Men hold up stringed tobacco.
Men hold up stringed tobacco. Crystal Jones

Tobacco growing industry a part of our history

TOBACCO farming was widespread in the region, according to Neville Cayley.

The cane farmer remembers the golden age of tobacco.

"This district all around Gooburrum, Moore Park right up as far as Litabella, a lot of areas were growing tobacco right up even before my time," he said.

 

Tobacco farming in Bundaberg.
Tobacco farming in Bundaberg. contributed

"It virtually all closed down when the government allowed us to sell our quotas.

"Eventually the whole industry shut down, we stopped in '82."

Mr Cayley said tobacco was a successful rotational crop in addition to sugar cane.

 

Tobacco farming in Bundaberg.
Tobacco farming in Bundaberg. contributed

"A lot of the buildings are still around, in my particular case I got rid of them all - there's one just down the road here, there's some up the road, they're still around," he said.

Burners were used to "cook" the tobacco, with log fires being the initial method of choice, followed by kerosene burners.

"When the leaf was picked by hand and brought to the shed it was what they called stringing the tobacco," Mr Cayley remembers.

The leaves were strung up on sticks and hung in the buildings.

"They'd put the sticks right up in the buildings all by hand and then machine," he said.

"Then they came to a bulk curing service where they had a tray, it was a frame about 100 wide with all these stainless steel spikes through it and wire.

 

Neville Cayley talks about tobacco farming in the region.
Neville Cayley talks about tobacco farming in the region. Mike Knott

"The leaf was put in it without being physically tied."

Mr Cayley said all tobacco farms were prone to fires.

"The risk of fire with the other ones was quite common because you had this hot burn and the leaf only so far above the burner," he said.

 

Tobacco farming in Bundaberg.
Tobacco farming in Bundaberg. contributed

"No one knows how many caught on fire.

"I've had quite a few fires in my life actually, I had one... two... we had three..."

Mr Cayley remembers one such occasion when a bulk shed was struck by fire in 1967.

"It was about 11 o'clock at night and someone going home noticed the big shed on fire and it turned out the only explanation was it was spontaneous combustion," he said.

 

Tobacco farming in Bundaberg.
Tobacco farming in Bundaberg. contributed

"You get a room closed up with tobacco with a leaf that's probably got a bit of moisture content and sun and you've got spontaneous combustion

"It completely destroyed the shed and the building and in those days about 80,000 pounds of tobacco."

Not all tobacco sheds and buildings met a fiery fate though, with Mr Cayley saying at least one had since been turned into a house.

Mr Cayley remembers an era of hard work, where things were done by hand.

Even from the beginning stage of planting seedlings, tobacco was not a simple plant to grow.

 

Tobacco farming in Bundaberg.
Tobacco farming in Bundaberg. contributed

Garden beds about a metre wide and 10 metres long would first be sterilised with methyl bromide, then seeds would be planted in sand and watered until they were big enough to transplant.

The plants were treated with benzol to stop disease.

"Benzol was added to fuel, I don't know if you can still even buy it, but it was a beautiful smelling stuff, it just wasn't good for your health," Mr Cayley said.

Plants were carefully moved into the field in wet sacks, before being planted in sandy loam.

"In the early days, all the spraying was done by nap sack and by hand, it was hard," Mr Cayley said.

 

 

A tobacco stringer. Neville Cayley says the tobacco would be laid out on the machine which would sew it together
A tobacco stringer. Neville Cayley says the tobacco would be laid out on the machine which would sew it together "just like a sewing machine". Crystal Jones

Later on, planes would be brought in for spraying.

Tobacco was often grown by share farming, according to Mr Cayley, and the crops usually took about two to five hectares.

Beans were also grown at the time.

 

 

Tobacco packed away after picking.
Tobacco packed away after picking. Crystal Jones

"When we first grew beans back in the early '70s it was all done by hand," Mr Cayley said.

"They were picked into bags and put in a semi-trailer and all done by hand."

Later, when beans were sold to Edgell, machine harvesting was used.

"They were a beautiful crop to grow," Mr Cayley said.

With tobacco, many processes changed over the years, including suckering, the process of removing the flowers from the plants.

"Years gone by a chemical came out and they'd be able to spray a chemical to stop the sucker coming out of where the stalk and the leaf was," Mr Cayley said.

 

 

Tobacco farming in Bundaberg.
Tobacco farming in Bundaberg. contributed

Mr Cayley said a highlight for farmers was the Brisbane sales, held around May and June.

"That was a big tradition, they'd all go to Brisbane to see their leaf being sold by auction," he said.



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