A century of farming

ARTHUR Zunker was born in 1912, the same year Bert Hinkler was building and flying gliders on Mon Repos Beach and Bundaberg was back in drought after having been flooded the year before.

Now, having turned 100 in September, Arthur looks back over his century of farming and is amazed at the transformation of the industry.

The second youngest in a family of eight, Arthur comes from pioneer sugar industry stock.

With his grandparents and father working in sugar mills, it was Arthur’s mother, Emille (nee Plath), who instigated the purchase of land for the family to grow cane. Their seven boys, including Arthur, grew up working the land. The family bought property across the district at Sharon, Kalkie, Qunaba and Burnett Heads, until each brother had a place of their own.

“My mother imported the first shipment of potash from Germany in the 1920s to fertilise cane,” Arthur said.

“The response was amazing and saved the cane industry. Straight away everyone was using potash!”

Even now potassium is key to the family’s award-winning productivity.

The Zunkers have access to a supply of dunder from Bundaberg Sugar that they fortify with urea and spray out on their ratoon crops instead of applying bagged fertiliser.

In a lifetime that has seen the industry develop from horse and man-power to the highly mechanised systems of today, Arthur is thrilled with the progress.

“The changes in harvesting have been enormous,” he said. “When I was 50 we were still hand-cutting cane, and the first whole-stick machines did not reduce the workload very much.”

Arthur was instrumental in the design of the first harvesters to cut the cane into billets for loading into in-field haul-out bins, and when the harvesters were able to cut green cane, he was pleased to see an end to cane burning.

Harvesting is now central to the Zunkers’ business, and Arthur’s grandson Richard believes their harvesting contract has been an important part of the family’s ability to remain viable and to grow.

Arthur’s son Joe said that establishing their company Redtrail Pty Ltd was a good way to bring their sons into the business as directors, along with himself and Coral.

“Richard and Craig began working on the family farms and took up the responsibility of managing the harvest operation on our three red-soil farms when they left school,” Joe said.

“In time they started to take on contract harvesting work for other growers, and in 1994 we won the contract for the 1000-hectare harvest of Bundaberg Sugar plantation cane in the Qunaba district.”

“The new harvesters are capable of cutting 80-90 tonnes/hour on a constant basis, using less fuel and time,” Richard said.

“Changing from three single-bin haul-outs to two double-bin (12t) tippers means we can cut a day’s cane that much quicker, giving more time to do farm work or be with our families.”

In 1996 they bought a billet planter for use on their own farm and started contract planting for other growers in 1998. In 2005 they won the contract to plant cane for Bundaberg Sugar in Qunaba and have since concentrated their efforts on this corporate contract.

Another farm, 350ha at Bucca, on the Kolan River west of Bundaberg, was added to the company’s holdings in 2004. Craig takes care of the day-to-day management of this property, including the rotational peanut crop.

Arthur talks over the work plan each morning with Joe and visits the Bucca farm about once a month.

Arthur stepped back from managing the farm in 1985, though he stayed actively involved in farm work, driving tractors and monitoring the flood irrigation blocks until he was 92, when a back injury made it necessary for him to stop work.

He is immensely proud of his successors and is impressed with the advances in the industry. With tissue culture plants and auto-steer tractors and harvesters, Arthur is sure he has seen the ultimate in cane farming technology.

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