Rows of cane

Based on the picture in my previous post, I placed some questions about the planting, growing and harvesting of cane. Below you can find the answer of one of the members of the Australian Narrow Gauge Yahoo group … it’s a great story to read and a very helpful guide for sugar cane newbies like me …

cane train

The Farmal M tractor indicates that the scene is set in the ’50s which is when I grew up on a cane farm outside Mackay. Cane growing was a complex and very regulated business but I will keep this brief.

Cane was planted between March and June depending on the wet season that year. In our area the wet season started the last week in January. However no-one, except maybe Lennox Walker, knew if it would last a day, a week, a month, or 5 months.

Farmers wanted to get the cane in as soon as possible because they didn’t want to be planting during the crushing. The crushing in our area usually started in June and aimed to finish in November. It often ran into December because of days lost due to rain. Therefore during the crushing the cane would be 12-21 months old so all would be about the same height. It took an experienced eye to tell when cane was ready for cutting. If it arrowed, cut it quickly. There could be quite a variation in height in any paddock depending on the soil in the paddock. Because soil was variable a farm could have 2 or 3 different cane varieties of different heights and appearances.

Cane was planted in rows spaced so that a tractor could straddle each one. Cane grows in clumps called stools, which are the result of the planting method. Stools are approximately 18" apart and have 3 – 12 stalks each. In the very early fifties "drop" planters were used. These were soon replaced by "cutter" planters which evolved to upright "cutter" planters attached to the 3 point hydraulic linkage. Planters would make interesting models.

In the ’50s all cane was burnt before cutting so there was quite a difference between cane ready for cutting and cane actually being cut. Also in the early ’50s cane was cut and loaded by hand. It was extremely hard work. It was also dirty because the cane was black after burning. Every effort was made to make it no harder than it need be. The cane was planted in rows, cut in rows, laid in rows, and topped in rows. We normally cut 9 rows to lay two rows of cut cane with space for the tractor and trailer to drive down the middle. I just found a short video which illustrates cutting cane in 1948.

In this video they top the cane as they go. Notice the cane knives they are using are about 18" long. The ’50s brought the 36" long handled cane knife, with the blade bent so the cutter didn’t have to bend as far. A side benefit was that a cutter could take a whole stool under his arm and so cut much quicker than these men who can only take a handful at a time. You can also see the cane that is being burnt has arrows on top. The arrow is the flower and seed of the cane.

This ended up much longer than anticipated. I hope it helps.