Meet the families who uprooted their lives to help create Australian cotton’s lasting legacy

In 1859, seeds that would evolve into America’s Civil War were being sown. In the Deep South, slaves still laboured on cotton plantations, bent over in the hot sun.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, the first governor of Queensland, George Bowen, had decided that his state was to become Australia’s cotton heartland.

At the time, Australian cotton — which this year generated a record $4.5 billion — was a mere cottage industry.

“Cotton seed actually came over with the First Fleet,” said Bob Dall’Alba, who has been on the board of Cotton Australia for 34 years.

“The early crops were grown largely around the south-east of Queensland, up into central Queensland and they bumped along, but it wasn’t an easy crop to grow.”

Cotton packed into bales and transported by horse and dray in the early 1920s.(Supplied: Cotton Australia)

As fighting began in America, Britain suddenly needed to look elsewhere for its textile imports — and it turned to Australia.

While America’s internal strife might have given Aussie cotton “a little kick along,” it wasn’t until World War I ended that the industry was able to really get a run on, Mr Dall’Alba said.

“The government of Queensland was bringing soldiers back and looking for a scheme to resettle them on land,” he said.

A grey-haired man stands holding his hands together.
Bob Dall’Alba has been involved in the cotton industry for 35 years.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

The government deemed cotton a good crop for this. The problem it needed to broach, however, was the fact that neither Queensland nor the rest of the country had any infrastructure to support the crop.

“You’ve got to remember cotton was still being picked by hand at this time,” Cotton Australia chief executive Adam Kay said.

“The top cotton picker of the time was around the Emerald area and she could pick 85 pounds of cotton a day.”

A historical photo of a woman picking cotton by hand.
Ms Chown was able to pick nearly 40kg in an eight-hour day.(Supplied: Cotton Australia)

“Now you think about that; 85 pounds is 40 kilograms of cotton — today we’ve got a John Deere machine here that will pick 130 tonnes of cotton a day.”

Then there was the problem of processing the picked cotton.

“At this stage, any of the cotton we were sending to the textile manufacturers in Manchester in the UK was bulky seed cotton; it was really ineffective to transport,” Mr Kay said.

A man inspects cotton laid out on a table.
Frank Manuel from the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Stock grades bales in 1926.(Supplied: Cotton Australia)

And so Queensland Cotton became the first cotton board in Australia to establish a gin, building the first in Rockhampton and another soon after in Ipswich.

This was a century ago in 1922.

And then, with a little help from the Americans, the Australian cotton industry began to get a go on.

A historical picture of a cotton gin.
Inside the first cotton gin at Rockhampton.(Supplied: Cotton Australia)

Some of those Americans included Daniel Kahl’s grandparents.

“My father’s family were based in California and my father was the fifth generation to be born into farming there,” he said.

“My grandfather, Paul, had been a bomber pilot in WWII and had spent a couple of years as a guest of the Germans in a prisoner-of-war camp.

“He had returned to the farm there in California and was getting a bit restless.”

Two men stand next to a tractor.
Neighbours in California and at Wee Waa — Paul Kahl and Frank Hadley.(Supplied: Daniel Kahl)

That’s when Paul Kahl happened across a paper written by Australian plant breeder Nick Derera that made the case for cotton Down Under.

And so Kahl and neighbour Frank Hadley crossed the Pacific to have a look.

They arrived in 1960, upon Derera’s recommendation, at Wee Waa, a small rural town in north-west New South Wales “full of flies and snakes and some pretty interesting living conditions”.

“Despite this, they called their wives back home and said, ‘You better start packing, we just bought a farm in Australia’,” Daniel Kahl said.

A black and white photo of three men looking at cotton plants.
Nick Derera, Paul Kahl and Frank Hadley inspect an early cotton crop at Wee Waa.(Supplied: Daniel Kahl)

The Americans brought more than just their families to Wee Waa; they brought irrigation.

“The first pump arrived to extract river water for the crop and the guys who have the machinery dealership in town said to my grandfather, ‘We can bring it out to you, but you’ll have to show us how to set it up’,” Mr Kahl said.

And they did. By 1962 around 1,200 onlookers tore up the road between Wee Waa and Glencoe to witness the first irrigated cotton harvest many of them had seen.

“The gravel road between our driveway was sort of littered with the shattered windscreens of vehicles that had been copping rocks to the windshield, there were that many cars on it.”

A black and white photo of a cotton-picking machine.
Early mechanised pickers could only pick one or two rows at a time — now they can pick six.(Supplied: Cotton Australia)

Alan Brimblecombe, who by that time had been farming cotton for a decade at Forest Hill in southern Queensland, was one such onlooker.

On his farm, Moira, they’d been early adopters of innovation, owning one of the first mechanised cotton pickers in the country.

“But when we started, there was very little knowledge of irrigated cotton and when the Americans first arrived in Wee Waa, we compared notes with them,” Mr Brimblecombe said.

More than 80 years on, the Brimblecombe family still grows cotton at Forest Hill — and it is now all irrigated.

Three men stand in a cotton field.
Three generations of cotton farmers — Linton, Alan and Mitch Brimblecombe — at Forest Hill.(Supplied: Mitch Brimblecombe)

Alan Brimblecombe cannot believe the leaps and bounds the industry has made.

“If you had have told me when I was a young man that we would be growing cotton like we do today, with the huge yields and small water use, I wouldn’t have believed you.

“A lot of that needs to be credited to the work of plant breeders, many of whom worked between the southern states and the Ord [River] in Western Australia. They really allowed us to succeed.”

A cotton field at Ord River in the Kimberley region, Western Australia.
Cotton-growing techniques have evolved over the decades.(ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)

Daniel Kahl attributes a lot of the knowledge sharing that allowed the cotton industry to boom to the “social differences between American and Australian societies”.

“Americans are really good at saying, ‘Hey, look at this thing I can do really well’.

“I think that’s probably filtered through a little bit into the cotton industry.

“We’re happy to share knowledge with our neighbour, because it doesn’t matter to me how well they go, their success isn’t going to prevent mine.”

A man stands in a cotton field.
Daniel Kahl still grows cotton on the family’s original farm at Wee Waa.(Supplied: Cotton Australia)

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