Tofts put Bundy on map

The Toft family in front of Joe's harvester in 1944, (back from left) Joseph Toft Snr, Col, Joe, Stan, Harold and youngsters Geoffrey and Cal Toft. Canegrowers' Bill Kerr has written many times that no single family made a bigger contribution to the development of mechanical cane harvesting in Australia than the Tofts.
The Toft family in front of Joe's harvester in 1944, (back from left) Joseph Toft Snr, Col, Joe, Stan, Harold and youngsters Geoffrey and Cal Toft. Canegrowers' Bill Kerr has written many times that no single family made a bigger contribution to the development of mechanical cane harvesting in Australia than the Tofts. Contributed by Cal Toft

CAL Toft feels bittersweet pride at the roles his father and uncles played in the development of cane harvesting, both nationally and internationally.

"At one stage, Toft was a household word in every cane farmhouse in Australia," Cal said.

"I'm proud of what my family achieved, but it's also sad that Bundaberg is no longer manufacturing cane harvesters in a major way."

The story of the Toft family and its contribution to the history of the region features in the book Bundaberg and the Four elements, to be published soon.

The region is steeped in mechanical harvesting history, with one-time newspaper proprietor and Bundaberg mayor John Rowland inventing one of the nation's earliest mechanical cane harvesters in 1898.

His unwieldy, steam-driven 27m-long machine was reportedly built by the Bundaberg Foundry, although the company has no record of it.

The first cane harvester to be extensively demonstrated in Queensland was developed by another Bundaberg canegrower, Charles Hurrey, from 1908-1916, and Fairymead Co later sponsored the Howard machine, which Jim Vichie and Clifford Howard converted into the nation's first chopper harvester, demonstrated at Sydney in 1934.

The Toft Bros' story started with Cal's father and canefarmer Joe, who, after completing an engineering course by correspondence, invented the first mechanically driven cane stalk loader in 1939, using scrap parts and a cannibalised Model-T Ford.

"He modified that loader at the end of the first season and we still have it, stored at Ron Toft's shed at Oakwood - the Australian Museum hopes to display it in Canberra," Cal said.

Joe invented one of the nation's first commercially viable cane harvesters in 1942.

Like the loader, this invention was again to help alleviate the heavy, back-breaking work burdens on Joe and his family members at their Avoca farm.

"He demonstrated this harvester at a field day and it was so successful that he got an order from Queensland Canegrowers to manufacture one for North Queensland," Cal said.

Juggling his ever-growing engineering business with his cane farming, Joe helped younger brother Harold build a hydraulic loader in the 1950s - this became the prototype for Col and Harold's new business, Toft Bros.

"They were a winning combination - Harold was brilliant as far as the design and manufacture of equipment and Col was good at selling," Cal said.

"Later, they developed the hydraulic harvesters and then the chopper harvester."

In 1963, Wyper Bros of Bundaberg started manufacturing the successful Don Mizzi tractor-mounted chopper harvester, designed by Laurence Mizzi, and became known as Don Harvesting.

A year later, Crichton Industries moved to Bundaberg to manufacture the wholestalk harvester designed by Bill Crichton.

By 1967, Bundaberg was of world importance, turning out the Crichton, Massey Ferguson, Toft and Mizzi harvesters. It was at that same time that Massey Ferguson took over Crichton and transferred all their cane harvesting manufacturing to Bundaberg.

"When the demand for their machines became too much in 1965, the Toft Bros floated the company and, by 1972, they had absorbed Wyper Bros," Cal said.

By 1970, Toft Bros and Massey Ferguson were major manufacturers of cane harvesters in the world and Bundaberg had become the acknowledged world centre of the development and manufacture of the specialised machinery - the Institution of Engineers Australia honoured Bundaberg City with a special tribute in 1984.

But world sugar prices plummeted in the early 1980s, forcing the Massey Ferguson factory to close and Toft Bros was bounced around by a succession of foreign owners.

In 1986, Toft's executives bought back the company and renamed it Austoft. They listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 1993 and were acquired by Case three years later.

The Bundaberg Austoft plant was closed in 2004 and all operations moved to Brazil.

"It was very upsetting to see all this knowledge leave Bundaberg," Cal said.

Fortunately, JA Toft and Co, a spare parts provider that Joe and Cal founded in 1958, is still family owned and operated today.

"I ran it for 44 years and now my daughter Lyn Andreassen manages it, and my grandson Jace is part of the team," Cal said of the Bourbong St business.

"It's nice to know that one Toft business survived the many changes of those difficult decades."

Topics:  history sugarcane

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