Rise and fall of state’s forgotten crop

THE farms at Redlands and Arundel grew it. So did properties at Lachlan, even as far south as Margate and Tinderbox. But Bushy Park and the area lined by the fold of the Derwent River called Macquarie Plains was where tobacco had its brief and profitable ascendance in Tasmanian history.

Grown alongside hops, the Derwent Valley was fertile territory for tobacco. It was the 1930s, and the Federal Government introduced a high tariff on imported tobacco leaf to create a growing boom during the Great Depression. Manufacturers were also required to use a set amount to stimulate local production. By the time of tobacco’s peak between 1931 to 1936, farms around Bushy Park were producing substantial crops. Diaries kept by the Hume family at Arundel, for instance, show the farm had between 30 and 50 acres in tobacco.

The Mercury newspaper reports that in 1937, some 75,000 pounds (35,000 kilos) of tobacco leaf of ‘marketable quality’ was produced in the Derwent Valley. A further 25,000 pounds came from other areas including Scottsdale, Westbury, Edith Creek and Margate. (A recent ABC online story notes the 100,000 pounds of Tasmanian tobacco leaf pales in comparison to the 20 million pounds imported in 1937.) Curiously, tobacco had been first grown in Tasmania a century before.

There are reports of small-scale production in 1820 in Tinderbox, apparently for local consumption. Although grown alongside the dominant hop, tobacco is more often compared with a cabbage, with which it shares similarities of leaf. Processing was much like that of hops. Cut while green, the tobacco leaf was tied onto a pole (often called ‘sticks’) of some five to six feet (1500mm to 1800mm) in length. Placed in a kiln in the same way as hops – and often in the same kilns – the leaf was dried over furnace fanned heat. But tobacco’s rise as a cash crop was shortlived in Tasmania.

It wasn’t the usual bugbears of farm production, overproduction or over-regulation, but a fungus known as blue mould. The plant pathogen emerged in Australia before becoming a scourge of the tobacco farmer across the world. By the early 1940s, the Derwent Valley’s tobacco crop had gone. Today, if you know where to look and who to ask, a few of the original tobacco kilns still remain in and around the Derwent Valley. And Australia’s commercial production of the crop ceased five years ago.