A trip into the field with 14-times champion crop cutters Judy Cumberbatch and Grantley Hurley is a lesson in the changes of times, and an encyclopedia of knowledge about all things cane.
On an early morning, when the sun is just beginning to show its might, Cumberbatch and Hurley are in the field, swinging choppers high, with the whistle of the blade and the crunch of the trash being the most clearly heard sounds as they scarcely chat in the midst of their job.
Each has been the winner of the King and Queen Of The Crop title 14 times. But the history with sugar cane, for these two northern cutters, goes way further back than that.
Cumberbatch’s journey began at the feet of her grandparents, who used to work “in sugar” at the Cleland Plantation, St Andrew.
“So when I used to done school on evenings, I would run to go see whatever part they were working. Then I used to do work at the garment industry, and after I had my kids, a morning I catch the six o’clock bus and didn’t get home till near nine/ten o’clock that night. So I said, well to get up to catch bus so early in the morning and getting home so late, I can’t do anything for my children, I will stop and work in the plantation because I wouldn’t have to pay any bus fare. So I decide to work in the sugar industry.”
And it has been her chief earner ever since.
“I look forward to the start of the crop because it does give me an earning, so that I able to help support myself and it make me feel good to know that the Lord has blessed me again this year in this harvest.”
Maintaining that her own regime of preparation has not changed over the years, Cumberbatch said she gets up in the morning, mostly before sunrise and does her devotions with prayers of thanks. Then she has breakfast, which can consist of saga oats and vitamins, prepares lunch of rice and peas with chicken or fish, or ground provisions like yam, pumpkin, cassava, okras, and with maybe some dumplings, before heading to the fields for between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.
While her preparation hasn’t changed, the crop sure has.
“It changed a lot, because it start late this year, but years ago it used to start earlier . . . . It’s not like years ago, but it [the industry] still trying to go along as I see it; but they should put a lot more effort in the sugar industry.
“They have to use the technology of today because the young generation of today is not coming into this sugar industry work because it is hard and some of them don’t have any endurance, so you wouldn’t get them coming into this industry. They have to use the mechanical harvester to reap some of the canes because the young people are not going to be able to help cut all these canes,” she said.
The reigning queen said it took a certain amount of determination and will to work in sugar cane.
“[I]t is an honest day’s work . . . . I thank God for giving me the strength and the health. [You have to] care ya body and ya got to eat something, and ya gotta got de mind and de determination and ya got to cut de canes . . . . It was sweet to me for all these years.”
Hurley agreed. Sugar cane is how he too makes his living, and each year, come early or late – though he would rather it start early –– he is always ready. As he puts it, for as long as the Lord gives him strength, this is where he will be.
“It start a little late but I was looking forward to it, and now it start I’m gonna look and see how much I can earn out of it and try to enjoy it as much as I could, as I have the past 14 years.
“The danger in starting the crop so late is that when de crop start late, when it comes to the ratoons, the ratoons take a lot longer to grow, when we don’t have adequate rainfall during the rain period and it cause the canes not to develop. You will find a lot of the canes, as you can see a lot of the fields very short to normal fields.”
His ancestry in cane started with his parents. His father used to grow sugar cane and then would cut the canes to prepare them for the trucks to carry to the factory.
“So I get involved in that from a young age and growing in it, I get to enjoy it and that is how I get to cut cane . . . I’ve been overseas and get to cut cane in Florida. I also enjoyed that too. Then I came back here to Barbados. Before that I had a brother who used to win the King Of The Crop and that is what encourage me to get involved in that after I came back from Florida. I used to cut, but after he come out, I fall in line. He passed away.”
And he’s not bothered by the aches and pains that sometimes still come with the job after all of these years –– though less frequently now. What he absolutely cannot stand though, is the cow itch.
“What really happen, by I accustomed to it from a young age I don’t have that kind of a problem because my body really build to that. So I mean sometimes you get the little aches and pains, but not too much and I don’t know if at this age now how it would be but I enjoy it . . . .
“We have quite a bit of cowitch, too much cow itch. In the older days, the older managers used to pick de cow itch at a certain time of year, even before it pod and when it pod and take it out de fields. Now in this time, you hardly see anybody picking cowitch and de harvesters come and play a big part in spreading cowitch all over the fields. So all the fields now that you see full of cowitch.”
While the scourge is made worse by the harvesters, he does not believe the harvest can survive without the input of technology, especially with so few new young cutters who are even interested in sugar cane harvesting.
“We had quite a few youngsters that come into it and me and Judy we used to encourage them and show them how to do it, and then they continue, but you know they don’t have the endurance like we and they work a week or two and they move out. Some stay and some move out and then they complain about the money that the money ain’t enough. Why de money ain’t enough is because they ain’t able to produce the amount of work that we can produce to make the amount of money,” he explained.
People recognizing them is something they’ve both become accustomed to –– being mini-celebrities each year after the harvest.
“I get a lot of respect. I feel great. Even small kids when they pass they would shout me and say, ‘Hi, King’, and some would ask, ‘Ya gine do it again this year?’ I get a lot of that from the younger folks and even the older folks too. As long as God give me health and strength [I will continue to cut canes].”
And with a diet of saga oats and barley in the mornings and “good old ground provisions” with “good fish and chicken”, who can doubt him?
A typical cane cutting day can start anywhere from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., but if he likes the look of a field and believe he will make a good day’s money from it, he’ll be there at 5:30 a.m., but not without his own morning prayers.
“I would not like them to kill out de sugar industry because it do good for me and it would help a lot of other people. So I would ask them to put a lot of more emphasis on the sugar industry and put some more money into it, into agriculture and get the industry back on track. I know it wouldn’t be like before because the variety of canes now is something completely different to the varieties we used to use before.
“I find most of these varieties could only give you about two crops, whereas the varieties before would give you up to five or six crops. I don’t know if the land tired or what, but the varieties are completely different.”
But nevertheless, these career cane cutters are still at it. And as the sun starts to beat down on this hot morning in Pleasant Hall, St Peter, one can’t help but admire their speed, precision, as they mow through the field. They make it look like an art all of its own.