Smoke: the legacy of tobacco in rural Victoria

Go (or end) up in smoke:
a. to be burnt up completely.
b. to have no solid result; end or disappear without coming to anything.



The capital letters are painted on in contrasting white and blue on boarded up doorways to three identical cottage-like structures. Each cottage has an elongated smokestack across the centre of the roof. The stripes on the corrugated iron walls contrast sharply against the cloudless blue sky and dry grass that surrounds them.

The cottages are tobacco kilns but their chimneys are empty of the fragrant smoke of drying leaf. The scene, not live, but a photograph hung on the wall of a holiday rental studio on the main street of Myrtleford, in the Alpine Shire of rural Victoria. It is surrounded by other pictures that hint of the town (and tobacco’s) Italian heritage – approximately 1 in 5 people in the district identify as being of Italian descent.

I wonder how many visitors passing through this room know the story of the Australian tobacco industry and the particular strands of history that led to its closure in October 2006. Clues to its legacy are scattered throughout the area: the photo on my rented wall; an odd metallic commemorative sculpture next to the public toilets visible from my window; the ‘Golden Leaf Motel’ a short walk away, and the aforementioned tobacco kilns at intervals along the roads leading out of town. Some kilns are falling down, others have been repurposed for storage and other uses, including a fairly upmarket cafe along the recently completed bicycle ‘rail trail’. Just recently, a rogue young tobacco plant was spotted by the local vet, Andrew Colson, defiantly growing among pasture. It’s a lonely survivor of the pesticides applied to every legal tobacco field after all the licenses were bought out and cancelled overnight more than ten years ago.

Tobacco is what has brought me to Myrtleford, to follow-up researcher Dr Sophie Cartwright’s doctoral work completed in 2012. Carried out during the industry’s final years, Dr Cartwright focused on the factors leading to widespread tax evasion through the sale of illegal tobacco or ‘chop-chop’. Her research showed how procedural injustice and the legal trade’s uneven flow of benefits between farmers, manufacturers and government lead to deep grievance, anger and defiance among the community. And so, I want to know: how has the township navigated the changes wrought by globalisation, free trade, public-health regulation and the nation state’s contradictory and militant need to protect revenue from the one of the few legal vices left to us: cigarettes? What now occupies the paddocks? And what on earth has become of that most Australian of rural livelihood symbolisers – the big ciggie?

At least from the outside, Myrtleford has had a remarkable recovery. The town features in lifestyle and holiday spreads, which spruik the region’s growing credentials as a glamorous food and wine destination. This is, of course, why there is a perfectly appointed studio for rent in the main street, complete with pictures of the by-gone days. It was almost the last rental available in town: this weekend is the Myrtleford Festival. Rebranded from the Tobacco, Timber and Hops Festival, it used to be a celebration of the region’s three key products and activities – smoking, chopping and drinking. Of these, only hops has escaped the condemnation of the tourists the town is hoping to capture during the annual festival: wilderness and clean air are now arguably some of the region’s biggest drawcards, so chopping and smoking have been tidily tucked away.


Smokyhazy; darkened or begrimed with smoke.

The 2008 Victorian Department of Primary Industries report ‘Agricultural Resources in North East Victoria’ vaguely describes ‘declining profit margins’ as the presumptive cause of the tobacco closure. Reading it, I imagine farmers across the country snorting as they mentally rehearse the escalating costs and dwindling prices of every commodity from apples to zucchinis. Tobacco is hardly unique in this.

Tobacco was an unusual crop in other ways, though. High returns on small acreages, for instance: locals never involved in the industry can tell you that several families could make a decent living on a place the size of a paddock for the outback stations in Queensland and Western Australia. Share-farming was common, with farmers aided by a sizeable population of seasonal pickers. The crop also offered a decent period between harvest and planting, where you could skip off for several months on holidays – either ‘up north’ or ‘back home’, depending on your ethnic heritage.

Tobacco farmers were not, however, immune to the growing pressure on prices as imports grew. The point of difference was the enormous discrepancy between the money being collected by farmers, compared to that being collected by the federal government through the tobacco excise and the multinational manufacturers.

Here too, suburban and farm-based residents alike can still tell you the rough figures for a bale of tobacco at the ‘farm gate’ (between $5-800), the excise collected by the government for that same bale (~$25 000), the price the bale would retail for as cigarettes (~$200 000), and, finally, the price that you could receive for selling tax-free tobacco or ‘chop chop’ (~$5000). The incentives were, as someone drily remarked, ‘massive’.

Most people around here, when you mention the word ‘chop chop’, laugh about it. But it was serious … The Australian Federal Police, the ATO and the Victorian Police were pulling up all sorts of cars, and some local people were beginning to wonder ‘well, when’s this harassment going to finish’. You know, it was, ‘we need to get out of this!’ Well, it wasn’t going to disappear whilst you had people pursuing cheap access to tobacco. And you know there were some terrible things, like… shots fired through police windscreens, all sorts of things were going on. It was a bit like the Wild West up here.

Wild West or not, some estimate the cash economy at the height of the chop chop era at one million dollars annually. It’s a small sum on a national scale, but enough for a town of just over 3000 people to have three car dealerships, several clothes stores, a dedicated travel agent and monthly bespoke jewellery sales in the thousands of dollars.

The memories of a lucrative and companionable agricultural livelihood that still offered time for leisure are writ large in the Myrtleford imagination. All other unusual elements of high cash flow in a rural town are now attributable to tourists rather than organised crime, the car dealerships long gone, the jeweller now sending her wares to Melbourne. Indeed, criminal elements seem to have largely melted away. When the local police force was featured in a sector magazine recently, the most exciting thing that had happened in recent times was the confiscation of a ‘motorised esky’ being ridden on the wrong side of the road.


Smoke[see also] fumigate.

Even as the ‘Myrtleford mafia’, as one resident put it, was dissipating, other remnants of the industry persisted, albeit invisible to the human eye. Pesticides residue, even from chemicals banned for almost 40 years, is still detectable in the soil and waterways.

The tobacco plant is fragile. To kill all the things that are trying to kill it meant a rigorous regime, keeping the plant alive at an unknown cost to human and ecosystem health. A long-term local recalls:

There were 6 or 8 different types of treatments that you gave plants and they all seemed to end in CIDE. Like, from infancy. From the plant’s infancy. And then even in the seed bed, the fumigation with the benzene to kill the blue mould. Like that was going on for years …at school back in the 70s you’d have kids disappear at lunchtime and you’d know where they’d go: they were going home, they’d meet their grandparents in their Roman sandals and still in their school uniform and they’d go up and down the rows of small tobacco seedlings with a tobacco stick – just like a garden stake – with a Milo tin on the end of it with perforations underneath and a mixture inside a bit like porridge … but it was laced [with] arsenate of lead, you know. And the kids and the elderly would walk along and give a little shake – a dust – to each plant to prevent caterpillar attack at the small stage. And then you’d have aerial flights of aeroplanes, small planes with an incredibly oily substance which was like a suckercide – it killed the sucker flowers at the top of the plant. All in the air. Ultimately all of this is on your arms and your hands. In about 20 years time there’s going to be a major piece of work based on medical evidence about what that industry did to a lot of people. There are a lot of people my age who haven’t got there – I’m 72 and they didn’t get there.

While whispers of a regional cancer cluster in both humans and their pets remain speculative, the legacy of the chemicals in the soil put an end to a number of alternative livelihoods tried by landholders after the tobacco closure. Cattle, emus, alpacas, deer and ostriches were touted as options. Emus, in particular, were promising as their oil was collecting high prices as a beauty product in Europe. Fat-testing, however, showed that pesticide concentrations were ‘sky-high’, and would never make it through strict EU import controls. Even now, a decade on, much of the former tobacco land still lies fallow.

Of course, tobacco continues to be grown, and sprayed, elsewhere on the planet. More than one person commented that they would prefer Australia’s regulation, mistakes and delays and all, over ‘whatever it is’ put on crops in other places. By the time Australia’s industry wound up in 2006, 90% of the world’s tobacco fields were already concentrated in poorer countries. Now, as with so much else in our supply chain, the problems of keeping plants and the farmers that grow them safe and in good health, are out of our hands.


Smoke out:
a. to drive out by means of smoke, as an animal from its hole or a person from a hiding place.
b. to force into public view or knowledge.

Industry closures leaving legacies of toxic waste is a common tale in rural Australia. Factories and mines alike leave vast tracts of land uninhabitable even as they leave families without breadwinners. The cascading consequences for small economies is always significant. Myrtleford was no exception. It was ‘disastrous’, ‘devastating’, and ‘really bad’. Small businesses folded, the seasonal work force disappeared, and outmigration, particularly of younger people, increased dramatically. I had expected these bitter memories to be tempered somewhat by the burgeoning tourist trade, and to a certain extent they were.

What I had not expected was the emotional fallout of an industrial dispute in Myrtleford’s secondary industry – the ‘timber’ of the renamed festival – and its complex relationship to the ghosts of the tobacco closure. The local ply mill, employing just under 200 people, had locked-out the entirety of its workforce for ten weeks following union rejection of a new enterprise agreement in Autumn 2017. Industrial disputes at sawmills are not unusual: the union was dealing with two other very similar situations in Victoria alone. What was extraordinary in Myrtleford was the level of trauma, anxiety, fear and divisive hostility generated:

But yeah, I think the ten weeks that was going on, that really shook the place up here, and made people realise ‘if we lose this we are really going to be in strife.’ We recovered last time, but these guys out there, they’re just stacking ply wood. The skill level’s not necessarily all that high. So we would lose a lot of families I think, if that closed. A lot of them are young people. It could be very serious. It traumatised the whole place, you know. People were saying well this is a taste of what it might be. And if that’s the case: phwoar.

People speak of divisions in families that had yet to be healed, more than one year on. Another oddity was that many speak of the ‘strike’, rather than the ‘lock out’, which seemed to be a key distinction. Sympathy, to my inner-city ear, was decidedly with the mill owner: ‘Sometimes, you’ve got to be realistic …you’ve gotta let ’em take their profits’. This was despite the fact that on top of reportedly several years of less than CPI pay increases, management was also trying to move the factory’s annual shutdown from Christmas to February, a decidedly ungodly move in a town of Catholics of Italian descent.

Those whose empathy lay with the union shrugged in resignation about their fellow townspeople, saying: ‘They didn’t know [anything] … and didn’t want to know because all they wanted was for the mill to be open again.’ This did eventually happen: in June 2017, workers voted to accept the agreement, and work recommenced. For how long, nobody knows, and rumours of the mill’s closure still run rife. The tension remains, as does the feeling that the feudal system is to a certain extent alive and well in the Australia’s mono-industrial towns.

The poignant question at the heart of Sophie Cartwright’s research was

whether ‘disempowerment, disillusionment and loss of dignity is inevitable for small rural communities that experience vital industry closures through forces beyond their control, be they environmental, economic, political or technological?’. To this we must add: and how long does this loss stay in the psyche of communities, and affect their ability to manage stresses, recover from disruption and create an independent future for themselves?


Smokesomething unsubstantial, evanescent …

Myrtleford is perhaps on the cusp of the ‘post-industrial’ future faced by so many of Australia’s small rural towns in the past three decades. As pointed out by CFMEU officials, mill wages ain’t great but they are better, and better enforced, than service sector work. Hospitality is particularly notorious, and as far as I could ascertain United Voice, the sector’s union, is not operating in the area.

Resistance against characterising Myrtleford as a ‘tourist town’ was strong and consistent among the people I spoke to. Such towns were contrasted unfavourably as ‘transient’, as opposed to community-driven. Even so, the main street in Myrtleford is peppered with restaurants and cafes, and most days of the week out-of-towners in cycle gear cluster at outdoor tables.

Most eateries cater to city tastes. Reclaim, a wine-bar and cafe that dates almost exactly from the start of the industrial dispute at the mill, has swings instead of seats at the front of the bar. The decor and staff self-consciously wouldn’t look out of place in Marrickville, Fitzroy or Braddon; the coffee is impeccably and swiftly served.

Here, then, a tension between where the jobs and economic activities are, and where long-term residents would ideally like them to be. The determined search for agricultural alternatives – again, farmers and non-farmers alike can rattle off a comprehensive list of things that have been tried, and that mostly failed. Does the choice then become between leaving or accepting the casualised, low-status and seasonal work of the tourism sector? And can the locals see a useful role for government, in helping to navigate the post-industrial world?


Smokea column of smoke, especially one used as a signal: they rested and sent up a smoke.

Perhaps the most striking result from Sophie Cartwright’s original research was the pulsating resentment and anger expressed by the tobacco farmers to the government of the day. Curious to know whether these attitudes persisted, and were shared by the townsfolk more generally, I asked whether they too ‘couldn’t be bothered’ with the government, and to what extent they trusted their elected representatives. Disdain and contempt were fairly universal, with locals saying ‘I don’t think anyone trusts government’ and ‘it just always seems that everyone’s arguing, no-one gives a hoot about the overall picture’. Few, however, linked this to the government’s role in the tobacco closure, more often claiming ‘that’s everywhere. Not just here.’ Even so, people had a pained awareness of being outside the focus of attention: ‘I don’t think they know we exist out here cos nothing comes our way, nothing at all’, said a volunteer at the local tourism information office.

Almost everyone I spoke with talked candidly about the benefits that had accrued to Myrtleford’s ‘Indi’ electorate since electing the Independent Cathy McGowan to parliament (and now Helen Haines): ‘she’s been able to achieve some things that we mightn’t have got otherwise because it was always perceived as a very safe seat for the powers that be, but it’s no longer the case. And that’s very good for us’, said one retiree. Connecting these material outcomes – money for a hospital, new mobile phone towers, for example – with the characteristic of being an untrustworthy voter, was explicit: ‘I’d like to see us become a swinging – ah, what do you call it – because it’s the only way to get anything done.’ Country people have long seen the latent capital that can be cashed in through their new strategy of unreliability.

Rural people all over Australia are bitterly aware that the it can be hard for their regions to come to the attention of the nation state except when they threaten the security of a politician’s livelihood through errant voting. This is a great democratic blindspot: the tyranny of the urban majority. The wily strategy of the untrustworthy electorate is likely to be only the first stage in protests coming from those who supply much of the food, water and raw materials flowing into our cities.

What is specific to Myrtleford is tobacco: the immigrants who came for it and because of it; its agrochemical profile; the money it brought; and the difficulty of replacing it. These are the smoke stains that persist in the town’s character, biochemistry and built landscape. What is general is the sense of abandonment, the resentment and the justified grievances of small towns dotted all over the country.


Smoking ceremonyan Aboriginal cleansing ritual in which green leaves from local plants are burnt creating smoke which is said to cleanse and heal the area; often used to prepare a site for a new purpose, or after a death to remove spirits.

In Myrtleford, the decisions of yesterday live on in the landscape of today. Bodies, minds, buildings, fields, forests and rivers bear the scars of celebrating ‘drinkin’, smokin’ and choppin’ as core colonial activities. And as with most human settlements in Australia, evidence of masculine participation in offshore military engagements is far more obvious than traces – acknowledgements, commemorations, celebrations – of First Nation peoples. Lest we forget. If you know what to look for, you will notice the two ‘big trees’ – the only mature River Red Gums left on the streets of Myrtleford. Once a meeting place for Traditional Owners, now a living reminder of just how much has been lost forever.

But the micro-critters in the local rivers are multiplying, according to a recent study published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. The local Landcare group, with the help of the school, is replanting denuded hills with local species. Long-established residents and newbies alike are experimenting with new livelihoods and finding success: just recently my inner-city food cooperative announced they were stocking Myrtleford’s chocolate-covered pepitas, and local onion seeds are finding their way to Japan. An innovative and popular Aboriginal language program in nearby Bright, and the tireless work of local elders has meant increasing visibility and groundbreaking inter-Nation treaties for the Dhudhuroa and Waywarru nations, and the hope of land rights justice. Every last person I talk to cherishes their small community and its physical beauty, and speaks positively of the future.

The big ciggie, like the industry that inspired it, has disappeared. Perhaps the small rogue tobacco plant, alive, both resilient and at risk, not of here, but hoping to make a home among the native grasses and introduced phalaris species nonetheless, is a better symbol of the Myrtleford to come.


All anecdotes, comparisons and figures are from interviews with Myrtleford residents, unless otherwise stated. My sincere gratitude for everyone who spent time with me, your generosity in sharing your stories is greatly appreciated. All definitions from the Macquarie Dictionary Online.


Image: Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Deb Cleland

Deb Cleland is a contract academic, currently working on how individuals and institutions can build social capital to improve regulation, quality of life and citizen engagement at RegNet, ANU. Combining her background in human ecology and interest in creative-research approaches, Deb is working out how to create playful pathways to participation as well as how to best incorporate dreadful alliteration into website biographies. She blogs on occasion at One fish to fish and tweets from @debisda. When not making ends meet through working in higher education, you can watch her perform (usually for free) as an acrobat with the aerial dance troupe SolcoAcro or the arts group Distaffik Collective in and around her home town of Canberra, Australia.

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