WEDNESDAY WOMAN: Queen of the crop cut out for field work
FOR YEARS, she ruled the hills and fields of Barbados “cutting sugar cane till it bun [she] hand”.
Now 75-year-old Ernetha Phillips sits and reminisces on those plantation days, like the time when the rain drenched her from head to toe, and the broiling hot sun served as a dryer for the clothes on her back.
But there was a rainbow at the end of it all for the St Lucy matriarch. She won the National Cultural Foundation’s Queen Of The Crop title in 1978, 1987, 1988, 1992 and 1993 and placed second in 1989, 1990, 1991.
Phillips said that she was the woman to make the most money cutting cane – that was back in 1975 – and at that time the title was not split between the sexes.
Only one prize was given.
It seemed as though it was a calling for the young woman to end up on the plantation. She started in the fields after she left school at 13 years old. Though her father wanted her to be a seamstress, her mind was made up that she was going into the field to work. She also supplemented her income by rearing poultry, pigs, sheep and cows. She spent a total of 50 years in agriculture: 42 on the plantation and eight on small farms.
She recalled when the “cane was nice, big and long”.
“I would have to cut it three times at least before I got to the cane top, but they are small and bony now,” she said. Her cane was always clean – no trash, she added.
The veteran agriculturist worked at Mount Gay, Bourbon and Bromefield plantations in St Lucy, and at Colleton and Rock Hall, St Peter.
“Everybody would try to work for the most money and cut the most cane. You used to have to work real hard. You had to work for the most money in the island to get that title (Queen Of The Crop). You work to how you feel – if I get there early I get there early; if I stay late I stay late,” she told the MIDWEEK NATION from her home in Mount View, St Lucy.
Phillips stopped cutting cane in 1995 but continued working on the plantations planting slip, corn, nuts and yam. She also worked her own land. She formally retired in 2008.
Ernetha Phillips reflecting on the 1992 photograph of her as Queen of the Crop with Governor General Dame Nita Barrow (right in picture) and champion cane-cutter Carlise Drakes at a Crop Over event at the National Stadium.
She was very knowledgeable on when to plant and when to reap. She said everyone would say that when she planted anything, it just grew well. She, however, confessed that she had no special secret or green thumb; it was her spirit.
“Everybody wanted to know what day I was planting because everybody would tell me that I had the blessing, and when we plant on the same day, I harvest before all of them.”
She said back then there were many more women in the field.
“There were options – needlework, cooking and domestic – but I liked the field work,” Phillips recalled with a chuckle.
“I left school at 13 because it was only my mother one taking care of us. My father said he would send me to needlework but cutting cloth looked so hard to do that I say I will take up a basket and hoe. I rather work in the sun; weeding grass easier than cutting cloth,” she said.
She initially didn’t work cutting cane, but in 1966 a man took her to Mount Gay plantation “to tie cane while he cut, but he was getting paid double”. She did that for a few years before she decided to start cutting her own cane.
“Also, when the machine come in with the loader, cutters just heap the cane and it would pick it up, so I started cutting in earnest.”
She said while her children were the first to benefit from the bountiful harvests, they never took to the land, several acres of which she owns in St Lucy.
Ernetha Phillips receiving her Barbados Service Medal insignia from Prime Minister Freundel Stuart at the recently held ceremony at Government House.
“They are now out of cultivation. The land is there to be subdivided between the five of them.”
As she reflected on the years spent on the plantations, Phillips said it made her “feel very good”. It was something she loved.
Some said the long hours she put in would kill her. But her retort was: “Once you working hard and you eat good, you does be all right.”
She said her family was always able to eat fresh produce from the land she cultivated, while some of it was sold. Her husband, who worked at Mount Gay Distilleries, would help her in the family land on his off days.
“I pick 25-pound pumpkins and some of the biggest nuts ever grown in Barbados.
“Young people run from the sun and do not want to play up in the dirt, but I used to be in the sun and the rain come down and I get soak, but I never used to be sick. It is only now I does be bothered with anything,” she said.
Phillips was recently presented with a Barbados Service Medal as part of the National Independence Honours as the island marked 50 years of Independence.
“I was not looking for it. I knew that a lot of people were going to be sending in applications and I was not sure about me,” recalled Phillips, who said it was a cousin who nominated her.
She said she had received awards from several other organisations, including a Beacon Of The North Award from the St Lucy Parish Independence Committee.
The memories remain rich with Phillips now. She has several photographs of the years she was crowned Queen Of The Crop, but the photo taken in 1992 of her with then Governor General Dame Nita Barrow at the National Stadium is one of her favourites. It is displayed prominently in her living room. (LK)