When you come to Norfolk Island and see an economy based on tourism, it is hard to imagine that just on 100 years ago, this community was just taking the first tentative steps out of a way of life based on subsistence farming and barter. With more frequent contact with the outside world, possibilities opened up to increase agricultural production and export the abundant local vegetables and fruit. Over the years, lemon seed, passionfruit pulp, oranges, bananas, coffee beans, pineseed and palm seed were sent to markets in Australia and New Zealand, though many of these ventures were shortlived. Norfolk growers faced obstacles such as trade embargoes, shipping delays, fluctuating prices, and poor communications. Locally, there were many years when poor seasons, pests and diseases, and the lack of equipment brought frustration and disappointment.
By about 1930, however, there was one crop which seemed to hold more promise as a reliable earner, and that was French Bean Seed. The Norfolk Island Times in October 1933 reported that over 3000 bushells of bean seed had been exported that year, compared to 800 bushells the year before. The growers knew they were on a winner. The equable local climate and the well-drained soils provided ideal conditions for the crop, while Norfolk’s isolation proved to be a bonus in that it gave the seed something of a ‘quarantine’ status. The Norfolk product quickly found enthusiastic acceptance in the mainland markets.
Over ensuing decades, more and more tracts of land were turned over to beans. In some parts of the island, particularly in the Steele’s Point and Duncombe Bay areas, it was like one giant plantation. Those whose holdings were too small grew other flower and vegetable seeds, such as gerberas, marigolds and carrots. In 1936, experimental plots were planted out at the school at Middlegate, testing for variables such as planting distances and fertiliser rates. The project was somewhat affected by wind damage, but growers were thirsty for advice as to how they could maximise the return on their efforts.
In 1935, a building was erected at Middlegate, built by Mr George Bailey and his team of workers. Initially known as ‘The Fruit Shed’, it was used to store oranges and bananas awaiting export, and at times held salt and whale meal fertiliser. It was soon taken over to fumigate then store the bean crop waiting for shipping.
By 1949, the Bean Seed Ordinance was instated, which is an indication of the efforts made to protect the valuable industry. Mr R.D. Wilson, a plant pathologist, was appointed to supervise the growing of the next season’s crop and to monitor it carefully for any disease. He spent several weeks on the island and made several recommendations, such as only certified seed was to be imported and used, even for home vegetable gardens. Wilson recommended the use of DDT to prevent the bean weevil, replacing the carbon bi-sulphide used previously. He also suggested other crops that could be used in rotation with the twice-yearly bean crops. One final and lasting recommendation was that there should be an embargo on the importation of fresh fruit and vegetables for better control of disease and insect pests – a ban that remains to this day!
Wilson confirmed that the island was ideal for growing beans, and that yields per acre were higher than in NSW, but he also noted that production per man hour was less because of the smaller plots and lack of machinery. Growers were encouraged to investigate the possibilities of using seed cleaning machinery to make production more efficient.
The Bean Seed Ordinance established a system of grading and certification, authorised a Government appointed Agricultural Officer to seize and destroy diseased plants and seed, and decreed that any new varieties should be grown in isolation until their integrity was established. Miss Marie Bailey, who filled the position of Agricultural Officer for a period, recalls that she would inspect each crop twice during the growing season, walking between every fourth row to check for problems such as Halo Blight or Anthracnose. Agents for Seed companies visited regularly, and were ferried around to make inspections and to negotiate contracts and prices.
Names such as ‘Brown Beauty’, ‘Hawkesbury Wonder’, ‘Wellington Wonder’ and ‘Windsor Longpod’ held promise of rich rewards, and when the weather was kind, that was what happened. However, if you speak to anyone today of their memories of those days, all will speak of the hard work, and the frustrations involved. The quail population of the island greatly enjoyed this readily available supply of food at ground level, and some growers actually planted rows on the perimeter of their fields to distract them from the main crop!
Usually, there were two harvests each year, one in August and the other around Christmas and January. The second crop in particular was prone to longer periods of dry, followed by soggy rains and humidity, resulting in fungus and mildew, and a very poor yield. They called it Bean Seed Weather. Everyone dreaded it, and each season, the pressure was on to bring in the seed before it struck.
When the time to pull the beans came round, everyone helped. Neighbours, relatives, houseguests, and even visitors who showed an interest all found themselves recruited to the workforce. Harvest days took on a holiday atmosphere, and indeed, many children were excused from school to help bring the beans in while the weather was fine. A picnic lunch would be packed, and family groups by the truckload would gather to get the job done.
The dry plants would be pulled whole. Scrim or hessian would be laid on the soft earth, and truck wheels would run to and fro over the piles of plants to help separate the dried beans from the foliage. The next stage was the winnowing. This was best achieved near a cliff edge. The beans would be stirred around in a kerosene drum and dropped from a height on the tray of the truck onto hessian below, allowing the breeze to blow away the debris. Some groups of growers formed co-operatives to buy threshing machinery, speeding up this time consuming task.
Depite the hard work, many of today’s older Norfolkers have happy memories of harvest times, because there would be opportunities to spend time in the paddocks with cousins and friends, to climb trees and swing on vines. Sometimes in the afternoon, everyone would stop for a game of rounders.
The sorting of the seed was also a communal affair. Family, friends and neighbours would sit around large kitchen tables and young and old would be given their own containers to separate the undersized, damaged or weevilly seeds from the good ones, often by the light of kerosene lanterns There would be a degree of camaraderie, and exchange of stories and gossip, and sometimes the talk would turn to how the bean seed payment would be spent. Much would be allocated to pay overdue bills or fund household repairs, but sometimes there would be dreams of new outfits, or even a trip to the mainland.
Families who lacked the ground to plant seed were often able to sort for bigger growers on a commission basis. The bonus was that the rejected seed was kept for the cooking pot. For most islanders at the time, the drudgery of the tasks associated with the preparation of the seed was exceeded only by the monotony of a steady diet of beans in both their green and dried form. A dish of beans was sometimes called, ‘Cascade Meat.’ One schoolteacher on the island in the 1960’s complained that his landlady packed green bean sandwiches for his lunch every day! Dried beans cooked slowly on fuel stoves all day, ready for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and sometimes all three! Creative housewives attempted to overcome the blandness with the addition of cream, or onions or tomatoes. Sometimes they were curried or made into fritters. Most agree that they were best eaten when cooked with pork or bacon. Those who complained were reminded that it was good nutritious protein.
The income from the seed enabled a better standard of living in a community that was moving away from a subsistence economy. It is said that one man promised his family a trip to Paris one year, but that dream never eventuated, because the weather turned bad, and the crop was spoiled. The industry had a strong impact on family and community life, and Norfolkers think back on those days with mixed feelings.
“It was hard work,” says one lady. “Even on Christmas Day, I remember having to help Dad pick beans. You were always worrying that the weather would stay fine long enough to finish the harvest. Then you really held your breath when they tested your seed for quality and viability, hoping that it had passed muster.”
The final stage of the processing was the fumigation and packing. Insecticides safer than DDT came into use, but today, folk grimace when they recall the way the powder was tossed around so freely. Masks were rarely worn because, ironically, dangerous levels of the chemicals could only be detected by the smell! At that late stage, the most important priority was that the seed leave the island in good condition, and personal safety was not a priority. The tension was not over until the sacks were safely on their way to the mainland. Shipping delays caused great anxiety and on a number of occasions, negotiations would be carried out with vessels sailing in the area to make a special call to collect the precious cargo so the growers could keep faith with the seed companies.
The year 1964 was a turning point. The crop looked promising, and people were already anticipating a generous payment cheque, and planning how it would be spent. Just before harvest, the fog rolled in, the rain fell, and the beans began sprouting on the vines! It was Bean Seed Weather at its worst! The resulting shortage of certified Norfolk Island seed provided an opportunity for New South Wales growers to step in to fill the gap in the market. Some local growers persevered on a smaller scale for just a few more years, but by the early 1970’s, production had ceased.
Norfolkers, long accustomed to cycles of boom and bust, were now looking to the possibilities offered by a burgeoning tourist industry, providing sources of income that were far less stressful and labour intensive. Acreage that for many years had been dedicated to bean cultivation now returned to bush, while other areas produced a greater variety of vegetables to satisfy increasing numbers of visitors. Some former plots became building sites for tourist accommodation, or houses for the many newcomers who had come to take advantage of the expanding employment and business activity.
A few growers continued to produce flower seeds for export, and even today, sales of palm and pine seed provide a cash bonus for many families. It was however obvious that Norfolk Island had now ceased to be a centre for rural production, and the Government appointed Agricultural Officer was out of a job.
The old Bean Shed still stands prominently on the corner of the crossroads at Middlegate, and has an almost iconic status. Over the years it has filled a variety of roles – as a home for a food co-operative, and for a variety of activities such as judo, gymnastics and dancing. Its most notable use, however, was as a second polling station at election times, and the ‘Bean Shed count’ was always believed to represent the traditional Islander vote.
In 1996, the shed was extensively renovated and repaired and made part of the adjacent Central School. At the official opening of the new complex, Mr Greg Quintal Snr. reflected on the Bean Seed era, and the “labour intensive and heartbreaking problems” that had been experienced in the early days. Nearly half a century later, the building contains classrooms and staff offices, but is still known as ‘The Bean Shed’.
Time has inevitably moved on, though on days when humidity descends on the island, dense fog drapes Mount Pitt, and the mists roll over the paddocks – you will still hear older Norfolkers talk about “typical Bean Seed weather.”
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 04 Issue 01, 2014. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.