In 1916, the then government controlled South Johnstone Mill crushed its first cane, producing 4729 tonnes of sugar.
A century later, the mill processes around 1.5 million tonnes of cane each season, producing about 230,000 tonnes of raw sugar.
In those 100 years, much has changed in the MSF Sugar-owned mill, not only in terms of production and technology but also in the way sugar cane is farmed, produced, processed and exported.
No such enterprise would survive without the core of its business, its heartbeat -- the growers who farm the cane to send to the mill.
Migrants from Italy and other European countries arrived in Australia early in the 1900s, seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Many arrived with little but hope and a willingness to work hard.
Large numbers took up backbreaking jobs in Queensland’s sugarcane fields and some eventually earned enough to buy their own small farms and today many growers are descendants of these early cane cutters.
For four generations, cane farming has been the lifeblood of the long-established Cecchi family whose ancestry, like so many other cane farmers in the region, derives from Italy.
For the past 91 years, the family has supplied cane to South Johnstone Mill from the original 32 hectare farm on the Palmerston Highway at Coorumba.
Arthur Cecchi’s grandfather, Vittorio Torre, emigrated from Lucca, Italy in 1925 and joined his brother Primo who grew cane at Kalbo, Pin Gin Hill with his farming partner Ferdinando Cecchi.
About a year after his arrival, Vittorio purchased a cane farm at Corrumba in partnership with Salvatore Lorenzetti.
A cyclone had destroyed the farm house and much hard work had to be done to clear the land for farming.
Vittorio and Salvatore cut timber for sale with axes and cross-cut saws, large tree stumps were blown out with dynamite – a skill Vittorio had acquired during the war in Italy.
As sections of land were cleared, sugar cane was planted.
In those days, horse drawn implements were used to prepare the ground, plant and cultivate the crop.
Cane was not burnt prior to harvesting until the 1930s when a potentially fatal illness, Weil’s disease, spread by rats, forced the introduction of cane burning.
“My grandfather often said that the horse was rested, fed and watered after a few rows and a fresh horse brought in to continue the work – but the poor farm hand had to continue working without a rest,” Arthur said.
In 1946, Vittorio sold his farm to his daughter Lea and her husband Giorgio Cecchi.
Born in Italy in 1910, Giorgio emigrated to Australia in 1937 to join his brother, Athuro, at Coorumba to cut cane.
Lea, with her mother and brother, came to the region from Italy in 1929.
With the outbreak of World War II and the intense climate of suspicion and fear at that time, Italian migrants found themselves interned in Allied Labour Camps.
Giorgio was one of the 1573 Italian-born residents incarcerated in Queensland.
Italian wives had no option but to run the sugar farms without their husbands or face starvation. By the 1950s, Giorgio and Lea’s sons, Arthur and Robert, had started farming with their parents.
Cane farming remained labour-intensive – it was hard, heavy, dirty work.
Cane supplied to the mill was burnt and cut by hand.
Although burning of sugar cane was a spectacular sight, it was a dangerous operation carried out nightly.
A gang of five men, all good cutters, could cut, top and load about 10 – 18 tonne of cane daily.
Each day during harvesting, a steam locomotive would deliver empty trucks.
The farmer then moved the empty trucks into the paddock with a tractor using a portable line laid by the gang.
It was the responsibility of the gang to shoulder-load all the trucks throwing a chain over the cane to indicate that the truck was fully loaded.
As the pile of cane on the truck grew higher, it was necessary for the cutters to load the trucks to a maximum using a ladder to do so.
The farmer then tightened the chain, hooked up the trucks and pulled them back to the main line from where the steam loco transported the cane to South Johnstone Mill for crushing.
Cutters were all on contract and the more cane they cut and loaded, the more money they earned.
When the gang moved to the next farm to harvest, it was their job to pick up the portable line and load it onto an open wagon, called a bogie.
It was then taken to the main line by the farmer using his tractor for the loco to deliver to the next farm.
When the loco arrived nearest to the next farm, the portable line was again transported by tractor to the paddock, re-laid and the next farm’s harvest got underway.
Early operations at South Johnstone Mill were significantly more labour-intensive than they are today.
All work was done manually by a large workforce of seasonal labour which was mostly unskilled.
Raw sugar was bagged in a hessian bag, known as a sugar bag which was clamped to a chute, filled to the correct weight and dropped onto a conveyor belt, moving along to the next process, stitching the bag closed.
Bags were manually loaded onto open wagons for transporting by rail to Mourilyan Harbour to be loaded onto ships for export.
Some bags were also stored at the mill.
Industry pioneers in many ways, the Cecchi family was among the first farmers to own and operate a cane harvester in the South Johnstone Mill area, after Arthur purchased a Don Mizzi harvester in the early 1960s and began offering contract harvesting, a business which continues to this day with son David as operator.
A proud achievement for the business was being awarded Top Harvesting Group for the 2014 season.
Their strong links with South Johnstone Mill started in 1925 and continue as the mill approaches its centenary.
From 1997 to 2000, Arthur and Gladys’s son, Paul, was employed as a mechanical apprentice at the mill and in August 2000, Paul was named as the Outstanding Final Year apprentice at South Johnstone Mill by the Far North Queensland Institute of Sugar Mill Engineers.
When, in 2006, David and Paul began farming with their father, Arthur Cecchi, it marked the fourth generation of the family to supply cane to South Johnstone Mill.
The family still farms in the Coorumba/Nerada area as well as Innishowen.
With modern farming technology, rate control of fertilisers and herbicides, GPS systems driving tractors, harvesting and farming equipment, cane farming has become much more efficient and less labour intensive.
Raw sugar produced at South Johnstone Mill is exported through the bulk sugar terminal at Mourilyan Harbour, mainly to countries in Asia.
And families like the Cecchi’s continue to supply their farm’s sugar cane to a South Johnstone Mill, the 100-year-old focus of celebrations.
- Images courtesy Mrs Gladys Cecchi.
Read Gladys Cecchi's story here.