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Reeves Sugarcane

Photo by Ted O'Donnell


Interview with – Christine Reeves of The Reeves Family Sugarcane farm.

Located on the Clarence River in northern NSW, The Reeves Family Sugarcane farm is established in the world’s southernmost sugarcane growing region. Rich in natural resource and agricultural history, the area is unique in that for many farms, the cane is transported to the Harwood mill by car ferry. The Reeves family has been farming the region for five generations and as part of the Sunshine Sugar co-op, they sustainably work the land that’s very much loved by every family in the area.

“It was grandfather Edward Henry Reeves, that started the family farming business.”

Originally dairy farmers, The Reeves family began sugarcane farming in the late 1950s. My husband Robert worked firstly in manual sugarcane cutting gangs, while also working the family farm with his father Cecil and brother Roger. Back in the early days, the gangs would harvest the crop by hand, then load it onto horse drawn carts bound for the river. When they progressed to a tractor mounted haul mechanism, the cutters were able to increase their cutting yield, but it also meant that there was no relief from the heavy work. It’s quite different now and transportation is by truck, but it’s still very labour intensive.

“For us, having a family business has worked beautifully.”

It has been a shared commitment that really came together for us, the whole family has been involved. When Robert and Roger took over the family farm from their retiring father, they formed the perfect team. Complementing each other’s skill sets, it was an incredibly harmonious working relationship. At one stage our two families even lived in the original big family house together.

“We’re locally grown and produced.”

There wouldn’t be a sugar industry in NSW without the milling co-op, we all work together here. The entire sugarcane farming community collaborate and support each other across all aspects of the business. From harvesting that spans May until December, to transportation, milling, refining and marketing, we’re a strong team.

“Cane farmers as a species are very creative.”

We are a resourceful lot, turning sugarcane waste matter into ethanol, fuelling the co-op’s mills with the sugarcane fibres and the ‘mud’ residue makes for an excellent soil fertiliser. NSW boasts one of the most efficient harvesting systems in the sugarcane world. You know, it was actually Australian sugarcane farmers that invented the world’s sugar harvesters.

“The climate is always a gamble here, it’s the greatest unknown.”

You can purchase land that on paper looks to be a fantastic investment, but weather can change all of that in a couple of seasons. For us ironically, when most of the country is hoping for rain, we have far too much of it. This really affects the crop and in fact, the entire region’s output.

“We believe in promoting awareness of primary industry for both locals and tourists.”

It’s important for the general public to know the origins of their food, simple things like where milk is from, you’d be surprised by what people ask. We get a real kick out of showing people around the area, not just the sugar farm, but also dairy farming. International tourists are fascinated for the novelty, children for the education and for the older generations, it triggers memories of their youth. They reminisce on simpler times, when food provenance was a clear path for all produce.

“We have a wonderful life.”

For all the unpredictability, we wouldn’t change a thing. We love it here, it’s the land, the cycle of the seasons, our neighbours, the whole community. Robert is 77 years old now and doesn’t want to give up working. Everybody tells us we’re mad, but Robert says, “What, just sit down and do nothing?” Friends say, you’ll find things to do and he replies “I’m happy with what I’m doing now, thanks!” We both are. Our children and grandchildren love coming to stay, it’s so special to be able to share all of this with them. The little ones burst in wanting to help with farm jobs like checking the crop, feeding the animals, even fencing, it’s such a joy.