Interview with: Oswald (Ossie) Apps (OA)
Occupation: Cane farmer
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Location of Interview: Apps’ farm, Yandina
Date of Interview: 22 September 2003
Oswald ‘Ossie’ Apps was born in 1924 and when he came onto the land he was the third generation Apps cane farmers who could trace their history in the Moreton area back to 1909. He worked as a cane cutter and assisted on his father’s farm until he enlisted in the Second World War at age 18 and served in New Guinea where he worked in the 5th Division Headquarters. He survived a bad jeep accident and came home from the War in late 1945 and went straight into cutting cane by hand. Ossie has gradually expanded his initial farm from 13 hectares to over 278 hectares at its peak. He has one of his two sons and several grandsons now involved in the cane growing side of the sugar industry bringing five generations of Apps’ knowledge to the land. Now almost 80 years of age, he is still very active on his farms and loves to get out and drive the tractor ploughing, planting or helping with the harvesting. His methods of crop rotation and land care have kept his farm highly productive. Ossie has seen almost every method of growing, planting, harvesting and hauling cane that has occurred in the Maroochy River cane area.
Ossie Apps oral history [MP3 144MB]
GM: This is a recording of an interview with Ossie Apps recorded on Monday 22 September 2003 for the Maroochy Libraries Last Crush project, recorded by Gary McKay.
Ossie could you tell us what your family history has been in this area in terms of farming, specifically your grandfather and father?
OA: Well my grandfather came to the area in approximately 1909. He had a friend at Maroochydore by the name of Bill Evans who invited him to come to the area. He (Grandfather) was living in a place called Ulmarra, just south of the township of Maclean in New South Wales and he grew cane and had a few cows as well. And he came to the area here on Bill’s advice, took up a farm opposite Dunethin Rock where his eldest son, Jim, actually farmed the area. My grandfather had five sons and there were five that he brought to the area at one time and four of them each ended up with a cane farm, but Jim the eldest one was the one that really made good. The others eventually went back to various jobs in New South Wales. One was an engine driver in the Butter Factory at Bryon Bay, another was a barber in Maclean and I do not know what the others did. But my dad was born in 1900 so he had a few years to go before he bought a farm – or my grandfather bought a farm for him and the farm that he bought was up the river (Maroochy) where most of the family lived for a few years. And then my dad when he was 18 – he was the second youngest – the youngest son, Bert, wanted to be a farmer so the grandfather paid a deposit on a farm opposite Dunethin Lake where I now live where the old house is and they worked that property. They started off with 14 acres of cane land that had been cleared and it was a 32-acre farm. So they had to clear and develop the rest of it. They had a few bananas and of course I think in those days you couldn’t have a property in your own name until you were 21. So when he was 21 the grandfather decided righto you better have the farm in your own name and then a couple of years later his younger brother came into the farm with him. That farm is probably the only original farm that is in the Apps’ name. The other Apps had left the district for various reasons and it is only my family that is growing cane in the Maroochy area at the present time.
GM: So you were born in 1924 and born and bred in Nambour (Maroochy River) I guess we could say?
GM: And went to school in Nambour?
OA: No I went to school across the Maroochy River at Dunethin Rock. The school is not there now, it got white ants in it and I think about 1970 or something like that, they demolished it and now it is a Scout camp. But I had all my schooling there.
GM: Was it just taken that you were going to go onto the land? Was that sort of taken as read?
OA: Oh yes, being the only son naturally you sort of tried to follow in your father’s footsteps. I used to enjoy getting home from school – playing the wag or whatever – when they were planting cane, they used to plant cane out of a bag, and it was a great thing to come home and just do that.
GM: When you say ‘plant cane’, what is it a seed or a cutting?
OA: A cutting. It is part of the stalk and you try to get two ‘eyes’ in each set, which was about 18 inches (450 mm) long.
GM: What do you mean by ‘eyes’?
OA: Well each joint of the cane has an eye and the roots come out from just around that joint, from around the ‘eye’.
GM: Oh okay. But the Second World War came along didn’t it?
GM: And you enlisted when you were 18?
GM: You went into transport; did they call it Transport or Service Corps?
OA: Actually I was in the transport section that catered for the Headquarters. We were the 5th Division (HQ), the only actual Queensland Division, and I went in there as a Headquarters transport driver.
GM: And served in New Guinea and ended up at the end of the War in New Britain?
GM: Okay, and still have got all your arms and legs.
OA: Actually I tipped a jeep over in Lae (New Guinea) in a bomb crater and nearly lost my life there but survived. I was driving a captain from the unit and he was on the bottom side and I was on the topside and I could see that the jeep was going to go up the side of this crater. I had no … (brakes). I actually picked up some sig(nal) wire when we were at a unit and the sig wire severed the hydraulic brake line and let all the oil out so I had no brakes.
GM: Oh, you had run across it and picked it up?
OA: Yep, and it tipped over. He got out, but I was jammed between the two seats in the front until a few of the blokes from another unit came along and tipped it over and upright, but I survived that.
GM: So you came back from the War, what probably in 1946?
OA: October 1945.
GM: And back onto the land?
OA: Yep, I went straight into the cane cutting gang. They were cutting cane. The farms were in groups and you had four farms in a group and according to the amount of tons that were in that group, you were allocated a number of men to do that cutting and loading. Normally they worked out about six ton per man, so if you were on 24 ton per day in your group, you had four men to do that.
GM: Not much chance for slacking there is there?
OA: No, no.
GM: And this is hand cutting too?
GM: How did you actually work down a row?
OA: Well in those days you actually cut a stalk at a time. You grabbed a couple of stalks in the stool, cut it off at the bottom and laid it over in a heap. After that they improved and if the cane was standing they would put their arm around it and say that was ‘stooling’ and they would cut it in a stool. But afterwards, probably about 1947, they developed an idea of cutting three rows in one – the ‘Yankee’ style of cut. They would cut two rows or they could only cut so many stalks at a time - but two rows - and they would put the butts (ends) against the third row and then when they did that they would just go along, fall the third row on top of the two that they had already cut and that was called the ‘Yankee’ style. And that was all in one big row. Before that they used to put the cane in heaps or in bundles where they could just pick up the one bundle.
GM: I guess a cane cutter goes along and chops it off at the bottom, right at ground level?
OA: Yes, well some of them used to cut it a bit higher and the farmer would have to go along and … (see they did it right).
GM: This is burnt cane?
OA: Burnt cane, yep.
GM: You did not cut it in the green by hand?
OA: Not in those days.
GM: And then it would be taken and loaded onto what in those days?
OA: It was loaded onto wooden frame trucks.
GM: That are run out on this portable line?
OA: Yes, the portable line.
GM: Who chops the tops off the cane?
OA: The cutter would have to do that after he had done his section. They would work as a team and they would sort of follow each other to cut the tops off. It was just an accepted process I suppose.
GM: I notice that there is a photograph of your father here with a great big cane knife in his hand, but I notice he is in bare feet.
OA: Yep, my father never wore shoes.
GM: I just find that incredible. I mean that is tough dirt out there.
OA: Yes, when he came to Queensland from New South Wales - he and his brother came to Queen Street in Brisbane – they made them wear shoes before they left Maclean – the first thing they did in Queen Street was take their shoes off!
GM: So your father kept the farm going during the War?
OA: Yes, he and his brother.
GM: How long did you do this cane cutting for?
OA: The manual cut cane? I don’t know when we got into mechanical harvesting.
GM: Did mechanical harvesting come in around 1957 or somewhere around there?
OA: Oh no it was later than that. They improved from the manual cutting; they got front-end loaders, the Ferguson tractor and they had a loader on the front and it picked up the cane in a bundle and put it on the trucks. So that was the first step in the mechanisation – the front-end loaders. Then they got wholestick harvesters, we had one here, I had one for a couple of years until I sold it and then they went from that into chopper harvesting with the Don Solo machines, made in Bundaberg and they improved on that to hydraulically controlled (machines). Still the same system, it still cut it into billets and fed it into (cane) bins.
GM: The billets are the little lengths about a foot (300 mm) long?
OA: Yes, the chopped section.
GM: So you got your own farm in about 1952?
OA: Yep, well it was my father’s farm; he also had another farm across the river.
GM: And you were about 28 years of age?
OA: Must have been.
GM: Were you married?
OA: I married in 1944.
GM: Was this a big step for you having your own farm?
OA: Oh yes, it used to frighten me because you had to do all the business side of things; up until then somebody else did it. But I soon got my wife (Lurline) into handling the business side of things, you know, paying your taxes, paying your insurances…
GM: Doing all the books?
OA: Yes, that used to worry me. But apart from that I suppose over the years I had a fair knowledge of growing cane and how to grow it and what to do. I used to do different experiments myself on different varieties. We had several varieties of cane.
GM: I was going to ask that question, how many varieties of cane do we grow in the Maroochy River area?
OA: Well the Sugar Growers have probably got about twelve varieties that you can grow now and out of that twelve varieties, we would probably grow about three. NCO 310 was our best variety in the early days – say in the late ‘50s – NCO came into the area and it was a sort of a ‘mortgage buster’ I suppose because the price of the cane wasn’t too bad at that time and you always had a good crop out of this one variety. It was high in CCS. I had a 17.05 in CCS one time - only just the one sample of cane - I had 17.05, whereas normally your yearly average in those days was about 14. Nowadays it is not quite so good because of mechanical harvesting.
GM: You get that degradation on the end of the billets; is that what causes the CCS to drop?
OA: Oh no, you get more extraneous matter that goes in, like more rubbish. In the early days you always cut the growing part off – you knew just where to top your cane so that you had more of the purity of juice.
GM: The mechanical harvester can’t do that because it can’t read it, can it?
GM: It can’t do everything.
GM: So you had your own farm in 1952. Tell us about your own farm history from the time you got your own farm.
OA: Well I think 1967 we bought this farm here (from an adjoining neighbour). The original farm that my grandfather bought my father was a 32-acre farm and it joined this farm here, which was 24 acres. We had a lot of hillside but in fact I gave the hillside to my daughter. That was in 1967 and the chap that owned this farm also had some ti-tree land out at Valdora, which we took over and developed about 10 acres of it. This was about 1967, I think. In the whole block we developed the rest of that land. I had my two sons with me at that time. With my eldest son it didn’t work out, it didn’t sort of plan out that he fitted in on the farm. He had his qualifications as a mechanic; he was a diesel fitter and when he came on the farm, he still tried to work with that same knowledge like working for somebody else. So any rate after a couple of years, he went back to his job as a mechanic and the other son Rodney and myself worked the farm, with outside labour of course. We got contractors in to clear this ti-tree; we had a bulldozer of our own but only a small one. We used to clean up after the big bulldozer and put in windrows and we burnt it and we would use the smaller dozer for the burning those things and pushing them together and getting out the stumps And then the property next door was the same size so we bought it and that would have been about, I suppose, 1970 when we bought that property. And then the chap that owned the remainder of the land offered me this block of 136 acres in the remainder, which was all standing ti-tree and actually we signed the agreement and the deal on his bed with the two solicitors there and he died about five days after that. A nice old chap.
GM: Was it commercial ti-tree for commercial growing or was it just scrub?
OA: Well it was scrub. But when you say, “Was it commercial use?” the chap that owned it had a sawmill at Valdora, and he used to use a lot of that stuff for case timber and even some of the foundations or the joists of the houses. They used that; the only trouble was it was very hard, when it dried out it was very hard. They don’t use it today of course.
GM: Is Rodney still in the industry?
OA: Yes. He is the manager of the farm now.
GM: So we have really got four (sic: five) generations now, haven’t we? Your grandfather, your father, yourself and your son (and two grandsons Shane and Troy).
OA: Yes, we have a fifth (sic: sixth) generation; Rod’s second boy has a son (Kory).
GM: Yes? Wow! There can’t be too many five (sic: six) generations (working cane).
GM: So the total amount of acreage under the Apps’ name?
OA: Would be approximately 300 hectares. I think we have 258 (sic: 278) actually as cane assignment; the rest is taken up with roads, headlands, drains etc.
GM: But you have been growing other crops as well?
OA: No, not until last year. Last year we grew some soya beans as a stock feed, a couple of other legumes that we baled up for stock feed and of course we use the trash blanket now as mulch and sell that.
GM: “Trash blanket”?
OA: Yes, when I say “trash blanket”, in other words, we cut our cane green - we went into green cane harvesting about 1996 - and of course we use the trash on the ground to stop weed growth, hold the moisture in the ground. It wasn’t a good idea on some of the lower land because it kept the moisture in for too long. So we restricted that and they bought out a machine that used to spin the trash off the row and we bought one of those machines. A couple of years ago we bought a baler and we bale this trash into big bales.
GM: Big round ones?
GM: I notice some farmers also have them in little rectangular bales.
GM: I buy a couple of those for my tomatoes. After you harvest, do you go back and plant cane again?
OA: Our system is that if we have a plant crop of cane and then we have four ratoons. Cane will just keep ratooning, as you cut it off; it has eyes under the ground and it will keep shooting up. So our system is to cut it as a plant crop and then four ratoons and then chop it out, put in a green crop and then plant it up the following year.
GM: When you say a green crop, in other words…
OA: A legume.
GM: So that is your rotation system?
GM: So you do five on and one off?
OA: Yes. The green crop is to put a bit more nitrogen back into the soil.
GM: And this stock feed is just sold in the local market?
OA: Yes, people buy it for gardens; it is mainly done for gardening.
GM: What do you think is the capital investment in your farm today with all the machinery and stuff?
OA: I worked it out the other day if we were sold up - and hoping you would get the best price - we would have 6.5 million dollars.
GM: It is a big investment isn’t it?
OA: It is, that’s my wife, myself and the son. We have his wife and we have the two grandsons in at one time, but now they sort of want to go out on their own, so there is just the four of us - Rod and his wife and myself and my wife (Lurline) and the two grandsons when we need them.
GM: In the slack season, how do spend all of your time out there while this cane is busily growing? What do you spend most of time doing while the cane is growing?
OA: Well if you have got fallow ground, we have got a laser leveller and we level the land off. Any drainage that needs to be done is carried out with the excavator or a backhoe. My job mainly is mowing headlands, spraying drains, cleaning drains, whereas the others - the son and his sons – do all the machinery repairs. I don’t do any mechanical repairs at all.
GM: But you are really keeping weeds down aren’t you, from invading the property?
OA: Oh yes.
GM: It is a big area.
OA: See with the trash blanket now it suppresses the weed growth. Once upon a time we would be cultivating the cane after every shower of rain. Now that has been sort of eliminated.
GM: Why did you go to cutting in the green?
GM: Yes, whereas once upon a time you always cut burnt cane.
OA: I suppose we didn’t have to burn the cane was one thing. Sometimes if you burn a block of cane and you got rain on it you were in trouble until the ground dried out for your mechanical harvesters. Cutting green you could stop and start whenever you wanted. Plus the fact that we had the trash on the ground to stop weed growth and control moisture, and now of course baling it for supplementary income.
GM: When they cut by hand and did manual cutting, they always cut burnt cane didn’t they?
OA: Yes, sometimes in wet times they would cut a bit in the green, but frankly they didn’t like it. They didn’t like to cut in the green.
GM: Some one said something about Weil’s Disease?
OA: Yes, that was mainly in the Northern areas, carried by rats.
GM: In their urine.
OA: Yes. We never had that sort of problem here, not that I know of. We used to get an odd snake in the cane.
GM: How long does it take to harvest the cane crop?
OA: Well, it depends on the tonnage in the area, but normally the Mill would run for 20 weeks. A 20-week season and your allotment would be based on that 20 weeks.
GM: So who gives you that allotment, is it a cane inspector that comes along?
OA: Yes, the cane inspector.
GM: He comes around and says right we want you to have this, this and this crop. Is it by tonnages or what?
OA: No, he estimates your whole farm and he just divides that then into the weeks of the year (crushing season). Your allotment would be based on that.
GM: But your whole cane crop wouldn’t all mature at the same time, would it?
OA: No that is where the varieties come into it. You have early maturing varieties, mid-season varieties and late-season varieties.
GM: Oh okay.
OA: In the early days we would have two-year-old cane and you would always cut that first because that would mature before the one-year-old (cane). We have had some standover that we are cutting this year - they are cutting it today as a matter of fact - but only because the ground was too wet at the end of last year that we have got the two-year-old cane.
GM: Does that affect the CCS in standover cane?
OA: Well, most years the CCS would be higher in two-year-old cane, but last year some of ours got frosted and the CCS was not so high. Where we would be getting 13s and 14s (CCS) this year we are only getting 11s and 12s. But we are just about finished that now.
GM: Now getting cane to the Mill, you would have seen some various methods of getting cane to the Mill since you were a boy?
OA: Well as far back as I can remember, we sent our cane to the Mill via a punt. And this punt was a big barge controlled by a boat like a fishing boat now, about a 30-footer (6.5 metres) and the punt would hold eight trucks of (wholestick) cane and it would go… My uncle had a farm right up the river there and that was as far as the punt used to go. We had a punt down here, but only for one year that I can remember. This is one of the areas that they laid the Mill tramline early in the piece from the Store Bridge (Yandina Co-op had a shop there) down here up to Fischers, what they call Fischer’s Line. But from then on the punt used to cart the cane from further up the river.
GM: How far up did it go?
OA: Up to what they call Browne’s Rocks. Just this side of it.
GM: Oh yes, a bit hard to get around that wouldn’t it? It is a bit shallow.
OA: Yes. And then there was an unloading place down here at Dunethin Lake and the bloke (Vic Gaylard) would have three horses ready and come up there and coincide with (the arrival of) the punt. He and his team of horses would drag those eight full trucks of cane off onto a line. The line went almost up to the lake and they would always have the empty trucks there to bring down and so he would pull the full ones off onto a line and then he would drag the empty ones back to load on the punt.
GM: Did your dad have horses?
OA: Yep. Always had horses; I have got photos of the horses there. And we had an old Fordson tractor as well.
GM: And that was for hauling trucks?
OA: No we always used the horses here. We used the old Fordson tractor on the farm over the river to drag the trucks in. The portable line was always hard work; lifting that line up.
GM: Just run through that system for laying line that you explained before we started the interview, about who was responsible for what bits of line and laying it down.
OA: You had what they called a portable line and the farmer was responsible for a set of jump points and these jump points, to do a right angle turn from a main line you would have the jump points and then you would have three curves and the three (sections of) curves would make up a right angle turn down to the row of cane where you would put your trucks. The farmer was responsible for laying the curves – he would work in with the cutters sometimes – and one would help the other but the farmer would have to pack those curves because if you didn’t have it packed right you would have a lot of derailed trucks. There was a lot of skill in that; you would always carry about a cord (approximate weight of about a tonne) of pieces of wood out in your field to pack those curves. You learnt the hard way.
GM: I can imagine.
OA: Yes, absolutely.
GM: People wouldn’t be too happy when the trucks went off.
GM: And then you would run this temporary line, how often would you have to lay that line down the rows?
OA: About every 18 rows of cane you would shift your line over.
GM: And then you would take nine (rows) from each side?
GM: And then you would move it again?
GM: How long would it take you to take up that set of temporary line and then re-lay it?
OA: Well, I suppose about an hour. You would do nine chains (approximately 180 metres) in an hour with four cane cutters. One each end to a link and as I said there were four lengths to the chain.
GM: Was it sun-up to sundown type of stuff?
OA: Oh absolutely. Yep, if you could see, you would be out there. Frost on the grass and everything.
GM: Were the cutters seasonal workers who came in?
GM: And they would stay here on the property?
OA: We had barracks. Some farmers had to provide barracks.
End Side A/Start Side B
GM: Side B of a Tape 1 of an interview with Ossie Apps recorded by Gary McKay on 22 September 2003 for The Last Crush Project.
We talked about punting cane, but you have always had tramline here?
OA: Yes on this farm here, yes, from my early days any rate.
GM: What has been the growth in output for your property here in terms of tons of cane do you think?
OA: Well I suppose we would have an average on this particular farm here of oh, 90 tons to the hectare and a seasonal average of 14, and when I say 14 that is the percentage of sugar (CCS). You divide that into 100 and that would tell you how many tons of cane that would take to make a ton of sugar. So being a 14 (CCS), that would be approximately seven ton of cane to make one ton of sugar and we would be paid on that percentage of sugar.
GM: What do you think has been your best season?
OA: I think 199... In the ‘90s any rate, we cut 20,000 (tons), nearly 21 and this year we should cut our highest tonnage because we have had some cane that have let standover and if it is the last year (for the Mill), we are going to try and make sure we cut the lot.
GM: What about the worst season do you think?
OA: Probably back in 1999, 1993 or 99, we cut 8000 something. It is always hard to remember the exact years, but I think in the ‘80s we had a couple of bad years, but the price (of sugar) was better, so in actual money maybe we made more money.
GM: But in terms of output in actual tonnages. What causes these fluctuations?
OA: The overseas prices.
OA: Oh you mean the tonnages on the farm? The seasonal conditions, a lot of our cane is grown in wet, peat ground and if get a wet season you don’t get such a good crop; you can’t get rid of that water. We have a flood pump that at times we have to use if the cane is very short - you have got to get that water out before it kills the heart of the cane. So probably dry seasons on an overall picture are probably better for us than the wet seasons because we have so much low land.
GM: But the whole area is very low isn’t it? All the way out to Coolum. I mean you are driving along the motorway and you are looking down on the top of the cane.
OA: That’s right, yes.
GM: I don’t think a lot of people realise that when they say, ‘Oh yes, there is a lot of good cane land here,’ (for housing), but it isn’t. It is pretty low.
OA: Yes and your farm is only as good as your drainage. And that was the first thing we learnt in clearing land was to drain the land first. You couldn’t get bulldozers or anything in it unless you had a drain. And those big canals you see out along the Coolum swamp there now were dug and maintained by a group of growers. I was chairman of that group and we had a bloke that I always said he was the Chief Engineer and his name was Johnny Ward. He used to plan the size of the drain and he even put in plans for the culverts on the road that is there now, the Coolum (to Yandina) road – the size of the culverts. And of course I suppose now in some of the wet years you might say that they weren’t big enough, but at that time we thought they were adequate and the Main Roads – Eddie De Vere’s days – I had a lot to do with the drainage; conferences with Eddie De Vere; we even had Russ Hinze, the Main Roads (Minister) here at times and Eddie De Vere and I designed a plan whereby the Shire, the Main Roads (Department) and the growers would put in a third each for the cost of the maintaining those drains and digging new ones. We had Mr Hinze up here to see what we were doing and he thought we did a great job. Old Eddie was just marvellous.
GM: When you were about 8 years old, there was a really bad flood in this area – the 1932 flood. Do you remember it?
GM: Can you remember the impact it had on the area?
OA: I don’t know about the impact on the whole area, but the flood was in February and I had a birthday I remember at that time. Yes, it is hard to remember just what impact it had on the area, but I remember my dad saying that they would have to pay extra to get the cane cut because of all the flood mud in the cane. You couldn’t burn it; you could burn the trash but you couldn’t burn the mud. A particular part about the flood I remember was that we had a pianola piano and the house was only on three-foot (1 metre) stumps and as the flood water rose of course you had to lift the piano, and the people from around the area used to come out and help put it on higher blocks and people sort of really supported each other.
GM: And we have had some pretty dry seasons haven’t we in the last decade? How has that affected the farm?
OA: Well in this river flat area here, which is much higher than the ti-tree land, it suffered, but out in the ti-tree land it was just great, we had our best crops.
GM: Is that right?
OA: Yep, and now they tell us of course that we have got acid sulphate into some of that low lying land, so that is another problem that we have. In dry times it’s really showing up now, with the acid sulphate. The roots won’t feed on the acid sulphate, so you have got to have your rainfall just right. If there is not enough rainfall, the roots tend to go down into that acid sulphate. If you get too much rain, the acid sulphate tends to come up to the surface; you have just got to have the happy medium. Of course we didn’t know about that early in the piece. It is only in the last few years that someone has discovered the acid sulphate.
GM: Sugar prices have been going down haven’t they? How has this affected the way you do business?
OA: Yes. Well as you can imagine, 85 percent of the cane crop in Australia is sold overseas, or approximately that percentage, so if the overseas production is up, and our price is worked on the London daily price – most sales are made on those prices in London - and at the present time Brazil is flooding the market with sugar and that has a depressing control on our price. Probably the price we get this year will be the lowest price we have had for many years. I think they are talking about $250 (per ton) and that will be below the cost of production.
GM: Geez, that is a bit rugged.
GM: How have you maintained the care of your land over so many years to maintain the productivity that you have got?
OA: Well, our production is that we have one year of plant cane and four years of ratoon cane and then we have one year that nothing is grown in that land so, when I say nothing, I mean nothing of value - we would plant a green crop to put nitrogen back into the soil and give the soil a spell. So that has been our procedure over many years. My dad started with that and I followed suit.
GM: Do you use much fertiliser?
OA: Yes, nowadays our land is not deficient in super phosphate or potash, so we have only been replacing the nitrogen or applying nitrogen to grow our crop. But that is going to run out I feel, you can only do that for so long until your ground surely is going to become deficient in these other plant foods.
GM: What is the greatest challenge you face as a cane farmer? Having listened to what you have just said about water falling on your land in the form of rain, it would seem that you are really at the vagaries of the weather aren’t you?
OA: We are.
GM: Is that your biggest challenge or is it something else?
OA: Well our challenge at this stage is the price of sugar – the world production – and if for any reason at all we don’t have a Mill, we don’t have anything. They are working on and have got plans whereby we can send some cane to Maryborough Mill, or down south to Rocky Point Mill, but then the cost of freight and then if the price of sugar doesn’t increase, we will be well below the cost of production. It wouldn’t pay us to farm it. Unless they can find some other use for sugar, this area here will really suffer.
GM: Where is Rocky Point?
OA: Down on the other side of Beenleigh.
GM: And you would have to bear that cost of transportation wouldn’t you?
OA: We would. The Maryborough Mill would come to the party, but they can only go just so far because of the price.
GM: And they use trucks, lorries don’t they?
OA: Yes. They are looking at a co-generation plant whereby they use the fibre (bagasse) from the cane to create electricity and they would sell that electricity then to the Local Authority, which providing they can get enough fibre to keep the boilers or the furnaces going, it is a good proposition. But then they have got to be sure that they are going to get this material. I think some of the sawdust from the mills up in the Maryborough area is going to help them out. But they are only talking about it - nothing is definite. The Committee (Cane Growers) have employed a couple of knowledgeable people to try and find some other use for our sugar.
GM: When you say the Committee, are you talking about the Cane Growers?
OA: Yes, the Cane Growers.
GM: The one that Ross Boyle is in?
GM: Right. If the Moreton Mill closes, what do you think you will do, you personally?
OA: Well I suppose some people might say that I should have been retired years ago, but I will keep going all the time I think. Drive a tractor – I find that you have got to do something. But the farm here at the present time, we have got 70 acres of corn planted, corn for human consumption, and of course seasonal conditions I suppose will create whether we get a profit out of that or a loss. But it is something, I think, and maybe look at some the legumes to grow. I will try and help wherever I can but I think it will be up to Rod and the grandsons to go into these things.
GM: It would seem that the ethanol situation has been kicked into touch hasn’t it?
OA: It has, yes.
GM: Not that the Mill here could do much about that because talking to Mark Hooper the chief chemist, they don’t have the facility to make ethanol.
OA: No, but they would be able to.
GM: They could get it in.
OA: Yes of course if they wanted to. Space is there for it.
GM: I was really disappointed that the State Government wouldn’t put their hand up and say there are a lot of livelihoods here – and there is a lot of history, not that people care a lot about history until it has gone actually – but there are a lot of livelihoods here and I thought that the ethanol is a renewable resource - it surely would help the Greenhouse (Effect) I would have thought - but anyway that is why I am not the Prime Minister I guess!
OA: With that adverse publicity (on ethanol), I think the whole thing is political. Well most people would say the fuel industry say that everybody drives a motorcar and they have got to have fuel and most of our fuel comes from overseas. Why not have fuel that we can participate in and keep families on the land?
GM: That’s right. As you said, you thought that would be about 1000 families or people directly affected by the closure of the Mill and they are not just the Mill workers and cane growers; we are talking about people who supply goods and services to the growers and to the people in the Mill and all that. I was looking at it while driving out towards Nambour on the Bli Bli Road and there is a big fuel farm (sic: depot) there that BP has got. Now I would say that their greatest customer would be the cane growers.
OA: Of course.
GM: Now that will close and there is another half a dozen jobs there, plus people who bring it up to that fuel farm and on and on and on.
OA: The cane is the bread and butter all right for the area.
GM: What do you think will be the greatest loss to the area if the Mill closes?
OA: I suppose the income to the area, the family farms. Part of the family would have to move out, and I suppose one of the problems is that all of the machinery that we have for growing sugar cane would all be obsolete. There would be no buyers for it if you are not going to grow cane. You couldn’t use it for some other product.
GM: One question I did forget to ask you was when you are cutting and harvesting the cane, how many people are usually working on the farm at that stage?
OA: Well, with our own harvesting we have the harvester driver and two bin-out drivers. These are the drivers of the tractor that tows the bin trailers.
GM: These are the ones that they tip into the cane rail bin?
OA: Yes, well in our case we have a double bin trailer with roll-on and roll-off and they would drive the outfit against the harvester and the harvester would harvest into the bins – normal cane bins - on these trailers and then take it out to the line. There would be three men involved in the harvest on our farm.
GM: Do you own your own harvester?
OA: Yes. This year we had a contractor because my grandson who used to drive the harvester didn’t want to drive it any more. He has driven it for so many years and he didn’t want to do it anymore, so we decided that we had the chance of Oakes’s cutting our cane. I think a year like this anyway we probably showed a loss by having a contractor in, but I suppose it is a sign of the times.
GM: I have rung different growers up to arrange interviews this week and I find that people like Vic Flatt will be off at someone else’s farm giving them a hand doing this and that. Does that happen a lot? Where people go and give another farmer a hand if he is up against it because he might have been held up with wet weather or things like that?
OA: Well not so much in our area because we have got such a large area. In an emergency you would, but you wouldn’t make a practice of it. We have got our own planting gear and harvesting gear and we are all occupied.
GM: Ossie, night harvesting, how often does that take place?
OA: Not very often here. They harvest into the early part of the night sometimes and they start as soon as it is daylight of a morning, but there is no actual harvest through the night unless there are times when they have a breakdown. Then they will.
GM: To try and make up time?
OA: Yes. It is not part of the program to harvest of a night.
GM: You have also worked for the Mill at some stage on the locomotives, as a fireman I guess?
OA: No just as an off-sider.
GM: You said that was a petrol/kerosene locomotive?
GM: Whereabouts did you work on that?
OA: In the Maroochy area here from the Store Bridge down here, down to Coolum or out to Valdora or up to The Rocks, up Fischer’s Line.
GM: What year would you have done that?
OA: 1939. We had another steam loco as well. On the same day the steam loco would do part of the area as we would and we would alternate the areas each day. But it took the two locos to deliver the empty trucks and to pick up the full trucks in the 24 hours. We worked from 6 o’clock until 2 o’clock; and 2 o’clock to 10 o’clock - they were our shifts.
GM: You saw steam locomotives here and the transition to diesel?
GM: What has been the big impact on diesel coming in do you think? What has been the big thing that has changed that?
OA: Well they could tow more bins. They have a problem going over the range going into Nambour from Camp Flat through and they need the bigger locos to increase the number of bins they can pull through over the hill. I have seen the loco out at the Valdora area tow 174 loaded bins of cane.
GM: Yeah, geez.
OA: Yes. And that was the “Bli Bli”.
GM: That was the one that went in the river? No, that was the steam loco that went in the river wasn’t it? (Note: it was the diesel loco)
OA: Down off the bridge.
GM: At Perseverance.
OA: Yes. I never knew if it was the “Bli Bli”, the “Coolum” or the “Maroochy”.
GM: I think it was the “Bli Bli” (sic: “Maroochy”).
OA: Yes, Edgar Plater was on that.
GM: The steam locos were a bit notorious weren’t they for sometimes starting fires?
OA: Yes, I hadn’t seen them start a fire but others had. Some times I think the loco was accused of it and probably the farmer had lit it himself.
GM: Now when you were harvesting – I am looking at a photo of one – and I notice that it is a tracked harvester. The reason you bought the tracked harvesters in?
OA: Because of the wet conditions.
GM: Is that common in this area?
OA: Yes, it is, there wouldn’t be too many harvesters in the area that didn’t have full tracks.
GM: That would make it a fairly expensive piece of equipment wouldn’t it?
OA: Yes, it would.
GM: What would a harvester like this set you back if you were going out and buying one?
OA: About half a million today. I think we paid for the first one that we bought about $120,000; I am not sure what year that was. Of course nowadays you would tend to look for a good second-hand one from up North somewhere.
GM: And I must say in another photo you have got one here of a wheeled harvester.
OA: Yes, they can get over the ground quicker with the rubber-tyred machines and of course then we kept our old one to use for planting material because the system is still the same. We use the same billets for planting material as we do to send to the Mill. With a slight modification, it fits the bill.
GM: I am looking at a photo and that is a planter there?
OA: No that is a laser leveller.
GM: But I am also looking at a very old photograph of you on a tractor with your two boys.
OA: That was a wholestick planter.
GM: It is really important to have this land level isn’t it?
OA: Oh yes.
GM: I mean if you are going to run track over it.
At this stage Ossie’s wife Lurline (LA) joins the interview and sits at the table with scores of photographs.
LA: That was a big field – 255 acres. And see the drainage in the field?
OA: For the history of our drainage area, when we went out there and started to do work on the drainage, we had the Council drag line to start with and then Bob Marshall hired this machine, no this company gave it to him on trial – this excavator - and they took it out into our swamp area to try it out and the first thing that happened was it bogged! There was only about 18 inches (450 mm) of the cab showing above the ground level. It went down that deep, and it took two D6 dozers and we had to cut billets of ti-tree to put in front of the tracks so that as it turned it sort of pushed these billets down in the mud. I don’t know how much material this excavator pushed down into the mud before these D6 dozers pulled him out. Bob Marshall would have a real vivid memory of that.
GM: Geez, it would have been like glue. Now I notice also that you have got some newspaper cuttings here also with Rodney winning some awards for his innovations over the years. Tell us a bit about those. You have got one here on a winch and another one here on the cameras. Is it just “necessity being the Mother of Invention” or…?
OA: Yes, it was a modification of what was already there I think. In the case of the camera (cameras mounted on the planter), the operator could see what the machine was doing; you would need Rod to explain all that.
GM: But basically it gave you a set of eyes out the back of the harvester (planter and baler) machine?
GM: Because otherwise you just can’t see it, can you?
OA: No. The whole operation was being monitored at the time.
GM: And the camera relays back to the console in the cab of the harvester?
OA: In the cab, yes, of the planter.
GM: Now this one here is for a quick hitch winch.
LA: Yes. And there are floodgates and they did that too.
GM: What is the idea of floodgates, is it to stop water coming in to the farm?
OA: Yes, our drainage is only as good as the tide in through the floodgate, so that as the tide drops after a fall of rain, you depend on your floodgates to let the rainwater out into the stream and as the tide drops, the gates open and let this water out. It is the only means you have got of getting rid of the water and if we can’t get rid of it quick enough we have got a flood pump that we use that does 250,000 gallons (1 megalitre) an hour, a PTO-driven pump with a 15-inch bore (400 mm).
GM: Is it (the river) salty down here?
OA: I don’t know whether it is now, but it is tidal.
GM: In the dry season it would be salty wouldn’t it?
OA: Yes it would. But it is tidal and all our drains out there are tidal and we have got about seven floodgates on the property.
GM: Righto, well we are just about of tape so I am going to stop our interview there and we will go through some of these photos and make a list and I would like to thank you very much for taking part in our interview today.
OA: I only hope it has helped you.
GM: Oh it has it has been great. Thank you very much.
Additional comment at end of interview:
GM: You saw a punt sink on the river, tell us about it.
OA: There was a punt with eight trucks of cane on going around the corner near Dunethin Rock and it sank completely. Evidently there was a leak in the barge somewhere and it filled with water and the driver – Eric Eggins – just managed to cut the ropes to save the boat that belonged to Percy Evans.
GM: It would have dragged it under?
OA: Yes, and eventually the “Maroochy” loco came along with wire ropes and on the Dunethin Rock side dragged the trucks of cane out onto the line and that was how they recovered their trucks. They just let the cane go down the river, but they wanted the empty trucks.