Fields of Fire
Cane fields have been part of the landscape in Northern NSW for more than 100 years. Back in the 1860s, a glut of maize combined with high sugar prices led many farmers to replace maize with sugar cane. The “sugar rivers” (Clarence, Richmond and Tweed Rivers) came to be looked upon as the most prosperous districts in the colony. In 1859 an “Experimental Sugar Association” was established at Grafton but by 1890 farmers realised the risk of frost damage meant cane could not be profitably grown up river from the Coldstream River. In contrast the Lower Clarence had the advantages of flat land, fertile soil, low frost risk and convenient water transport to move the bulky crop from farm to mill. One pioneer cane farmer, the Rev. J.H. Garven at Palmer’s Island became a founding member of the Clarence River Sugar Growers’ Association, formed in 1867. In the next decade cane growing was firmly established in the Lower Clarence.
While the use of indentured Kanaka labour was largely confined to Queensland, cane cutting did provide seasonal employment to many local and itinerant workers (who included Hindus and post-war refugees). Cane-gang camps were set up and cane knives were used to strip the cane before it was hand cut. Although pioneer cane farmers soon devised various mechanical planters to tackle that back-breaking task, harvesting long remained an arduous and dirty task. The ‘fields of fire’ began in the 1940s when labour was scarce and the ‘trash’ was burnt rather than hand stripped.
The harvested cane would be loaded by hand using a ‘shinstick’ which allowed a man to hold a bundle of cane against his body, first onto horse-drawn carts and taken to the nearest channel. This laborious process was repeated to transfer the cane from the cart to a punt and again from the punt to the mill wharf. Mechanical harvesting and road transport was not introduced until 1976 and nowadays farmers sub-contract to specialist planting and harvesting crews.
Dairying has replaced cane growing along much of the Clarence, but the cane fields remain around Yamba. As the most southerly sugar cane growing area in Australia, cane growing continues to provide employment and make a significant contribution to the local economy.
Visit the Yamba Museum to see displays of various cane knives and the ‘fields of fire’.