The Harvest

Martyn Morrissey, the owner of Shear Power Contracting who we work for, arrived on site the other day to check up on his workers.

His company finds people to work out here on the farms and at the moment, with the cotton harvest in full swing, he is very busy but that didn’t stop him bundling us into his car to take us with him as he done the rounds of Koramba Farm and the neighbouring farm over the road, Batavia.

He has 14 backpackers staying in the old shearer’s quarters on the Koramba property but they work at Batavia.

The kitchen has swallows nesting, bird droppings everywhere. It has been cleaned but not up to my standard.

The kitchen has swallows nesting, bird droppings everywhere. It has been cleaned but not up to my standard.

Toby, the General Manager of Koramba is happy to let Phil, the owner of Batavia, house his workers there but Phil has to provide everything they need to live.

The old shearer’s quarters are very basic indeed; Kerrie won’t even step inside them, but it seems the backpackers are willing to live there for a while in order to get the work on offer.

While out doing the rounds Martyn decided to take us to where the Cotton Pickers were working. This was an event we had looked forward to for weeks but hadn’t been able to experience as yet.

With the start of harvesting the whole farm went into a sort of overdrive.

In fact the whole area is alive. It’s completely transformed from a peaceful, sleepy farming area to a frenetic hive of activity as crop dusting planes work furiously on all the neighbouring farms and truck after truck rolls by the camp night and day with their massive loads of cotton bound for Koramba’s gin.

The workers have been doing long hours and the shift times are starting and finishing all over the clock. We have some working night shift, some from midday till midnight, and others midnight to midday. Some start at 6:00am so need to be feed by 5:30 while others start at 7:00am.

Throw into the equation the complete re organisation of the kitchen, new suppliers and ordering systems and our efforts to rebuild the Catering Programme for Martyn and get it on the cloud before we leave (we were unsuccessful at this) and we just haven’t had the opportunity before now to see the harvest in action.

So off we went with Martyn and the first thing that impacted us was the dramatic change in the appearance of the farm. We’ve seen it transform from a sea of green fields as far as the eye can see to a sea of white as the cotton bols released the precious load of cotton within.

We have watched the whole process from green bushes to harvest paddocks.

We have watched the whole process from green bushes to harvest paddocks.

Now, after nurturing the healthy bushes for a year the opposite was happening. They are effectively killing the plants.

Day after day and well into the night the crop dusting planes droned overhead, landing and taking off at the farm’s own airstrip, with their countless loads of chemical that is spread over the cotton as the planes fly literally a few feet above the tops of the plants. The object is to make the cotton bushes shed their leaves and to do it in a precisely timed way so that each paddock contains a crop of bushes with no leaves and exposed cotton one after the other. Not too soon as the cotton will drop off the plants onto the ground before the pickers can get to it thus rendering it useless. Not too late so the million dollar pickers and the labour force will not be held up waiting.

They fly literally inches from the crop.

They fly literally inches from the crop.

Most of the paddocks nearest the camp had already been harvested and what was left was just neatly furrowed rows of soil where a couple of weeks earlier large thick plants had grown.

The cotton had been plucked from the dying plant, devoid of leaves, the root cutters and side busters had ripped up and cut the remaining plant material until all evidence of the cotton plants was buried into the soil to rot down into nitrogen that will assist in the next crop, soon to be planted.

The fields were a hive of activity with tractors working everywhere and the farm utes scurrying here and there as the supervisors and mechanic rushed to keep things going while the bright yellow crop duster planes sped at breakneck sped inches above the ground over the fields that were still green.

Everywhere around these barren paddocks were row upon row of huge cotton bales, tightly wrapped in yellow plastic, all placed in precise
positions awaiting the farm trucks or Chain Beds, to come along, load them 5 at a time and cart them to the gin for storage whilst awaiting processing. There are thousands of them. By the time harvesting is complete they will have harvested and carted 45,000 of these huge bales to the gin.

Occasionally we would come upon a pile of cotton that had been dumped as a plastic wrap had split and the workers would be picking it up with front end loaders and packing it into the old module makers to salvage it.

Loading the cotton into the old module for packing after the bale was torn.

Loading spilled cotton into the old module for packing after a bale was torn open.

Eventually we came to the field that the cotton pickers were working in.

Here they were, four of them working the one field, enormous green machines full of technology and innovation that can only be described as the work of genius.

We watched in fascination as the four machines moved along the rows of white cotton, stripping it with a simple but ingenious system of augers that grabbed the soft white balls and separated them from the plant. What was left behind the machines was a plant stripped almost bare with just a few straggly bits and pieces of cotton still clinging stubbornly to the plant.

4 Pickers removing the cotton row after row.

4 Pickers removing the cotton row after row.

Inside the huge bodies of each of the pickers the unseen technology was compressing the stripped cotton into the huge round bales and wrapping them tightly in the yellow plastic that was now a central visual theme across the farm.

With their computer programmed artificial intelligence, each machine would sense when it had arrived at the end of a row and would automatically open its rear door and gently drop out a completed compressed and wrapped bale. It did not stop to do this; it just slowed itself down a bit but still stripped cotton and carried right on making the bales while holding the completed one till just the right position in the paddock.

The machines would hold a bale until the end of the row while creating another one inside then drop them off at the end of the rows.

The machines would hold a bale until the end of the row while creating another one inside then drop them off at the end of the rows.

It took only 10 minutes to cut a swathe through the white cotton up and back down the paddock and with 4 machines to a paddock it would be easy to imagine the machines passing over a couple of hundred acres a day. They have over 10,000 acres to harvest.

As the pickers picked, two tractors worked speeding down the paddock to pick up the completed bales one at a time. They would reverse up to a bale and with a magnificently simple apparatus that consisted of a hydraulic arm and a wheel, they would gently roll the bales onto a platform behind the tractor and while the arm and the wheel held the bale firmly in place they would speed to the end of the paddock and place the bale in a row that had to be perfectly straight in readiness for the truck and chain bed to come and load them. The big Kenworth semi and the chain bed works 24 hours a day non stop and there is an older Mack truck in readiness as a spare if the Kenworth breaks down.

Each bale is over 2.5 ton and is higher than a man. These two tractors race trying to keep up with the pickers.

Each bale is over 2.5 ton and is higher than a man. These two tractors race trying to keep up with the pickers.

Dave the supervisor saw us near the paddock and promptly dropped what he was doing to come over. He called up Soong, who stays in the camp and operates one of the pickers and told him to stop at the end of the paddock to pick up a passenger. Kerrie jumped up on the enormous machine and took of across the sea of white cotton with Soong giving her a running commentary on exactly what was happening.

Like everything else "size is hugh". See Soong standing beside the yellow bale. He was out to change a plastic roll over.

Everything at Koramba Farm is big. Soong is standing beside the cotton bale. He was out to change a plastic roll over.

 

Chris going for his ride with Mark on one of the pickers.

Chris going for his ride with Mark on one of the pickers.

Dave also called Mark on one of the other machines and I was able to climb aboard with this great bloke who gave me a crystal clear commentary on exactly what was happening as he drove the leviathan over the paddock. Sitting in a comfortable seat in cool air conditioning we were positioned right over the huge prongs that gather the plants together as the cotton is stripped off.

The sensors would even know where the rows where and align correctly.

Sensors know where the rows are and and align the pickers correctly.

Mark explained how the on board computers told him exactly what was happening to every part of the operation as the cotton was stripped at a remarkable rate and blown via large air tubes up into the body of the machine. Videos allowed us to see the tons of cotton rapidly filling the bin and then being compressed and wrapped.

As the machine passed over the field sensors at the bottom of each prong ensured that the prongs remained at just the right distance above the ground. The video showed the door opening to the rear of the machine and the huge bale being nudged gently out as if in a birthing action. Automatically the door closed and without missing a beat the huge machine continued.

Computers telling the driver whats happening in the back as well as video monitors incase there is a fire.

Computers tell the driver whats happening in the back and video monitors scan a fire breakout.

How wonderful it was to experience this. How special to be in a place where everywhere we went, no matter how busy a person was we were met with smiles and waves. The willingness to go out of their way to give us this first hand experience of the cotton harvest was quite overwhelming.

For days after, both of us were still silently pondering the experience of those wonderful machines and the people in them and all who were
associated with every phase of the operation.

Martyn was going to take us over to Batavia where his fourteen backers were working. They are using the older harvesters there that make the big square cotton modules and require 3 or 4 times as many workers. He wanted to show us the massive difference in the two forms of harvesting. Unfortunately time had crept up on us and we needed to get back to get dinner going. We never did see the old harvesting process in action. Martyn did takeus over to Batavia later in the week but they were not harvesting that day.

We’ve been so blessed to have been out here at this time and to have seen the farm go through so many stages.