Pineapples were first grown in small volumes in the Wamuran District as early as 1901, generally as an adjunct to or a fill in crop to supplement other more mainstream farming pursuits. By the early 1920’s additional land was opened up between Wamuran and Elimbah specifically for fruit growing. The rich sandy volcanic soil lent itself to pineapple growing and some bumper harvests were soon being produced. Fruit for the fresh fruit market was loaded at the Wamuran Railway siding for delivery to the Roma Street Produce Markets.
Pineapple growing was a long term process with the first crop not reaching harvest size until 18 months after the top was planted. In the early days all planting, fertilising and harvesting was done by hand. And it was very heavy work indeed. Wamuran was ideally situated as the central hub for the Industry due in no small part to its close proximity to a regular rail link to the Fresh Fruit markets. The railway line had not long been completed between Caboolture and Kilcoy and by 1909 there were sidings at Moodlu, Wamuran, Bracalba and D’Aguilar that made economical rail transport to market a foregone conclusion..
By 1946 the Pineapple Industry had become quite well established even though, like all agrarian pursuits, it had it’s ups and downs due to seasonal and economic variable. Stability and a regular income for the Industry was a main priority for the more progressive growers of the time.
A proposal was made to build a Cannery in order to provide the necessary marketing and financial stability that was so sorely needed. The idea was that the project would be financed by the Growers themselves with each participant purchasing a Certificate for the value of 100 pounds [$200.00] for each multiple of 3,000 cases of Pineapples they produced. The growers still retained the option of selling to the fresh fruit market if they so desired. The name ‘Golden Circle Cannery’ was apparently suggested by 3 local growers, Harry Franks, Bernard Flewell-Smith and Mrs. Chrissie Grigg.
It was proposed that the project would be operated as a Cooperative under the management of the Pineapple Sectional Group of the Committee of Direction of Fruit Marketing – COD – and a Trustee for the Subscribers. The new Golden Circle Cannery was opened at Northgate in 1947 by the then Premier Mr. Ned Hanlon. The Company was originally called Queensland Tropical Fruit Products and they used the brand name “Golden Circle”.
Growers were paid monthly but received extra payments each three months depending on the state of product sales at the Cannery. A final payment was made in February of each year, the value of which depended on the total years results. An interest payment was also made to Shareholders when funds allowed.
The main canning Pineapple variety grown at this time was the Smooth Cayenne. This variety produced the sweetest fruit during summer months and this created a tendency for the growers to plant for a summer harvest. The majority of the crop went to the Cannery but the prime fruit, very sweet eating at this time of year, went to the fresh fruit market. Less fruit was harvest in the colder months because this particular variety tended to suffer from cold induced black heart syndrome – still quite edible but not a pretty dessert. The fact that excess fruit produced at any time of the year could be canned gave the much needed stability that had been previously missing from the Industry.
The Industry became much more reliable and the Growers were better able to regulate their incomes and their cropping patterns with the advent of the Cannery. However in 1959 there was such a significant over-production that a final payment from the Cannery was not able to be paid to the Growers. The Cannery had felt duty bound to process all premium fruit offered to it but eventually the stockpile of unsold product became so great that drastic measures had to be taken. This was devastating because most of the Growers had based their farming principles on the assumption that the Cannery would be their saviour and would pay the premium price for all of their produce.
This period of over-production heralded a significant change in Cannery policy whereby it was decided that they would only accept fruit from fully financial Subscribers at the rate of 5 tons per allocated Share Certificate. This encouraged the Growers to put reserves away for a “Rainy Day” as the saying goes, and it also served to create a small market in the trading of Cannery Share Certificates. At certain periods over the years the value of shares held by some Growers amounted to a considerable fortune.
The 5 ton allocation per Certificate system worked very well until 1986 when another massive over-production year necessitated the system to be changed and the allocation was thus reduced to 3.5 tons per Certificate. At this time a system of No. 2 Pool pricing was instituted and this second Pool led to an expansion of the Export Market. The best financial return was from the No. 1 Pool Australian market and the lesser returns from the Export Market catered for the No.2 Pool fruit. Small fruit and much of the harvest from ratoon or 2nd crops were sold into the Juice Pool for which only a nominal return was received.
In the early 1930’s Russell Grigg, father of the late John Grigg of Bethonga Park, bought one of the first rotary hoes in the district. This was a steel wheeled marvel that revolutionised the Pineapple Industry. By the 1950’s the idea had caught on and there were some numbers of tractors used on the local farms – mostly the ever reliable grey Massey Ferguson TE-20’s - along with the odd Howard Rotary Hoe and a Fordson or two. These were robust old workhorses and there are still many of them used on small acreage farms around the area.
The fruit was harvested by hand until the early 1960’s, and until much later on some of the smaller farms. It was carried by basket or back pack to the headland where it would be prepared for the Cannery by de-topping and loading it into large timber boxes. It would then be manhandled onto a truck and conveyed to the siding ready for rail transport. For the fresh fruit market the fruit would be graded, sorted for quality and boxed ready for transport to the markets. Cannery fruit was later loaded into large forklift sized bins that weighed in the vicinity of 1 ton each when packed.
As time went by the farms had to become more mechanized in order to retain a competitive edge. A visit to Hawaii by John Grigg in 1959 convinced him of the advantages of the mechanical harvester to the Industry in Queensland. The first mechanical harvester was constructed by John and Frank Grigg in 1962. This consisted of an hydraulically driven conveyor belt that extended out over the crop. The conveyor belt led directly to the one ton cannery bin that was carried at the rear of the trailer. When full the bins were either slid off the trailer for later collection or lifted directly onto a truck for transport to the railway siding.
The earliest harvesters used a gantry at the back to lift the bins onto the truck and this innovative, but dangerous, machine quickly led to the use of tractor mounted fork lifts to make the process safer and more efficient. Mechanization also led to the Cannery moving to bulk handling processes. Farms were redesigned to allow about 9 double rows of Pineapples per block to cater for the span of the picker. It was not long before mechanical planters began to appear on the scene and these units, operated by two men and a driver, allowed for much larger plantings and much more effective use of available labour. More innovation led to the development of Nematicide injectors and boom spray systems to distribute liquid fertilizers and weedicides – and more.
In the early days it was discovered that crop yield on re-plant land was often significantly lower than from crops planted on new ground. This was eventually traced back to the build up of pests, particularly nematodes, in the very often over-used ground. In the 1970’s the Cannery appointed Agronomist and Bio Chemist Rudi Wassman from the Maui Pineapple Company in Hawaii as Technical Advisor to the Cannery and to the Growers. This was a great success as Rudi brought with him all of the innovations and technical advances used by the most productive Pineapple farmers of the time – the Hawaiians. Rudi led fact finding trips to Hawaii in 1972 and 1978 and these allowed our local Growers to gain an insight into the techniques used on the massive and highly productive broad acre farms over there.
With increases in production and productivity new markets had to be found. With a changing population tending to gravitate to using more fresh fruit better ways of marketing and presenting it had to be found, and promoted. Other markets also opened up with the Queensland Government offering subsidised Air Freight to New Zealand in order to help correct the imbalance of trade between the two countries. John Grigg was able to establish markets for fresh Pineapples in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. The export fruit was inspected by AQIS on the farm, loaded into sealed containers and then directly air freighted to New Zealand. Strict growing controls were implemented and no pesticides were used during packing, unlike the significant and often toxic sprays needed for ship transported fruit. Trial shipments were also made to the UK and to Dubai.
The original crops were based on the Smooth Leaf Cayenne variety which was a multi purpose product suitable for both the fresh fruit market and for the cannery. It had some issues, not the least being variable sweetness depending on the season and a propensity to develop blackheart during the colder weather. Another variety grown in much smaller volume and solely for the fresh market was the original Rough Leaf Pineapple, beautiful to eat but extremely painful to harvest due to the large spines on the leaves. During a trip to Hawaii in 1986 John Grigg saw the potential benefit of some of the newer hybrid varieties to the local fresh fruit market. He was eventually able to import, under strict quarantine conditions, 12 Pineapple tops – 2 of each of 6 varieties.
After a long quarantine period and substantial further development one of those trial varieties was chosen for release on the Australian Market – it was called Bethonga Gold after the Grigg’s home property. By 1992 the first of the new variety were being harvested. These fruit were less acid and significantly sweeter; they also had a harder skin and did not develop black heart in the winter. Overall this new cultivar was proven to be quite a significant improvement over some the older varieties. Because the growers needed all of the pineapple tops to allow them to be able to increase planting stock it became necessary to educate the public into buying a Pineapple to eat and not to use as a table centrepiece. The “Topless” fruit became a hit and this has led to significant plantings in the local area due to more tops being available to be used as planting material. Other growers have begun to develop their own stock from other imported hybrids. Bethonga Gold and John Grigg were awarded the “Jaguar Medal” for innovation in Primary Produce in 1998.
By the early 2000’s the Pineapple Industry seemed to be thriving with the Cannery acquiring the rights to the song “You Are My Sunshine” which soon became the theme song for the Golden Circle product range. In 2003 the Cannery Board decided to buy the rights to The Original Juice Company in Griffith NSW for what is believed to have been a very significant sum of money. This was drought time and fruit production was at a low point so fruit had to be imported to meet the Juice Producers commitments – significantly adding to the cost of production. This acquisition proved to be an unsound investment and the Cannery soon ran into financial difficulties. In 2007 it was forced to sell 35% of the organisation to the Prime Equity Company from Anchorage in the USA. This was the first sale of shares to anyone other than the growers and was the beginning of the end of the sixty Golden Years.
In 2008 Heinz bought the remains of the Golden Circle Cannery. From an annual intake of over 100,000 tonnes not too long ago the annual intake is now down to a maximum of 30,000 tonnes. This has forced the growers to look further afield for marketing options and the hybrid table variety Pineapples are now coming to the fore.
In recent years the Scurr family have introduced a variety called Mareeba Gold and that has become the mainstay of their Piñata Farms that now lay claim to being Australia’s largest pineapple producer - and the only one to send fruit to market 52 weeks of the year. Named in honour of their Australian place of origin, Mareeba Gold pineapples are grown at Mareeba in tropical north Queensland, locally at Wamuran and Darwin in the Northern Territory.
If you have the patience to search the Trove sites you will find a wealth of details about the travails of the Pineapple Industry during the early days. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/result?q=pineapple+Wamuran&s=0
In no particular order of importance, and amongst many others over the years – the following are some of the early Pineapple growing families:
Jensens, Griggs, Svensens, Salisburies, Zanows, Behrens, Mollenhagens, Nicholsons, Meurants, the Embrey brothers, Scurrs, the Francis brothers, Dellits, Pates, Byes, Franks, Gamgees, Spillanes, Schrodters, Crowthers and the Sharrocks - and many others who came and went over the years.
Some of those pioneer families are still involved in the Pineapple Industry in the local area, many are long gone and their farms have been subdivided or put to other uses.
Much of the information used in this article was supplied by Mrs. Betty Grigg of Bethonga.
copyright (c) WHVC 2017