Driving up through the North East side of the Australian landmass you will either see fields and fields of cattle or fields and fields of sugar cane. Being quite partial to the end products of both, I thought to delve a little deeper into the sugar cane and came to the satisfactory conclusion that we all need to drink more rum! Picture 1 shows it's all about tasting the end products from the mill!
Rum is one of the many products that come from the incredibly clever sugar cane plant. It is a huge industry, although Cyclone Debbie earlier this year did its best to quell it's production. Newspaper reports put the damage to the industry as over $150 million (£91m) over a 300km stretch of Australia. However, the damage caused is principally that it leaves the fields in a mess and not flattened, and hence the crop is not destroyed, merely that it is difficult to collect and harvest.
Queensland has an ideal climate for the sugar cane industry, lots of sunshine (av 300 days/yr) but lots of rain in the wet summer seasons. From recent figures 35 million tons of the stuff is grown per year. But what makes it so special, and was exciting finding out during the course of my 'research', is that with this plant there is literally no waste.
It is a clever little plant with two 'eyes' in a 20cm piece of cane that allow its roots to shoot to the surface irrespective of whether it is face down or upright in the soil. This makes planting very quick as the roots always grow to the light. It grows very quickly too, but the farmers have to work hard to get this product out. The growing season is 6 months only and in that time one HUGE operation has to take place. It is all hands to the pump with the sugar cane mills working 24/7 for 6 months. The other 6 months the plant is closed for maintenance, refurbishment and staff holidays!
Cane is planted in about March, then harvested from June onwards, a day after the crop has been burnt. A cane field burn is not something seen everyday, as it is now only carried out in one part of Queensland. There are arguments for and against, but against seems to be winning on environmental and health issues. Where a burn is not carried out, the green waste from the cane is used to cover the fields and decompose, protecting the soil and providing nutrients. However, we were told that a burn makes harvesting easier as a lot of waste is burnt off, and it makes the sugar sweeter!
So we were privileged to see a burn, the night before the cane was to be harvested.(Pictures 2 and 3). The farmer, or the contractor, sets fire to the crop on 3 sides , dependent on the prevailing wind (Picture 4). The area to be burnt has a channel cut between it and neighbouring crops (Picture 5). As the fire starts it draws heat from the fire on the other side of the field, creating an intense heat (Picture 6). Once the fire gets going the noise, and flames, intensify dramatically (Picture 7) and the spectators watch intensely (Picture 8). Then, as if nothing has happened it is over, the fire dissipates and the water engine goes around the area burned, spraying water at base level (Picture 9).
The cane is then ready to be harvested early next morning (Picture 10), which is an awesome sight to behold. The Harvester (which looks like something out of 'Mad Max', Picture 11) cuts and harvests the crop, putting it into two cane baskets on the back of a truck (Picture 12) which, when full, takes the full baskets, about 5 tonnes each, to the railway siding and off-loads onto the cane train so, that as an empty train basket comes off another full one is put on the railway line for the 'cane train' to take to the sugar mill. Each 'basket' has a unique number (Picture 13) so that when it gets to the mill (there are 24 sugar mills in Australia) it can be identified to the farmer that has supplied the product and who, in turn, can be paid. The farmer is duly paid by the sugar content and also on the tonnage of the cane supplied to the mill. These cane trains (Picture 14) run on narrow gauge lines and a diesel engine pulls a load of 'Cane baskets' along a track at the end of a farmers fields, across roads (Picture 15) and farms to the local mill (there are pretty big fields by the way; to be viable a farmer would have to have a farm over 200 acres!). I am still trying to work out how this is all co-ordinated! Not so very long ago this was collected manually, weighing only up to about a tonne, on a wooden cart (Picture 16). Some 4 million tonnes of the raw sugar is produced from this every year in over 4000 farms. As the farmer is paid on sugar content it usually means they plant new crops every 5 years, even though the cane will regrow for up to 10 years in some parts.
However, it doesn't stop there! Once the cane has been collected at the mill (Picture 17) it is then turned, via various processes, to produce ethanol for fuel, disposable products, shopping bags, food for cattle, construction material in road tar, flour, and Toyota even use sugar cane in the dashboards of some of their vehicles, but more importantly RUM!! Once these very complicated processes are completed, my eyes glossed over as this bit was explained to me, the end products of the process, what we would call simply waste, or the mushed up fibre from crushing the cane, is then used by the mills for producing their own electricity and the other by-products as fertiliser for the farmers. So the farmers get fertiliser back (free) from the mills where it is spread all over the fields and the process starts again.The farmers only pay a 50% share of the transport cost. The mills generate electricity and the excess is passed onto the power stations. Brilliant, no waste!
It has taken years to get to this point as many changes have occurred in the Industry but, with improved machinery, this has led to an improvement in production and whilst pests such as rats, snakes and beetles remain quite a problem for the farmers, big heavy machinery makes it easier, and safer, for them to produce the crop. 3000 cane toads were introduced to Queensland in 1935 to get rid of the beetles but they, themselves, are now an environmental problem!
So, when we were shown round the Bundaberg Rum distillery in Bundaberg (Picture 18) we were mightly impressed! Bundaberg rum (or 'Bundy' as it it is affectionately known) is only found outside Australia where there are Aussie expat communities. It only exports 4% of its production, of which 3% of that goes to New Zealand. A significant proportion then goes to Bali and other Aussie holiday destinations. I am delighted to confirm that the remaining 96% stays with the happy rum drinkers of Australia plus a couple of new converts! The distillery is very much a major part of the town of Bundaberg and so, when floods occurred earlier this decade, special rums were produced for those affected. The rums were named after the flooded roads and the 'specials' can be seen in their display cabinet (Picture 19). So, if had I been living in 'Robert Street' (Picture 20), I would be the proud owner of at least one bottle! The distillery is a fine example of a Community run business, although with far reaching National status. It is big business too, some $3billion of product is held at the Distillery most of the time.
The distillery has now gone beyond rum and produces beautiful liqueurs and a range of non alcoholic drinks (apparently, haven't tried them yet - lol!)
So, all in all one has to say what a great product! You can ask your friends when you next sip your rum and coke - "Did you know there is no waste in the production of this glass of very nice rum?" I will leave it to you to bore your friends with the details!!
So, enjoy the end product and keep an eye out for Bundy rum on your travels!
Cheers and don't forget, "Drink more rum"!!!