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The social consequences of restructured sugarcane harvesting in the Bundaberg region

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posted on 2023-10-27, 00:24 authored by Michael Finemore
This case study of two mill areas in Queensland examines the social consequences of restructured practices in sugarcane production, focusing on harvesting. Two significant 'moments' in the recent history of the industry are identified as drivers of social change. The first is the shift from manual to mechanical harvesting; the second is the more recent introduction of intensified production regimes such as 'continuous crushing' and harvesting rosters. The neo-Marxist (see Goodman and Redclift, 1985) concept of 'subsumption'-the direct and indirect penetration of internal and external capitalist social relations into 'family farming'-is combined with, arguably, the lesser known, and largely untested notion of 'disconnectedness' (van der Ploeg, 1992). Investigation and evaluation of indicators of direct and indirect 'subsumption' and of six types of 'disconnectedness' assists a deeper understanding of social change, not only in sugar cane harvesting, but also in industrialised agriculture in generaL To reconcile these competing theoretical approaches, an integrated neo-structurationist framework is adopted which recognises that structural determinism can be counteracted by recognition that people are able to make strategic decisions and take action to further their interests. Layder's (1998) 'adaptive theory'-a novel conceptual framework that combines inductive and deductive reasoning-underpins the methodological approach. A comparative case study has been applied and qualitative and quantitative methods (focus groups, unstructured interviews and observation and a mailed survey questionnaire) used to collect local empirical data. The survey, using a variant of Dillman's (1978) 'total design method', generated a response rate of about 50 per cent. Several 'occupation categories' relative to harvesting are created from among the respondents-broadening normative understandings of 'farmers' to these three 'ideal types' enables consideration of similarities and differences among them as they are exposed to aspects of subsumption and disconnectedness. An emerging 'class' of 'harvesting contractors' (which includes grower-harvesters and grower-self-harvesters) challenges the assumption that all cane growers harvest their own crops. This has implications for autonomous decision-making (a feature of subsumption), and furthermore, introduces the idea that their levels of involvement ('connectedness') in harvesting are different. Contract harvesting--considered here as a sub-process of farming, augments sugar cane production, but both are controlled (co-ordinated) ultimately to serve the interests of the mills, despite a veneer of 'cooperation' and interdependency. All producers are formally and informally involved in vertically integrated production, via, respectively, industry regulation, and tacit reliance on farmers to make unpaid effort and to be prepared to absorb risks as they continue to provide mill raw material. Analysis shows that about 80 per cent of family farms are harvested under contract. This trend towards the externalisation of mechanical harvesting (and other farm tasks) is associated with the process of subsumption and the production (and reproduction) of one of the 'disconnections' in agriculture. Overall, recognition of externalisation questions the way that the 'family-farming project' is defined. Yet, harvesting is practiced within a 'contested terrain' of interaction that denies any inevitability to either subsumption or disconnected-ness. As a result, subsumption and disconnectedness appear to be relative -- growers only and grower-harvesters are differently subsumed, and occupy different levels of disconnectedness. In general, grower-self-harvesters are the most connected; growers only are the most disconnected. Moreover, grower-harvesters, to some extent, are doubly subsumed as they occupy a harvesting machinery 'treadmill' which growers only manage to avoid. While choosing to relinquish their connectedness, however, growers only manage to avoid subsurnption. The thesis demonstrates that despite some qualification-or 'adaptation'-linking theories of subsumption and disconnectedness allows them to complement each other and thus provide a more comprehensive explanation of the structures and conditions of sugar production.



Central Queensland University

Additional Rights

I hereby grant to Central Queensland University or its agents the right to archive and to make available my thesis or dissertation in whole or in part through Central Queensland University’s Institutional Repository, ACQUIRE, in all forms of media, now or hereafter known. I retain all copyright, including the right to use future works (such as articles or books), all or part of this thesis or dissertation.

Open Access

  • Yes

External Author Affiliations

Faculty of Arts, Health and Sciences;

Era Eligible

  • No


Dr Jim McAllister

Thesis Type

  • Master's by Research Thesis