Synonymous with Bundaberg in Central Queensland are Sugar, Rum and the first cane harvesters built in Australia by Harold and Colin Toft.
They traded under the name of the Toft Brothers. This is Brian Toft’s story, the son of Harold.
He describes his father, “As a creative genius and his Uncle Colin as a master salesman. They were innovative pioneers and highly skilled men who designed and manufactured cane harvesters and cane related equipment”
In the early 1940’s Harold was called up for military service in the Second World War but was sent back home to Australia to build harvesters because of the distinct labour shortage of cane cutters. It was a long time consuming process cutting the cane in those days, picking it up and then loading it all by hand. “That same year Dad built his first whole stalk harvester and it was demonstrated in 1944”.
Growing up on family cane farms at Avoca, Alloway and Clayton near Bundaberg. Brian had a care free childhood. Wearing no shoes by choice in all sorts of situations and conditions! Exploring the terrain of the cane fields and a family owned machinery work shop in a factory run by his father and his Uncle.
Brian’s grandfather, his father and all his Uncles were cane farmers so unremarkably when he left school he too followed the same path. What is remarkable however are the changes Brian has witnessed and experienced in the cane industry during his life?
Planting cane and methods of irrigation: In the early days the cane was stripped and planted through a drop planter. Then came a Gough Planter and now a billit planter is used in which GPS is incorporated”.
Today paddocks are laser levelled for better drainage and irrigation and there is a range of watering methods. From spray lines, trickle irrigation, water winches and boom irrigators using lateral and centre pivot.
Harvesting: Brian can vividly remember, “the sugar cane was burnt, cut and loaded by hand! Then came whole stick machines which I drove and once the cane was cut it was loaded by hydraulic cane loaders built by my father and uncle in 1956 with a rotatable grab. This was revolutionary as only one person was needed to operate it. Initially they were told it wouldn’t work and were refused a grant by the Cane Growers Association to build one. However they were confident it would and forged ahead and the loader became a successful part of their business.
In the 60’s they developed several whole stick cane harvesters in varying sizes to suit a range of different cane and growing conditions. These were followed by purpose built whole stalk choppers and in 1968 they made the CH200 over the row chopper with a swinging knife. The CH264, CH364 and the CH464 were the first track chopper harvesters.
The last machines created by my father were the 4000, 5000, 6000 and the 6500 track harvesters and then he retired as the 7000 series was being designed. Just before my father passed in May 1988 he helped me to build a cane transporter in the farm shed and worked with me on modifying our harvester. In 1984 he was awarded the Order or Australia (AM) for his outstanding contribution to the mechanization of the harvesting of Sugar Cane.
It was exciting for me to be able to drive and test out the experimental chopper harvesters from our family factory all those years ago. I felt part of the Toft team”. In 1998 Brian commenced work with Centracks and is now employed by the Vanderfield Bundaberg branch in the Spare Parts department. Not surprisingly Brian completes all the inductions on new cane harvesters in the Bundaberg area and offers valuable phone harvester related advice to customers from his bank of experience. He is a power house of information on cane harvesters and can be contacted on 07 4152 2144
Footnote: Sugar cane first arrived on Australian shores in 1788 as part of the cargo of the First Fleet. A fascinating detailed history of the Sugar Industry can be seen (which includes the Toft Bros) at www.sugarmuseum.com.au