Rainforests and the timber industry have been major influences on life on the Tableland since the very early days of the Eropean settlement. One of the first explorers of the area, William Hann, wrote rather despairingly of scrub everywhere, there was not the ghost of a chance of finding a track to thread these mazes, and to endeavour to penetrate them would have been madness. However, just 12 years later, cedar cutters were working the Tableland scrubs providing timber for the major tin mining operations that had developed at Herberton.
Value of cedar for cabinet making was recognised but the immediate problems of development and the feeling that the rainforest supplies were inexhaustible, meant that the prized cedar was used for everything from house frames to roof shingles.
Initially timber getting was limited by local demand, but by the time the railway had reached Atherton in 1904, a major export trade for Red Cedar logs had developed. Freight records from 1904 show that the timber railed from the Upper Barron area accounted for 90% by weight of all goods loaded at the Atherton and mareeba stations. The logs were often so large that they had to be split by dynamite in order to pass through the railway tunnels en route to Cairns. Those days of rapid development were also the days of great destruction. Today, there are only a handful of red cedar trees still growing on the Tableland.
Maize - the traditional industry
Extensive fields of majestic green maize provide one of the most memorable sights for visitors to the Atherton Tablelands during the summer months.
This crop, which provided the basis of the Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilizations in South and Central America, also sustained early settlers of Atherton and surrounding towns, and has continued to this day to provide income for the maintenance of the community.
GC Bolton, a noted historian, write in his book A Thousand Miles Away (1972) that maize production on the Atherton Tableland was commenced to provide feed for the horses, mules and bullocks used in the mining industries which grew up around the Herberton and Irvinebank in the 1880s, and in the canefields on the coast.
Early attempts failed because of a blight but by 1890, there were over 400 hectares of maize under cultivation near Atherton. After the initial efforts by European landowners, it was the Chinese who found a secure living in maize cultivation. Bolton relates that as many as 300 Chinese farmers grew the crop in an area extending several miles from the centre of mazlins Pocket, the settlement which became Atherton.
Rainforest timbers were exploited on the Tableland in the early 1880s, which meant the early maize crops had to be painstakingly hand planted to avoid the remaining stumps after timber falling operations. The Chinese temperament was well suited to such meticulous work, and to the informal marketing of grain which pertained in those early days. The Chinese maize farmers have disappeared from the scene but the importance of their work in laying the foundations of the maize industry, and the significance of that industry to the establishment of Atherton as a permanent settlement should not be overlooked.
The Tableland is still the centre of the northern peanut industry which today, grows one third of Australias total peanut crop of 67,000 tonnes.
In years gone by, peanut growing was labour intensive too. Pioneer farmers cultivated and harvested their peanuts almost entirely by hand and their returns were meagre. Things have changed through technology and returns are great.
Because the northern area embraces a great range of soil types, farmers are growing the favourite nut in shell variety Virginia Bunch, the smaller Red Spanish and high oil content, White Spanish. There are more varieties grown than this today. The farmers have equipped themselves with the best machinery they can buy to plant, pull and harvest their crop and to dry it to a maximum of 12.5% moisture content on their farms. Until just recently, there were storage silos located in the town of Tolga which were used for storing over 3,500 tonnes of peanuts.
Before WWII, potatoes were grown on the Tableland in a very small way. In the years following the war, the potato industry continued to expand, however it wasnt until 1949 that any attempt was made to organise a local industry. Since then, potato farmers have increased and the crops are successfully grown and sold all around the world.
Avocado growing developed very quickly in the mid 1970s. 20 landowners gambled their labour and capital by planting 10,000 trees in 2 years, although no more than a handful existed previously. There was no previous history of fruit growing in the area except for garden trees, and none of the 20 landowners had grown this fruit before, most not even being farmers.
Now we are the second largest growing district after nambour and possibly the third largest in Australia following Alstonville in New South Wales. Trees here begin cropping in the 3rd year compared to 4 or 5 elsewhere and our fruit ripen 2 to 4 weeks earlier than the same varieties elsewhere.
Most orchards are to be found in the Tolga - Kairi - Walkamin triangle but substantial areas have been planted at malanda, Yungaburra and even Evelyn at 4000 feet altitude, and Topaz with a 200 inch rainfall. The main flowering season is August to September and fruit set is helped by the number of large insects attracted to the trees. Picking generally begins in march but care is taken to see that the oil content is adequate and that the early fruit are palatable. Fuerte are picked first, followed by the Sharwil and Hass varieties.
Once picked, the fruit are cleaned, graded for quality and size, packed and usually consigned to southern capital cities. Most of the larger growers have their own packing houses on site.
While it cant be said that the Tableland is alive to the bleating of Angora goats, it certainly is one of the popular farming industries with great rewards, although as with any high profit venture, it is not without its hazards. Many years ago, the Australian interest in Angoras lay with a few eccentrics but not so today. It is no longer a hobby farming venture but a million dollar industry.
Right here on the Tableland, the Sultan Angora Mohair Stud was formed on the shores of Lake Tinaroo by the Baxter Gavin family from Africa. They brought stock together from the pioneers and with an exceptional buck from the South, they bred unique and high quality Angoras. Angoras require similar care to sheep. Drenching, dipping, vaccinating and shearing twice yearly. Scrub ticks are also a great problem and during the dangerous period of the year, the goats are dipped twice weekly.
The great bulk of the Australian Angora clip is sold for processing to Europe and Japan. The Sultan Stud aimed at encouraging a cottage industry on the Tableland so that mohair will be cleaned and scoured before being handspun and finally knitted or woven into beautiful articles and clothing, and rugs and carpets for which the fibre has become so famous and sought after.
The commercial growing of flowers on the Atherton Tableland was started more than 30 years ago, but it wasnt until Gloria and Rod Hawes commenced growing Gladioli in a small way on their farm in Tolga, that the industry found its true beginning.
Today there are more than 10 full time growers of cut flowers for the florist trade. The main flowers grown are roses, chrysanthemums, carnations and gladioli and all have proven themselves to be acceptable for production on a 12 month basis.