, 220 acres of just bushland, just a little bit cleared. There wasn’t much. Then the family of 11 children - they gradually all came as soon as they left school at 12, 13. Dad came over, that was George, he came over when he was 13, in about 1923.
GM: That was George Thorogood?
JR: Yes. They sort of just started growing a bit. There was nothing much on the farm at all. Just a few little clear patches and a few fruit trees so Uncle Eric was telling me. The family all gradually came over, until they were all over here. George and Edgar and Eric took up cane farming with just a horse and plough. Only small acreages, only a couple of acres or so for a start.
GM: This in about the mid-1920s?
JR: Yes. They had a few other crops – bananas, they had a few cows and they used to sell the cream. They carted it off over Yandina Creek about four or five kilometres away on a horse and slide and carried the cream over there to be sent off to town or wherever it would have gone. When the War came, Uncle Edgar and Uncle Eric both went to the War and Dad had to look after the farm, which had gradually grown. Did it all by himself then. Uncle Eric got shot in the War and lost a leg, so when he came home they all still farmed and Uncle Eric had to have all the machinery converted for him to be able to drive it – with a hand clutch.
GM: That was this area you showed me earlier, down here on the flat?
JR: No. That’s all Gary’s parents’ farm. Dad was over at Valdora. It nearly backs on to it, nearly.
GM: Over near where Gordon Oakes lives?
JR: Yes. They bought Dad’s farm actually. Over near the hall there at Valdora. The hall was actually on Dad’s ground and they just put the hall up. They didn’t cut it off or anything – the hall just went up and two tennis courts. It wasn’t until Dad sold in 1973 that something had to be done then about cutting the hall off and giving it to the community because it was on private ground.
GM: You went to school where?
JR: I went to school at Yandina Creek, which no longer exists.
GM: I think that’s where Ossie Apps said he went to school. Is that the one that got riddled by termites?
JR: No. Yandina Creek is just out here. There was a Golden Valley school next to the hall over at Valdora and that’s possibly where Ossie Apps went.
GM: He said it was riddled by termites and it basically had to be knocked over. What about high school?
JR: High school I went into Nambour. I had to board in there with my grandmother (Ethel English).
GM: It would have been a fair journey out there each day, wouldn’t it?
JR: Yes. There were no buses so for a couple of years there I stayed with Grandma.
GM: We always think of boarding school as being huge distances, but if there is no transport it’s a bit tough isn’t it? You were a Baby Boomer, born in 1949. When did you meet Gary Rickard?
JR: 1963 or 1964. Somewhere around there.
GM: Were you working on your dad’s farm?
JR: No. I didn’t work on the farm. I used to sit on the tractors all the time. When I left school, in Grade 10, then I got a job in a dental surgery.
GM: Then one day in walked this cane farmer – how did you meet Gary Rickard?
JR: I think I met him at the Yandina dances.
GM: You guys got married in 1968?
Rickard family history in cane farming
GM: Gary’s parents had this farm out here.
JR: They didn’t actually have this farm. They first bought a farm down near Vacher’s, down on the corner of River Road. They came from Condamine in about 1957 and they brought this 50-acre farm down there. They didn’t sort of actually move over until I think in the early ‘60s. They farmed it – one of the boys or Dad would stay over and farm it while they kept their garage going at Condamine.
GM: Tell us – you’re married to Gary and all of a sudden you start getting serious about growing cane. Tell us the history of that up to today.
JR: Gary always helped his father and they were contract (harvesters) - Gary went into cutting the cane by hand for a start. Then he brought a stick machine you’d call it, I guess. It cuts in up in long lengths – a wholestick machine. They had that for a couple of years, he and his brother Ross. Then in about 1975, I think it was, we brought a chopper harvester, a Don Solo. He used to do contract harvesting, but would always still help his father with the farming. In 1982 we actually took over the farm from Gary’s parents. They had brought another farm up on Toolborough Road. It was all scrub. Gary pushed it all with the dozer. It got a little bit of assignment in 1964, only about 10 acres, but now we grow about, on that particular farm, 80 hectares, which is couple of hundred acres.
GM: So today, what is the size of the farm and how much assignment have you got?
JR: Well, on that original farm we’ve got 80 hectares, but Gary and I have since in 1987 brought a neighbour’s farm, which was 25 hectares, and then we brought another farm, which was part of Billy Galt’s cattle farm in 1993. We’ve cleared it.
GM: That’s right over the other side is it?
JR: Yes. Put that under cane, so that is another 22 hectares.
GM: How long has it taken from the time say you started knocking down the scrub until you started to get a crop in?
JR: Are you talking about the original farm?
GM: The one that you’ve got down here.
JR: It must have been around 1963 they cleared it, or it could have been a few years before that because they had cattle on it and they couldn’t get an assignment and they could only get 10 acres assignment, so they gradually cleared it all.
GM: So, you are really at the mercy of the Mill about how much cane you can grow?
GM: Depending on how much they assign to you.
JR: Yes. Back then they thought it wouldn’t grow cane; it was all flood plain.
GM: Now it is the richest area - the Maroochy River flat area. Even Vic Flatt out at Bridges, his best land is along the river flat for productivity. Now, while this was going on, you decided that you were going to become a cane farmer too and not just sit at home and look after kids, because you had three. Two girls and a boy?
JR: That’s right. I just didn’t sit at home thinking I was going to be a cane farmer. It was just thrust upon me. Like when you are employing people they don’t turn up for work. Help! We need someone to bin out.
GM: You talking about during the harvesting season?
JR: Yes. So it was down there, drive the tractor to try and help.
GM: You didn’t cut cane by hand I hope.
JR: Not really. I used to cut off the ends back in those days. They’d cut off the ends of the cane so the harvester could get in, especially when it was a wholestick harvester. So Gary would have to cut off the ends by hand so it could get the machine in; so I used to do that occasionally.
GM: It’s hard yakka isn’t it? I’ve heard blokes say that the hardest part about cutting cane by hand is actually loading it. They said it was the hardest part.
JR: Certainly by hand it is.
GM: So what is your total assignment today?
JR: 121 hectares.
GM: Is that large?
JR: Reasonably large.
GM: How would you place yourself amongst the other growers in terms of size?
JR: I guess we are up amongst it.
GM: In the top group?
JR: Yes. There is one that is really high.
GM: Are there many other women who get as involved in it as you do?
JR: There hasn’t been. I’ve got a friend down the road, Julie Leis, she drives a tractor for her husband all the time. There’s Julie Stewart at Coolum and she did a lot. I don’t think that there’s a lot that did it much. Especially when, you’d go to field days, and I’d be the only woman there. None of the other women would turn up.
GM: So what sort of equipment have you driven over the years?
JR: Tractors, backhoes.
GM: When you say tractors, that’s when you’re doing bin-out type work?
JR: Yes, bin-out work and actual farm work.
GM: So ploughing?
JR: Ploughing, scuffling, rotary hoeing and planting.
GM: What’s scuffling?
JR: We’ve got a big weeder rack on the back and you’re sort of raking the weeds out of the cane. When we took over the farm, Gary was still contract harvesting, so I used to do all the farm work, and in those days we used to rotary hoe every row of cane after you’ve cut it. You just hoed it up between each row and I’d sit on the tractor for hours doing that, just listening to the radio.
GM: In the harvesting season you are really starting then, aren’t you, to get ready for the next crop? While you’re harvesting, you’re still going down the rows.
JR: That’s right. You have to do that straight away afterwards. It is all in that six-month period.
GM: What has been your best CCS that you’ve had?
JR: I don’t know.
GM: You’ve actually got some awards over the years.
JR: We got those for the highest tons of sugar per hectare.
GM: You’ve got half a dozen at least that I can see.
JR: Yes. It was all off the one new farm we brought, the cattle farm. We’ve had all those awards since that. At the moment we’ve got it planted in dual rows on mounds. It is a new thing that Gary has done. It is really showing good productivity.
GM: Dual row – you’re talking about two stalks per row?
JR: Yes. Six foot rows. Normally, the rest of the farm is about five foot. We made them six-foot (2 metres) rows and made mounds and put two rows in a mound for drainage. When you drive on the paddock you are only driving on those compacted rows for wet weather.
GM: That cattle country that you’ve got, is that reasonably flat?
JR: Yes. It’s flat.
GM: So you’ve driven the tractors. Have you driven a harvester?
JR: I think I might have moved it once. I haven’t actually used it.
GM: Are you tracked or wheel - have you got your own harvester?
JR: Yes. It’s a tracked machine.
GM: That brings me on to another question – that is, what do you think the capital investment is in your farm today if you’ve got one of those huge tractors on it?
JR: Up to three million dollars, I guess, with the farm and the machinery. It’s hard to say what it’s worth. Probably worth nothing today.
GM: If you had to go out and buy it.
JR: If you had to buy it, easily three million dollars with all the machinery and everything.
GM: Not counting the land.
JR: No. That’s counting the land. It would be worth more than that.
Balancing the farm and family
GM: How difficult was it juggling your time as a wife and mother and a working woman, especially when the kids were young?
JR: When they were young, I suppose I didn’t do quite as much back then. When Kylie went to school, we had buses, and they left at 7.00 o’clock in the morning and didn’t get home until 4.00 (o’clock) in the afternoon.
GM: Seven in the morning. Good grief.
JR: Yes. You’d think we were a long way from the city wouldn’t you? So I could fit the work in during those hours.
GM: Where did your kids go to school?
JR: In Yandina. Trent when he was a baby, he was always in the harvester with Gary. He’d be asleep in the front of the cab. There was hardly any room for him between the clutch and the brake and he’d be sitting in there asleep.
GM: Year round, how many people work the farm – obviously Gary and yourself?
JR: We employ Trent, our son, and our daughter’s husband Brett. Because we harvest our own (cane) and we need those two to drive the harvester and Trent, Gary and I to bin-out. We need three of us to bin-out because we’ve got such long hauls all the time to the line.
GM: You actually bin-out and then you’ve got cane bins that come in from the rail?
JR: Yes. We’ve got two sidings and we are probably carting well over one kilometre one way all the time.
GM: That’s a fair way, isn’t it?
JR: Yes. We are flat out keeping up with the harvester.
Harvesting sugar cane
GM: How long does it take to harvest your crop the allotment that you have got – is it you just start in July and go all the way through to December?
JR: Yes. You are all allotted a certain amount a week and that’s all you get.
GM: It keeps you busy – flat out?
JR: No, it doesn’t keep you flat out. We only harvest three days a week. We could harvest five days, but it would mean less bins each day, so we try and get it all together and do it in three days. In dry weather, you could do it in two days. But we do it in three and we are on about 65 bins a day now.
JR: We’re doing Sundays at the moment and we are on 70-odd a day.
GM: I’m amazed the way the system works. How you’re binning-out and all of a sudden a loco appears and just knows when to hook it up and bang they’re gone. There are no timetables. It just happens.
JR: I think they try to run to a timetable. We always knew that they come around at say 9.00 to 10.00 with our second delivery. You start at 6.30 in the morning. You don’t necessarily have to get them all done for them. You just get as many as you can get done in that time and they just bring more empties and take away what you’ve got filled.
GM: When they bring the empties back and they’ve got those little four digit numbers on them, do you have to record them do you?
JR: Yes. We record those and put a ticket in with what variety.
GM: How many varieties do you grow here?
JR: About four I suppose.
GM: They will be maturing middle and late type of cane. What has been your best variety?
JR: Well, at the moment I don’t know. It’s probably 51 is a good tester, but it doesn’t give you tons per acre, but it’s got good high CCS.
GM: Is that P51 (CP5121)?
JR: Q141 is pretty good. Good tons per hectare, and the sugar is pretty good on that. Then we’ve got (Q)155 and we’ve been doing pretty well out of that at the moment. And (Q)124.
GM: It depends on what sort of ground you’ve got does it, the type you grow?
JR: It does, yes. There are ranker canes that don’t get as good as sugar, but they grow fairly well on poorer country but we don’t have any – we’ve got one land of that variety, but it doesn’t give us very good sugar, so we don’t worry about it.
GM: How would you describe the terrain that your farm sits on – the different lumps that make it up? You’ve got some river flat?
JR: No, we’re not on the river. We are on Yandina Creek. That ground is the lighter soil, more up on Yandina Creek. Then we go down into the swamp. We’ve got heavy clayed soil. It’s not a peat soil. When you get further down into the swamp, it is more peaty. This is more a heavy clay. A few blocks certainly are maybe a little bit peaty that are quite easy to work, but the others are pretty hard.
GM: The cattle area is tough?
JR: No. It’s sort of in between the two I guess. It’s a bit lighter again than the heavy stuff.
GM: How much work do you have to do constantly on drainage?
JR: Well, over the years the farmers have put and dug those big drains through the swamp, and they were maintaining them and every year they would try and keep the sides clean and every so many years they used to clean them out. But they haven’t done anything for quite a few years now. You clean your own drains, your internal drains, on your farm.
GM: Do you use much mill mud?
JR: No. We’ve never used any mill mud.
GM: What sort of fertilisers do you use on your farm?
JR: Normal fertiliser you buy from the shop.
GM: You haven’t found that your land here is exceptionally low in some sort of phosphates?
GM: You’ve seen people harvesting by hand I guess, and you’ve seen wholestick harvesting and chopper harvesting – so how many different types of harvesters have you guys had on your property?
JR: We’ve had the lot.
GM: When you buy these great monsters, these tracked harvesters, who teaches you to drive these things? It’s a fairly big hunk of machinery isn’t it, and I guess it’s worth $600,000?
JR: A new one would be I guess. Well, no one. You just teach yourself.
GM: How do you move it around – do you just walk it or do you have to low-load it?
JR: We only walk it because our farms are all joined.
Best and worst seasons
GM: What has been your best season?
JR: Well, in 1997, that was our highest tonnage.
GM: Do you know what it was?
GM: From your farm – wow. I guess if the sugar prices are low, really low, it would be hard to say what is the best season. Is it in production or is it in return?
JR: That’s right.
GM: What about your worst season – what was the season where you thought, ‘Oh my god, why are we doing this?’
JR: Well, 2000 we only cut 5,900 in the same ground.
GM: What happened?
JR: Well, in 1999 it was very wet. We had 127 inches (3.1 metres) of rain in 1999.
GM: Really? I didn’t notice.
JR: We actually didn’t get any planting done and we’d ploughed out probably 30-odd acres, planning to replant, and we didn’t get it in. Therefore it went against then in 2000. But there was a lot of damage to the stools being so wet and trying to harvest the cane in ’99. It shows up the following year.
GM: When you look back on your time as a kid, do you ever remember any serious floods in the area?
JR: I don’t personally, because where we lived up in Valdora to me I didn’t notice floods. It is only since I’ve got married to Gary, where we have lived. In 1964, where Gary’s parents first farmed on the river there, just about when we got married or probably 1967–68, the flood waters were right up under their floor boards, a couple of steps from the top. The house was 8 foot (2.5 metres) off the ground. I can remember that because we were getting married that year.
GM: Have you ever had to pump your land?
JR: Yes. They always had pumps. You don’t now that they’ve got this drainage down and they have dug these big drains. Before those drains were there, you sort of put up your walls and tried to pump the water out into the next guy’s land, I guess, into these creeks that really weren’t capable of taking the water. But we haven’t pumped in years.
GM: How does drought, really dry seasons, affect your crop?
JR: It’s not too bad on the swamp ground. It loves that in a way – thrives on that. It does affect possibly the farm higher up, more up on Yandina Creek. Not as good this year from the drought last year. It’s a drier farm – it’s a bit higher. You don’t really notice it’s higher looking at it, but it’s a different fall.
Cane rail line
GM: We really didn’t finish talking about your father George Thorogood when they were putting line out to Valdora. Just tell us about that.
JR: The line took a few years. They did it a section at a time and the farmers supplied the sleepers; they cut the sleepers off their own farms, and laid the line with one Mill worker, Charlie Plater, he was the boss. He showed them what to do, I guess. They provided the labour and the sleepers and the Mill supplied the actual line. They did a section at a time and I think Uncle Eric thought it took about three years before it got out to their farm.
GM: That is an enormous amount of work, and taking their own timber too? Is that line still there today?
JR: No. It bypassed all that. It then went up and over a hill. Nowadays we laid the line through the flat.
GM: Do you ever have to relay line on your property?
GM: You don’t have any temporary line going in – you just cart it all out to the siding?
GM: But you’ve got two sidings?
GM: What do you think are the more memorable milestones for your own farm? I think it would probably come down to when you expanded every time wouldn’t it?
End Side A/Start Side B
GM: This is Side B of tape 1 of an interview with Joy Rickard
JR: I think getting that first farm, the cattle farm we brought in 1993 into production – that was a real effort. It really produced well and we are fairly happy with what we did there. The original farm, I guess when Gary and I took it over, still had a lot of hectares to put in. We got all that in too and got it up and producing.
GM: Did you have to do much levelling?
JR: Yes. Gary’s built his own laser level.
GM: Pretty clever!
JR: Yes. I guess the whole lot is done now. Originally you’d plant it up it in lands and have ploughs every 20 rows. We’ve filled all those in and levelled the ground and the water runs to one end or it might run two ways.
GM: Drainage is critical for cane growing isn’t it?
JR: Yes. It will withstand floodwaters and all that. Floods come and go, but when it’s left with water lying in puddles that really damage the stools.
GM: The fact that you’ve got a tracked harvester – it must take a little bit of the worry out?
JR: It does. In 1992 we didn’t have a tracked harvester and we still had the wheeled machine and we put half-tracks on it for the whole season and up until then we had hardly used the track. We got them in 1975, I think, to go on the machine and you would use them for a week or two and then take them off again.
GM: I didn’t know you could do that. That’s the first time anyone has mentioned half-track to me.
JR: You’d take the big wheels off the back and put these half-tracks on. We had them there for insurance I guess and we only used them weeks at a time in different years, but then for one year there we had them on the whole time, it was just so wet. After that I think Gary decided that he was getting a tracked machine.
GM: I guess a lot of people look back and say you’ve got all this capital investment and they really are big decisions to make when you are doing all this.
JR: I guess they are. You just sort of do it. I don’t know. One of those things cane farmers always did I guess.
GM: You must have friendly bank managers around here?
JR: I don’t know about too friendly. I don’t think they’ll be too friendly these days.
Advantages of not burning cane
GM: You guys burn your cane?
JR: Not at present. We haven’t burnt for a couple of years now. We’ve been cutting all green and baling it all and selling it as cane mulch.
GM: Is that one of the biggest advantages out of not burning – the fact that you get this other product?
JR: That’s what we’ve found at the moment. Yes. Also it is safer, you haven’t got burnt cane if it rains. Back a few years ago, you’d get rain every other day and you didn’t know whether to burn or not to burn. Every time you’d burn, it’d rain, then it’s really hard work getting the cane out of the paddock then when it is wet. The harvester, being the track, it can cut it - no worries. The tractors and bin-outs sliding around the paddock and alongside drains, it gets pretty dangerous.
GM: Doing damage, not to mention falling over.
JR: Sliding in the drains. I’ve had some scary moments.
GM: Ossie Apps showed me a photo; I think it was his son Troy.
JR: His grandson.
GM: Had gone over and had a bad prang and slewed into a culvert. It just all collapsed. I drove up Toolborough Road and went past the world’s greatest collection of cane mulch – huge big rolls. How much does each one of those weigh?
JR: 250 kilos.
GM: Is that all? I thought it would be more than that.
JR: It depends how dry you bale the trash.
GM: What happens to it all?
JR: We sell it as cane mulch around gardens. It’s really good for the garden. It keeps the moisture in. Last year we sold heaps for cattle feed out west.
GM: Who comes along and buys it?
JR: Any gardener, anybody.
GM: I’ve never bought it in bales because that’s all that will fit in the back of my little Brumby ute. Do you do the rectangular bales?
GM: Do you do baling as well – like rectangular bales?
JR: No, we just do the big ones. We sell a lot to the person who is on acreage, couple of acres and they have a lot of gardens. We sold 22 bales the other day to one guy and he needed every one of them.
GM: What do the big bales sell for?
JR: We deliver it for $20-$25. Depends on how far you’ve got to take it.
GM: What about cane trash? Do you leave much of that on the ground?
JR: Yes. We don’t rake the ground clean. We still leave a good third of it there to retain the moisture and weed suppression.
GM: How are the big bales, the big round ones, how are they actually made? The harvester goes along, throws the chopped stuff into the bins. Then what happens?
JR: The trash comes out the extractors and goes onto the ground. So then we have to rake in into rows, mounds.
GM: That’s done by tractor?
GM: How does it get rolled up?
JR: We’ve got a baler that you tow along after you’ve raked it up.
GM: Sort of like a big vacuum cleaner – as an analogy?
JR: Yes. It takes it into its workings and keeps rolling it. When it’s full, it wraps it then. You just press a button and it puts that net wrap on it. Sort of like finger-raked in front of the bale that is fixed in to it.
GM: Have you always got your cane to the Mill by rail?
JR: Yes we have. Originally this farm on Toolborough Road, Gary’s parents, dad, had to cart the cane by truck down to River Road depot where the locos come across the Maroochy River. He used to cart it, two bins at a time on the truck, down to there when they first started growing cane on Toolborough Road. But in 1975 the line came through to just across the creek, not actually in our property. We have to go over a bridge. We had to build a bridge to go over into the neighbouring property to the line.
GM: You actually had to build a bridge?
JR: Yes. The Mill assisted but the farmers just in this area helped. We’ve had to maintain it since and put new decking on it or whatever. It was a cost to the farmer.
GM: It seems that cane farmers have to be jacks-of-all-trades – they have got to be able to lay line, build bridges, do drainage work, major excavations and earthworks in levelling land. Even in the slack season, you must be kept busy doing all manner of things. What sort of things fill your time up in what the Mill workers call the slack season?
JR: Gary does all the machinery maintenance. We never have anybody else do anything for us. He is a good welder, mechanic. I suppose that is because he was a welder and a mechanic out at Condamine where they first started off in a garage. He just builds all his own machinery.
GM: Handy. Because you must have a lot of gear on the property. How many tractors do you own?
JR: What a question. Probably 20, I don’t know. We’ve got a few little, inexpensive tractors that you just keep. That one’s just got a spray tank on and you just run around. We’ve got, I suppose, two major tractors, two good tractors. Then there are three others that are probably not as bad. That’s five good ones. Then you go into a backhoe and an excavator and a couple of smaller ones that just tow spray rigs around. We’ve got a high clearance tractor that Gary built from an old Fergie and we go over the top of the cane, three rows, and spray the intermediate row when the cane gets a bit too high.
GM: When it gets too high?
JR: You can get a spray rig that just goes on the normal tractor, but you have to get over the cane by Christmas to put your pre-emergent on, whereas we can go over it well into January, February, when it is still growing if you haven’t got around to it. It’s better to put it on I suppose a bit later. It lasts longer then, the spray on the ground, to suppress the weeds. So we leave it as long as we can. High clearance tractor, we call it.
GM: So instead of just having an arm, you drive right over it.
GM: What sort of crop rotation system do you guys use?
JR: I suppose every five years.
GM: Four returns?
JR: Yes. Some of it is longer than that now. We haven’t planted the last couple of years because of the Mill.
GM: Do you grow any other crops?
JR: No. We haven’t.
GM: You haven’t done a Murray Oakes and grown pineapples or a Vic Flatt and grown pumpkins?
GM: He got a huge return on his pumpkins - 27 ton out of three acres. If you like pumpkins, it’s good. But he sold them all.
JR: That’s the main thing.
GM: What is the greatest challenge, not counting the Mill closing? Try hard to imagine the Mill is not going to close – but let’s say it is the start of the year, the planting and where you are preparing fields for the next crop. What is the greatest challenge you face for the next 12 months?
JR: I guess it’s to find what we are going to do with our ground next year.
GM: But if the Mill wasn’t going to close. Is it weather? Is it rainfall? Is it sugar prices?
JR: It’s the sugar prices, I guess.
GM: How have you seen the sugar prices go since you’ve been involved in the sugar industry – have they fluctuated or have they been continuing going down?
JR: They fluctuate. I guess it has been going down. We haven’t seen a lot of highs, Gary and I, since we took over in 1982. I believe in years before there were a lot of good prices, but we haven’t seen a lot of good prices since ’82. It has definitely gone higher than what it is now, but it has always been fairly low for us.
GM: Wet weather?
JR: Wet weather is a real pain. It really is.
GM: So you can get too much rain in the growing season?
JR: Well, not too much in the growing season. More in the harvesting season is more of a headache. Cane will survive through wet, but there can be too much.
End Side B Tape 1/Start Side A Tape 2
JR: Like 1999, that was a real extreme that one.
GM: What about wind – have you ever had much damage through wind?
JR: Yes. We do get damage. It blows the cane over. We’ve never had broken-off damage like some people can get, I guess. Certain varieties if they break off, well they’re dead. Most of our cane just falls over and you can harvest it.
GM: A tracked one will pick it up?
JR: Yes. Whether it is track or wheel, it will still pick it up. As long as the ground is dry. It would make it harder when it’s wet because it stays wet underneath. But I don’t know much about it.
GM: I was going to ask you a question about the wax factor where your grandfather William English – you’ve got some photos there? The wax factory. Which book is this? I haven’t seen this one. For the tape I’m looking at a book called “Howard Street Nambour – the Cane Train Street” by Valerie A. Baldwin and on page 70, there is the wax factory. The wax factory operated from 1943 to 1961. There it is.
JR: It is quite interesting reading. I mean, I don’t know much about it.
GM: He’s mentioned here in the book.
JR: Yes. I don’t remember this story, but you read that story.
GM: Is this Plater the guy you were talking about before, helping put the line in?
JR: It was his father apparently, but Edgar did work in the Mill too. He was a good friend of ours too.
GM: There is a great story. We’ve got to repeat this for the tape. At the wax factory -and this was when they were making a lot of wax for the military in those days - Start quote ‘An employee, William English, who had been inspecting one of the vats when the top blew off and Bill English, along with a considerable amount of debris was blown through the roof and fell on a neighbouring building. But although covered in wax, miraculously escaped injury. Edgar Plater, a long time driver of locos for the mill, tells the story of driving past in a sugar train just as the explosion occurred and seeing the dust and iron flying through the air with Bill English somewhere amongst it all.’ End quote
GM: It’s okay to laugh about it unless you’re Bill English.
JR: I mean he wasn’t too lucky after that. He actually died at the wax factory. He was up a ladder and fell off. I don’t know any more about the wax factory really. We were all too young then. That’s the only thing I know about it, is in this book, and it is quite interesting reading.
GM: I must get a copy of that.
JR: Yes. That’s my sister’s. She had it. I didn’t even know...
GM: I didn’t know it existed.
JR: She lived in Howard Street and that’s where the wax factory was. It was quite interesting to her.
Effects of sugar mill closure
GM: Self-published book. So, that takes us back from the days remembered, now coming up to today, 2003. What are you going to do if the Mill closes?
JR: Well, we really don’t know at this stage what we’re doing. We are toying with the idea of going to Maryborough and continuing on with our cane mulch and maybe we’ll try a few crops of corn to try and keep up the corn for cattle foliage for the dairy farmers. But we didn’t do any planting. We thought we’ll just see what happens there. That is all we can do at the moment. That’s what we’re planning.
GM: When you say going to Maryborough, you mean …?
JR: Sending the cane to Maryborough by truck. Our swamp really doesn’t lend itself to very much else.
GM: Is trucking cane to Maryborough viable in the long term?
JR: We are only hoping that maybe something will happen with the trials they are doing at the moment – they’ve got a plant over in Salway’s Shed and they are crushing the cane and trying to make a cattle feed out of it.
GM: I think that’s what Murray Oakes was saying, written about.
JR: I think to hang on and give it time.
GM: It would help our cattle industry because their real drama with the continuing drought is stock fodder, and if we can produce it at the right price and in the right amounts.
JR: I think quite a few of the farmers will fall by the wayside, but if we can hang on for a while. This plant would only be for possibly a couple of hundred thousand ton of cane I suppose at the moment. We’re sending 600,000 (tons) now to the Mill, but there would be a lot fall by the wayside. So we’re hoping if we can hang on and still go to Maryborough for a few years until maybe they can get this up and running.
GM: If they did go to Maryborough, they’d have to move it in a different form wouldn’t they? Because you wouldn’t be putting it in cane bins anymore?
JR: No. It would have to be in big bulk; the way they do it in Maryborough now is they put it on semi-trailers and you have side tippers going beside the harvester, and they come out and tip into the semi.
GM: So you don’t have to do much conversion at the other end where you are going to deliver it?
JR: No. It would be the same, because the Mill is working that way now.
GM: Maybe there is an opportunity for someone with a few dollars to get some trucks? Is it a disappointment to you?
JR: Yes. We thought we’d be here forever, and pass it on to our son and daughter. But I think they are going to have to go out and find a job. We won’t be harvesting our own if we do send it to Maryborough, because we’ll have to form a big co-operative and just have a couple of harvesters to do the lot.
GM: It depends how much Maryborough is willing to take too, I guess. Have they much capacity?
JR: They are talking about 130,000 ton of cane.
GM: Not a lot is it?
JR: No. They want to go into co-generation, so they haven’t signed up on that yet. So I think once they do get word that they are going to go co-generation they’d take more than that. But at the moment they think they can only take about 130-150,000.
GM: Can you explain to me what co-generation really means?
JR: Making power.
GM: Not just out of your bagasse – out of the cane debris after crushing? Are you talking burning the cane?
JR: I don’t know how they actually do it, but they would still extract the sugar from the cane, still get the juice out. They’d still process it as sugar.
GM: What they’ve got to do is extend the capability of the furnace to co-generate power?
JR: That’s right. Burn off the bagasse.
GM: What type of future do you see for this area in your particular part of the world here?
JR: My particular part of the world? I don’t see any future.
GM: Bit grim isn’t it?
JR: Pretty grim. Going to Maryborough really is not going to make us any money. Hope to just keep afloat and that’s about all. Hopefully something else will come along. We can’t subdivide or do anything like that. We’re all tied up with Council regulations. I don’t know what they think we can possibly do with the ground.
GM: I think the Council might have to have a bit of a sea change I think – someone said maybe we are going to have to start growing houses instead of growing cane. What do you think will be the greatest loss to the area if the Mill closes?
JR: I guess the income it brings into the area. I think there will be a huge amount of money that won’t be here.
GM: How many people do you think would be directly affected – any idea? I mean, have you ever been to meetings where someone said how many families are involved in all of this?
GM: I’ve heard people saying there are probably 1,000 families that could be affected.
JR: I would say with all the Mill workers, all the farmers and they employ people.
GM: Fuel, vehicle parts.
JR: That’s it. There’s all those things; businesses that we won’t be dealing with any more. There won’t be any fertiliser sold if they are not growing cane. I guess if they grow a bit of corn, but not to the extent that the cane uses.
GM: Some of the land is only suitable for cane isn’t it, or can you grow other stuff? I mean the cattle stuff might be all right?
JR: Yes. But it still goes under floodwaters at times. Last year they tried some of this corn, and then it was too dry for a start and then it was too wet. They have planted it again at the moment, but they said it’s critical that they get some rain in the early stages. Then it was too wet when they wanted to harvest it last year. They got less and less and they ended up that they didn’t harvest half of it. It was not just viable to harvest it. So I think they ran it at a loss whoever put it in last year.
GM: How do you personally feel about the closure of the Mill?
JR: I’m really upset about it. It’s been in our life, my life, all my life. I really can’t picture Nambour without a mill. I feel that it will have to feel the effects in Nambour.
GM: A few of Mill workers said that it will probably take them three or four years to get over it, for them to readjust and in that time people lose jobs and income and what ever. It’s okay if you’re 60 years of age and about to retire, but if you’re not it makes it tough. You sighted the instance of your own son. What do you do from here?
JR: That’s right. He just brought a cane farm, only four or five years ago. Bought a neighbouring farm off my brother. My brother died from cancer and we thought here is a good opportunity for him to get in. Being right alongside, we can farm it and harvest it for him and help him along. It’s important to get bigger to keep growing.
GM: Until something else comes up. The thought of an ethanol plant is out of the question after speaking with a senior chemist at the Mill, because they just don’t have the capacity to do that sort of thing there. It is just not viable unless you are going to put squillions of dollars in. Then you’ve got to get everyone to commit to it. What have your relationships been like with the Mill over the years? Has it been a good relationship?
JR: Personally we hadn’t had any problems with the Mill, but you’re not really dealing with the heads - the owners - it’s only really the workers that you are talking to - the cane inspectors. Gary has always got on well with all the cane inspectors. I guess since the Belgium company took over, things haven’t been so good.
GM: One of the things we haven’t really talked about is planting cane. You had an experience down on the farm on the corner was it?
JR: No. Actually on Toolborough Road when we were developing it.
GM: When you were developing it, tell us about planting cane there by hand.
JR: In 1975 they (the Mill) had quite a big expansion and Gary’s mother Dot and I used to plant – well, we planted the whole 75 acres in the one season. Which, by hand, was a big feat.
GM: Is this walking along with a bag on your shoulder?
JR: No. You actually sat on a trailer that’s got the cane in wholesticks and you feed it into the machine. So you virtually take it in turns, putting a stick in and then Mum would put a stick in. Mum was getting a bit old.
It all had to be cut by hand and loaded onto this trailer. Gary had cut it by hand. There was another chap I think used to help them cut the plants. Mum and I would plant the cane, sit on these seats on this trailer that was hooked onto the planter and Gary’s father would drive the tractor. He always thought that Mum and I were pretty good and he would go flat out. You’d always be singing out to him to slow down because we couldn’t keep up. We got this 75 acres in this one year and it was a big feat for us, we thought at the time, but now today you can plant that in a season, so worries, with chopper harvesters – you chop the cane into the bins and then into a planter that automatically feeds it into the ground. I usually sit on top of the planter these days and just watch that all the cane is going in (properly) and it has just hydraulically picked up the cane to keep it feeding. But back in those days, it was all stuck in by hand.
GM: Pretty hard work. My last question is: a lot of people find it really hard to work with their spouse day in and day out. My own wife thinks that she has reached the end of her tether since we’ve both been working from home. Has it put an extra strain on your relationship?
JR: It hasn’t with Gary and I. We just do everything together. It just comes automatically. You’re just helping each other all the time.
GM: You must have a special relationship to do that I think. Joy, it has been a good hour and a great interview and I would like to thank you very much for taking part today. I’ll let you get back to all this hard work.
JR: Thank you very much.