Desi Spirit of Woolgoolga
By Khushwant Singh
Nestled in the foothills of Australia’s Great Dividing Range is the valley of CrossMaglen (near Coffs Harbour) where the blueberry farm of 40-year-old Amandeep Sidhu lies. The farm not only produces the finest-quality blueberries but is also an ode to the dynamic nature of the Sikh farmers, who, after having arrived as labourers at sugarcane farms, have swirled around their fortunes to become the most progressive farmers in the area. A humble man, Sidhu, who also runs a radio station under the name Harman Radio, does not limit me to his farm, and drives me to the nearby town of Woolgoolga (aboriginal name) from where it all started — the Sikh conquest of the Australian farmland.
So overbearing is the Sikh stamp in this coastal town that it literally is the fluttering Nishaan Sahib atop the Sikh temple on the Pacific Highway which ushers you to Woolgoolga, also known as the Mecca of Australian Sikhs.
This is the new Sikh temple, points out Amandeep. Half a kilometre later he draws my attention to a residential-looking structure — the first Sikh temple, which was established in 1968.
The date does come as a surprise since Woolgoolga, or Wopi, is said to have become home to Sikh travellers during the World War II. Woolgoolga, however, is not the first Sikh settlement, as the first Sikhs to come to Telia (that’s what it was known as amongst early Punjabi emigrants) were as early as 1898, when they landed in the state of Victoria and registered as hawkers.
Later arrivals, who landed in Victoria and New South Wales and followed the train track to Queensland in search of work on cane farms, are believed to have found jobs on cane and banana farms in Coffs Harbour-Ulmara-Clarence- Woolgoolga area as banana production had gone commercial by that time and there was acute shortage of labour owing to the war.
Soon, we reach the house of the Gills, one of the earliest settlers. Forty-year-old Sat Pal Gill drives us to his farm in Corindi (20 km north), again a blueberry farm. So, where have all the banana farms gone, I ask, as the purpose of my visit was to go bananas.
The new buzzword is blueberry, replies Sat Pal, in his Aussie accent. My heart swells with pride as I listen to the story of the evolution of the Woolgoolga Sikhs — from being mere banana labourers to banana plantation owners to becoming some of the best blueberry farmers. Aman and Sat Pal explain that banana was no longer lucrative. Their geographical location, because of the hilly terrain, served as a disadvantage for them to expand, they said.
“But had our ancestors decided to settle in Queensland, where the land is flat, balle, balle ho jandi,” quips Sat Pal whose wife’s maternal grandfather, Bela Singh of village Banga in Nawanshahr, was one of the earliest folks to have come to Australia. Bela Singh’s son Pritam Singh is one of the earliest exponents of Woolgoolga.
Sat Pal explains the reasons for switching to blueberries in 1999, after the banana economy slid. A shrub with indigo-coloured berries, blueberry is commercially grown on raised beds and is a native of California. With the climate at Coffs Harbour being suitable, the Sikh farmers have not only grown this berry successfully but have marketed it professionally as well. They have formed a cooperative under the name OZberries to market their produce. Consisting mostly of Sikh farmers, the cooperative consisting of 100-odd farmers has managed getting rid of the middleman, and directly markets the produce to super stores in 125 gram packs.
“The economy is pretty good at the moment. But we need to think of new stuff soon, as each economy has a cycle,” says Sat Pal. Amandeep Sidhu invites Sat Pal to visit his farm and see the greenhouses he has set up for tomato and cucumber. It’s the next big thing after blueberries, claims Amandeep.It’s evening and we return to Amandeep’s house where his father, Jarnail Singh, is waiting for us. “Desi ya scotch?” he asks me.
In Woolgoolga-Coffs Harbour, for Punjabi farmers agri technology is the latest, but the spirit is still desi.