She started working the cane fields as a young girl; and more than 40 years later, Judy Cumberbatch is filled with immense pride that she has been part of the industry that was once Barbados’ main income earner.
Last year, Cumberbatch cut and piled 75 tonnes of cane to claim the coveted title of Queen Of The Crop for the 15th time.
“I was in agriculture from the time I was 17 years. I used to work with the canes, helping throw them on for my grandmother to tie in years gone by; and then I start to pile cane.
“Then I was retrieving canes behind a cutter; but then I decided to start and cut canes.
“It’s hard work, but I come along from young and I accustomed to it; my grandparents and them used to do it.
“So long as you have the will and the mind, you will get along. But the sun is hot and then you have the rain. By the mercy of God, that keeps me going day by day.”
The mercy of God and a solid balanced diet helped her work through the heat daily, Cumberbatch told Barbados TODAY.
“On mornings, for my daily food I will get some oat flakes, or I will drink some bay leaf. I will use some vitamins, and I will have my food and drink. And water. You have to drink lots of water because the day does be hot.
“My food is yam, sweet potato, rice, vegetables, chicken or fish.”
It was on one of those extremely hot days that Barbados TODAY met up with Cumberbatch in a cane field in the northern parish of St Lucy, machete in hand, hacking away at the canes.
“Right now, I cutting and piling the canes; and then when it comes to planting time, I will help cut cane plant so the other young crops will come along.”
This year, she is not cutting for a large company, but rather a private landowner on a smaller field. She said while the cane plantations were generally owned by large companies, there were a few small private owners in the business.
“I cutting for some person that have canes, so [as] labour people we help them cut some through the years.
“They had another person besides me, [but] I don’t know what they are doing. They generally have a few men that cut, but I don’t know if they have any this year,” Cumberbatch said.
Like other cane cutters, the St Peter resident lamented the current state of the industry, and reminisced about the earlier days.
“It is different to years gone by, and it is harder now, because in years gone by you used to get the rain and you used to have better crops than what you’re having now. They didn’t have much machinery, you had man labour, but now you have machinery the crops are not as good as years gone by. It depends on how they plant the canes.
“You don’t have the manpower, so you have to use the machinery to help cut the canes. If not you wouldn’t get no reap.”
Cumberbatch also noted that this year’s crop got off to a late start “so they got to try and get the canes cut before the rain come in”.
The 60-year-old said she hoped the sugar industry could be revived, but that would require significant investment by the stakeholders.
“If they want [the sugar industry] to continue, they will have to do a lot of hard work to get it come back. Eventually, they’ll have to work harder and put more labour to help to clean the grounds and what’s not, and replant them properly so that they could get along with it.”
Cumberbatch may be Queen Of The Crop, but she also dabbles in other ventures when she is not in the cane field.
“I have to eat and I have my bills and things to pay, so I have to cut canes or do something else to get an honest day’s work. This year, I pick cotton. I was picking cotton last week, but I here cutting some canes now. Eventually when I done and the cotton still going, I will still help with the cotton.
“Years gone by, I used to do needlework, yes. I [still] do sometimes for myself or for my [grandchildren] if they want anything done,” she said.
She is not sure she would encourage her four grandchildren (one boy and three girls) to get into cane cutting –– it is up to them to make their career decisions, she says.
“It’s an honest day’s work; it hard. But they have to go to school and learn; but I cannot tell them to come and cut canes; they have to decide what they want to do in life for themselves. So they have to make up their minds what they want to do.
“But it’s hard. All work today is hard. Even if you in the office or out in the sun, it’s hard. So they will have to decide what they will like to do when they finish school,” Cumberbatch said.