WORDS BY LARINE STATHAM-BLAIR & ROSS PEDDLESDEN
Many well-known local families continue to farm the land once occupied by their ancestors. Their name is their brand and a hallmark of quality; sometimes given to local places and streets. Their ancestry is incredibly diverse – from Germany to Italy, China and the South Sea Islands. They’ve experimented with everything from cotton, mushrooms and asparagus to coffee and aloe vera, and followed market trends as they’ve come and gone. Always at the fore, they invented world-first horticulture machinery and today they manufacture and value-add to create innovative products. In this special Memory Lane feature, Crush Magazine looks at some of the people and products that have helped the Bundaberg Region prosper.
They say Australia rode to prosperity on the sheep’s back. But that’s not true for the Bundaberg Region. Early pioneers declared that the land here was too densely covered in scrub and volcanic rock to raise sheep. While European settlements emerged to the north and south, the Bundaberg area remained ‘hardly touched by white man’s foot’.
The true faceless figure at the centre of Bundaberg’s early development is best described as a struggling agriculturalist; a ‘poverty stricken farmer living on pumpkin and pork’. Australian author Steele Pen wrote that “the qualities of mateship and self-sufficiency, which are part of the Australian’s view of himself, had a role to play in the isolated scrublands” of Bundaberg. In her University of Queensland thesis, Janette Gay Nolan agreed with the author’s sentiments. In 1977 she described a civic pride and awareness of local identity that is still present today, some 46 years later. “Local chauvinism, born of the search for security and identity in the 1870s, seems to remain a feature of Bundaberg’s ethos … determined to succeed in adversity,” she wrote.
Timber and cattle made settlement possible in the Bundaberg Region in the mid 1800s. But it was horticulture that brought prosperity. According to Neville Rackemann, in his book The Growing Harvest, the very first person to actually grow fruit and vegetables here was a European woman, with the help of her daughter. Sadly, in a sign of the times, the history books refer to her only as Mrs Watson, the wife of settler Thomas Watson. Encouraged to migrate north under the colonial government’s land regulations, Thomas Watson may have been the first to cultivate Bundaberg land for sugar and coffee, but it was his wife who established the first fruit and vegetable garden alongside the Burnett River.
In those very early days, the Watson family were neighbours to just 12 other European settlers, spread across Baffle, Tantitha, Bingera and Kolan. They built a wharf to facilitate trade and receive supplies. Mrs Watson’s garden was essential for survival when ships failed to arrive. Pioneering farmers also began to experiment with maize on Woongarra plains. It was an important crop for much of the 19th Century. Today, it has all but died out.
Some of the first market gardens were the work of Chinese immigrants. From the late 1860s a block of land in North Bundaberg, bounded by Hinkler Avenue, Fairymead, Paterson and Waterview Roads was cultivated as a market garden, as well as the river flats near Perry Street. Names such as Mah Wah, Ah Bue, Que Hee and Kwong Fat were well known around town as they hawked their fruit and vegetables around the streets. By the 1880s the Anti-Chinese League had been formed to try to rid Bundaberg of the ‘Yellow Men’ but in 1887 they made a tactical mistake in organising a competition between European and Chinese vegetables. The Chinese won. The Chinese were also the earliest growers of bananas in the district. The banana industry has gone through its
ups and downs, but a small number of farms remain.
Much is known and written about Bundaberg’s sugar history, its founding German families, the enslavement and mistreatment of South Sea Islanders before 1894, as well as the industry’s subsequent industrialisation and expansion to rum. There is far less documented about Bundaberg’s fruit and vegetable history.
Our fruit and vegetable growers of every generation to date are largely unsung heroes. Bundaberg is widely acclaimed for being the home of the first mechanical sugarcane harvester and yet, at the same time, very few people would be aware that many pieces of horticulture machinery were invented and patented right here. By necessity, after the Second World War and the arrival of Italian immigrants, market gardeners and hobby orchardists became commercial-scale farmers. The back-breaking work of men and horses was replaced by machines. It was the Bonel Brothers of Bundaberg who invented the three-in-one; a machine that simultaneously shaped beds while applying fertiliser and nematicide. The first mechanical vine trainer was developed at 2 P-H Farm at Winfield in 1986, to train melon vines to grow on plastic, thus avoiding ground rot. Gordon Fleming made his own lifting gear to bulk handle pineapples. Bill Stockwell designed his own mechanical tomato planter from an old sugarcane planter and also created an automatic rotary brush to wash his tomatoes. In 1985 Brian Sheehan and Ron Simpson became the first farmers in the Region to use computerised irrigation and fertilisation. Today, the Region’s farmers continue to be among the first to embrace new technology; using drones to monitor water channels and livestock, and dust their crops with insecticide and fertiliser.
Ashes to ashes
Drive down Goodwood Road and take a close look at the farms you pass, dotted with unusual sheds with gable roofs and high vents. They’re a relic of an industry which has come and, thankfully, gone – tobacco. Tobacco growing began in Bundaberg in the 1930s and at its peak involved about 80 growers. It was one of only a couple of growing areas in Australia. By the 1970s the industry was fading away, as awareness grew of the harm caused by tobacco. And as for the sheds? They were used to dry the tobacco ready for market.
Ripe for the picking
Two crops that helped put the Bundaberg Region on the map are tomatoes and pineapples. Both are still grown here but not on the same prolific scale they once were.
Bill Stockwell is regarded as the father of Bundaberg’s tomato industry. During the Second World War, Bill moved to Elliott Heads from north Queensland. He started in cane and dabbled in cotton, before putting half his property under tomatoes. According to Neville Rackemann, Bill joked that he was ‘well-prepared’ to grow tomatoes after reading back copies of several horticulture journals. Bill was planting and harvesting by hand initially, but the venture was a success. Before long, agricultural officer Dick Tarrant was advising other farmers to take up the crop. Frank Samuels, the Moffatt brothers and Allan Cockerill were early adopters.
Over the years, as tomato technology improved and more growers entered the industry, Bundaberg became an important supplier to the Brisbane market, rivalling Bowen further north. Production was especially high in bad periods for the cane industry such as the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Big producers, such as the Presslers and Simpsons (pictured), took the industry to a new level. By 1985 Bundaberg was exporting a staggering 5.5 million cartons of tomatoes a year.
The earliest growers of pineapples in the district were the Wust family at South Kolan in the 1880s, followed by the Lucke family in the Gooburrum area. Later, Stan Svensson grew sweet juicy pineapples on land in the suburb which today carries his family name and is now covered by houses; Svensson Heights.
But the big growth in the industry was thanks to Italian immigrant Guido Sergiaccomi who purchased 125 acres at Gooburrum in the early 1940s with the aim of supplying the crop commercially. With his brother, Mario (Morrie), and his son, Ernie, he grew enough to supply the Golden Circle factory at Northgate in Brisbane. A third Sergiaccomi brother, Delio, got in on the action. Leo Sbrizzi and Bert Baker also supplied Golden Circle. A revival of the sugar industry in the 1950s and ‘60s put paid to the pinapple industry, but it remains a sweet part of the Region’s history and Golden Circle products continue to be a favourite staple in many Australian pantries.
All in this together
Growers are only one part of this story. There are plenty of other quiet achievers that support the industry’s success.
Before the mid 1960s only a few watermelons were grown each year for locals to enjoy over the Christmas holidays. That was, until wholesaler Chave Enterprises was established, buying fruit to sell into the Brisbane Market and beyond. Manager Allan Limpus, who died age 91 in December 2022, and Field Officer Nev Beeston worked to expand the industry by bringing in varieties that would grow well in our climate. By using fruit from North Queensland and Bundaberg, Chave was able to supply watermelons from August into January – an entirely new concept. By 1968 production had doubled and whole trains full of watermelon were heading south to Brisbane. Up until then, southern markets had been almost unable to obtain even a piece of tropical exotica. Chave Enterprises still exists today, but goes by the name Beemart, acting as both a wholesaler and retailer.
This era brought a new wave of confidence in the local horticulture sector. Growers expanded into manufacturing, value adding to the crops they grew to make new exciting foods, beverages and products. Growers like David and Anne Moller opened retail businesses. As the owner of Bundaberg’s first agritourism attraction, Avocado Grove at Alloway, and The Flower Box Florist on Bourbong Street, David told a Chamber of Commerce meeting in the mid 1960s that the Region would one day become the ‘salad bowl’ of Australia. Many members were not convinced. Flower Box today is owned and operated by David and Anne’s daughter-in-law, Karen. Avocado Grove no longer exists, but other exciting agritourism attractions, like Tinaberries at Elliott Heads, have popped up in their place.
There is a symbiotic relationship between growers and countless other sectors, like transport companies, agronomists, suppliers of irrigation equipment, restaurants, cafes and greengrocers. Bundaberg’s oldest corner store, Olsen’s Corner FoodWorks has an excellent reputation for directly supporting local farmers. Fantastic grower-owned greengrocers, like One Little Farm, have also started to emerge.
Sadly, not all retailers have a reputation for treating growers fairly. The supermarket giants have always tightly controlled pricing and conditions, cementing growers as price takers, rather than makers. It’s, in part, why in 1948 Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (BFVG) was founded to give the Region’s growers a collective say in the management of their industry, auction practices and the ability to export interstate. The organisation has achieved a lot for the sector, but their work is never done.
It wasn’t until 1984 that a woman, Rosemary Anderson, was elected as an executive member of the BFVG board. Some 75 years since it started, BFVG is still going strong and represents its members on important issues like water security from Paradise Dam. It may be entirely coincidental, but today the organisation’s CEO is Bree Watson – a strong woman bearing the same surname as the Region’s first fruit and vegetable grower.
What would Mrs Watson say if she could see the Bundaberg Region now?