Black and white line drawing of a three barns with steel roofs and chimneys in Port Macquarie
Dotted with shops, restaurants and high-rise apartments, it’s hard to imagine the centre of Port Macquarie’s CBD on the New South Wales Mid North Coast is where the first commercial sugarcane crops were grown in Australia. 

President of the Port Macquarie Historical Society Clive Smith said before the plant found its home in Northern New South Wales and Queensland, European settlers believed Port Macquarie could be the perfect area for sugarcane production thanks to its relatively warm climate and easy access to a river system.

“It was recognised very early on that Port Macquarie might have a climate suitable for sugar cane,” he said.

During the first six months of settlement, around November in 1821, seven sugarcane stalks were brought to the region for a crop test. 

“In the space of something like 15 or 16 months that increased to about 7,000 stalks,” Mr Smith said. 

“That was enough to plant out [sugar cane] on acreage.”

First sugar mill begins production

In 1824, a penal settlement sugar plantation was established at Rollands Plains, about 40 kilometres west of Port Macquarie.

PMQ sugarcane mill 2
The first sugar mill was predicted to produce 500 tonnes of sugar and 20,000 gallons — 76,000 litres — of rum in just two years.(Supplied: Port Macquarie Museum)

The site was home to Australia’s first purpose-built sugar mill and produced sugar, molasses and rum.

“A lot of people wanted to get their hands on rum, in fact for the military and the civilian officers in charge of the convicts, rum was part of their rations,” Mr Smith said.

“The convicts were not meant to get any rum.”

The mill was predicted to produce 500 tonnes of sugar and 76,000 litres of rum in just two years.

“It didn’t quite happen, they ended up discovering the weather was a bit more capricious than they had originally thought,” Mr Smith said.

Industry moves north but private growers continue

By 1831, the government farm at Rolland Plains was abandoned, as growers discovered sugar cane preferred a warmer climate like that in Northern New South Wales and Queensland.

“We do get the odd frost [on the Mid North Coast]… Sugar cane doesn’t like that,” Mr Smith said.

A number of commercial private farms were established on the Mid North Coast and continued to operate well into the 1870s.

Man stands next to a large rusted sugar cane crusher, with a mechanical wheel and sloped metal feeder.
Port Macquarie Historical Society president Clive Smith stands next to a 150-year-old sugarcane crusher used on the Muscio brothers’ farm at Sancrox.(ABC Rural: Keely Johnson)

“Many private farms were around the place … the Muscio brothers had [a farm] at Sancrox where they were growing sugar cane and crushing it and producing sugar and molasses and possibly rum,” Mr Smith said.

“But they couldn’t do it on the scale that they discovered that they can do it on the Northern Rivers and up in Queensland where the weather is a lot warmer and kinder for the sugar.”

Today, 95 per cent of Australian sugar is produced in Queensland and about 5 per cent in northern New South Wales, along 2,100 km of coastline between Mossman in far north Queensland and Grafton in northern New South Wales.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, more than 80 per cent of all sugar produced in Australia is exported as bulk raw sugar, making the nation the second-largest raw sugar exporter in the world behind Brazil.

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