The Sweet Legacy of Bundaberg's Toft Bros

By: Anthony Wingard

Presented by

The sugar cane harvester factory officially closed 17 years ago, but for those that remember Toft Bros, it’s a memory worth preserving. Anthony Wingard reports.

A Toft Robot 364 Mk2 chopper harbester, built by the Tofts in Bundaberg, will be restored by the Rum City Vintage Machinery Club

For the many who loved the Toft name, 2004 was the end of the affair.

For decades, Toft Bros were the undisputed kings of the sugar cane world and their hometown of Bundaberg became the global epicentre of the cane harvester manufacturing trade.

Nowadays, if one hadn’t lived through the zenith of the Toft years, it’s hard to fathom just how big the Tofts were, especially considering their rise from the banks of the Burnett River to becoming one of the world’s leading manufacturers.

Many hailed the Toft brothers - Colin and Harold – as revolutionaries. Others hailed them as geniuses.

"No single family made a bigger contribution to cane harvesting than the Tofts of Bundaberg," says Bill Kerr, author of They’re all half crazy: 100 years of mechanical cane harvesting.

The sentiments for the Toft family and their brand of cane harvesters and loaders were generous, but those within the industry knew they carried significant truth.

After all, as one newspaper headline from 1970 put it, ‘Toft Brothers Industries’ in Bundaberg can rightly claim to be the world leaders in the field of full track high flotation cane harvesters and transporters’.

The esteem in which Toft Brothers was held, both across the industry and within their local community, meant the closure of the plant was a bitter pill to swallow for those who had witnessed the rise of a local brand which catapulted the rum city into public discourse around the world.

But as sugar prices plummeted at the turn of the millennium – they almost halved between 1997 and 2002 – Toft’s parent company CNH Industrial uprooted the manufacturing plant, relocating its operations to Brazil and causing mass layoffs for staff at the Bundaberg factory.

It’s now been just over 17 years since the Bundaberg factory closed its doors; yet the influence of the Tofts remains, not only in the region but in the sugar cane industry in Australia and across the world.

Tony McGarry, treasurer of the Rum City Vintage Machinery Club, who also worked for the Tofts on the factory floor at Avoca Road, says the influence of the Tofts in the Bundaberg region is paramount.

"They created so much equipment that supported the cane industry in Bundaberg," McGarry says.

"That's why the Tofts were so important."

"It meant a lot to the family too because besides the part of the family which were involved in the harvesting part of it, there were other [Toft] brothers who were involved in farming and other parts of Bundaberg.

"It was quite a large family all they all had something to contribute to the sugar cane industry."

As the final harvester rolled off the floor of the last Australian manufacturer of cane harvesters, one Toft representative put it very simply.

‘It’s really gut-wrenching stuff’.

Toft Bros were among the first sugar cane harvester manufacturers to use hydraulics in their machines, paving the way for their global success

Trailblazers

To illustrate the story of the Tofts is to describe a pair of trailblazers who lived out the Australian dream. Colin and Harold were the youngest of a large and poor family, raised in Bundaberg during the great depression where they worked cutting sugar cane by hand six days a week.

Their first machine, which they built in 1940, was a cable loader fashioned from scrap metals and an old Model T Ford which was put together to help pick up harvested cane bundles in their own paddock.

Their early success led to the Queensland Cane Growers Council commissioning the brothers to develop cane harvesting further, with its General Secretary, Ronald Muir, saying "These people have definitely solved the mechanical harvesting of straight cane."

What followed over the ensuring years was a series of consecutive and calculated machines which propelled the Tofts to the mainstream after Harold and Colin formally established the Toft Bros partnership in 1947.

The Tofts set themselves apart in the scramble to mechanise cane harvesting through their use of hydraulics – the first of which was their hydraulic loader in 1956; developed through Harold’s willingness to push the conventional thinking of that period.

With just one person operating the loader (opposed to three in their initial cable loader), the Tofts were efficient in the field and the only manufacturer who had successfully used hydraulics. As they continued to develop their hydraulics, Harold – the brains behind the machines, and Colin – the marketing guru, soon realised the future of cane harvesting was with chopper harvesters.

McGarry says the Toft name really took off following the release of their first hydraulic chopper harvester.

"When Toft started to get into the chopper harvester business, they said 'no, not this chain business, we'll use hydraulics'," says McGarry.

"They started a revolution.

"Instead of having a chain driver, you had a hydraulic tube with oil in it running a motor and that really made the cane harvester business go on.

"I think they could see there was a need for modernisation in the equipment that was currently available."

An important piece of Australian farming history, the chooper harvester will once again be put back in the field to demonstrate its operation

Boom Times

At their peak in the 1960s and 1970s, there was genuinely no one bigger in the sugar cane realm.

Following the development of their chopper harvester, the first of which – the CH200 – debuted in1968, Toft Brothers Ltd exploded and soon occupied as much as 90 per cent of the world’s market for chopper harvesters.

Their sales boomed from $1.66 million in 1970 to $18.5m in 1975 during that same time period, and such was the demand for Toft product that employee numbers grew from 112 to 759 at the Bundaberg factory.

Bundaberg’s own had gone global.

Toft exported harvesters to every continent on the globe (except Antarctica) and held a client base hailing from over 30 different countries; ranging from Senegal and Angola on Africa’s western coast to Iran and Iraq in the Middle East, and a who’s who of sugar-growing nations across the Americas.

A world map indicating every country where Toft Bros exported sugar cane harversters to from their Bundaberg manufacturing plant in the 1960s and 1970s

Much of the success of the Toft machines was underpinned by their performance across the planet’s varying ecosystems and weather patterns – something which had long been an issue for harvester manufacturers.

Such was the success across different conditions that two of Toft Bros’ biggest clients were an Iranian Government Organisation, which ordered US$17 million of harvesters in 1973, and from the Talisman Sugar Corporation, which used 23 Toft CH464 harvesters to cut over one million tonnes of cane across 1972-73 in central Florida.

The legacy of Toft had been cemented, especially following the launch of the 1000 series which helped propel the brand even further into the consciousness of cane farmers.

In all, more than 3,550 of the 6000 and 7000 series machines were exported from the Bundaberg assembly line in the late 1970s to other sugar producing countries around the world – all built by the Toft Bros’ more than 760 employees – many of whom worked overtime to meet the full order book.

The declining sugar market around the world in the 1980s meant the Toft Bros bounced around a handful of foreign owners before the company was floated on the stock exchange in 1993 where it was purchased by Case IH (CNH Industrial).

The Rum City Vintage Machinery Club has plans to restore this Robot 364 Mk2 once a permanent home for the harvester can be found

Restoration

Today, the Toft legacy remains; perhaps none more so than in Bundaberg where many still harbour a spirited nostalgia for the brothers’ and their global empire.

Few Toft machines of the 1960s and 1970s may still be operating around Australia, and the world, on smaller farming operations, however many have now found their place as restoration projects or in museums.

Such is the case with McGarry and the team at the Rum City Vintage Machinery Club, who were donated a Toft Robot 364 Mk2 chopper harvester – a machine first released in 1970 when Colin and Harold’s company was truly at its peak.

The harvester was donated by Rocky Lerch in 2018 having been used by just two previous owners, Lerch and Bundesen Bros, since it first entered the fields more than half a century ago.

"The plan is to restore it," says McGarry.

"We'll repaint it all, cut away some rust, replace a few hoses on it and reseal a few leaks here and there. But we want to restore it back to a condition."

"We want to demonstrate how it cuts some sugar cane in the field. That's the objective," McGarry says.

Currently, restoration of the 364 Mk2 remains dormant as the club seeks out a permanent building for the machine where they can house it and get more serious on the restoration.

Ideally, McGarry hopes to restore it to a near-original condition where it can be displayed as a museum piece but not before it takes a few more trips to the field.

The brand, however, lives on under CNH Industrial – known as AusToft – with the brand celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2019.

But for many, Toft Bros came to an end when the Bundaberg factory closed in 2004. For them, the Brazilian made machines simply aren’t the same

"Especially initially, the Brazilian AusTofts weren't quite as good as the [Bundaberg made] Toft machines," McGarry says.

"Customer reviews of the machines meant CNH Industrial listened to the farmers and they made changes and upgraded the machines."

Once a world leader and integral part of Australia’s agriculture DNA, the Toft name instead lives on through people like McGarry who remember their importance in the cane industry, who experienced the loaders and harvesters in the field throughout the 20th century and who continue to preserve their legacy through the admiration and restoration of the old yellow Toft machines.

 Australia after all, was the first country in the world to convert entirely to mechanical cane harvesting – a feat that seems impossible without the genius of Harold and Colin Toft.

As Colin said when awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1989, ‘not bad for a farmer boy’.

A modern AusToft machine, manufactered in Brazil

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