Isis Mill builds facility to cater to Maryborough cane

A $2.5 million Federal Government grant will boost the sugarcane industry allowing cane from Maryborough and further afield to be processed at the Isis Central Sugar Mill.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack said the funding will be used to build a transloader facility in Childers to transport sugarcane from Maryborough, Gympie and the Sunshine Coast.

“The closure of the Maryborough Sugar Mill left a number of growers in the region in limbo,” the Deputy Prime Minister said.

“An agreement with Isis Central Sugar Mill, which is being finalised, means that cane will now be crushed, however, infrastructure is required in order to get the sugarcane to the Isis Mill.”

“The $2.5 million Community Development Grant will go towards the construction of a transloader to offload the cane. It will then be taken by rail to the Isis Mill.”

Federal Member for Hinkler Keith Pitt said he had been a strong advocate for the sugar industry.

“The Federal Government has provided $6.2 million in funding to Isis Central Sugar Mill in recent years: $5 million to construct 36km of cane railway track from Cordalba to Wallaville and $1.2 million for the Gayndah Regional Irrigation Development project,” Mr Pitt said.

“It’s unfortunate the Queensland State Labor Government hasn’t shown the sugarcane industry any support, in what is ultimately, a transport issue.

“It’s growers and workers at Maryborough Sugar Mill, in the Member for Maryborough – who is also the Assistant Minister for Regional Roads – electorate, who are effected by the mill closure and the State Government still has done nothing.

“The Federal Government have been doing the heavy lifting right through the Covid pandemic, and continues to, with the State Government refusing to assist in getting the sugarcane from Maryborough, Gympie and the Sunshine Coast to Isis Mill.”

Isis Mill matches funding amount

Isis Central Sugar Mill chief executive officer John Gorringe said the Federal Government’s $2.5 million in funding would be matched by the Isis Mill.

“We’re very grateful to the Federal Government and our local Federal Member Keith Pitt for continuing to support the Isis Central Sugar Mill,” he said.

Almost an additional 600,000 tonnes of cane is expected to be transported from the Maryborough Mill and surrounding areas for crushing at Isis.

“The transloader facility, which we expect to have operational before the crushing season starts, will allow Isis Mill to take cane from Maryborough and surrounding areas.”

Preliminary excavation works are currently underway to accommodate a tramline extension to the transloader facility which will be located near the Childers QFRS building and Industrial Estate off Goodwood Road.

The work involves construction of a spur line where the current Isis Mill rail line crosses the Bruce Highway south of Childers.

The Isis Central Sugar Mill crushed just short of 809,000 tonnes in the 2020 season which again was impacted by prolonged dry conditions.

MSF Sugar’s Maryborough mill closes down

MSF Sugar’s Maryborough mill has crushed its last cane with the company announcing it was decommissioning the facility.

Instead, contracted sugar cane will be crushed elsewhere from 2021.

The decision comes after Rural Funds Management purchased 5409 hectares of MSF Sugar’s cane growing land in the district earlier this year, with a view to replanting with macadamia nuts.

Canegrowers Maryborough chairman Jeff Atkinson said while the news was disappointing, an agreement between MSF and Isis Central Sugar Mill was advanced for the cane to instead be processed at Childers.

“MSF Sugar has a responsibility to ensure growers are not disadvantaged and that arrangements are made to satisfy its obligations under our current Cane Supply Agreement with the company,” Mr Atkinson said.

“We remain confident that there is a bright future for growing sugar cane in the Maryborough region, and we will engage constructively to ensure that happens.”

Sugar mills crush out for 2020

More than 29 million tonnes of sugar cane has been crushed in Queensland this year with the season set to close this week.

The last bins will be tipped at Mackay Sugar’s Farleigh, Marian and Racecourse mills, signalling an end to the 2020 season.

While weather conditions have varied across growing regions, impacting total yield, this year’s production is up slightly on the 28.4 million tonnes crushed in 2019.

In North Queensland, the last of Wilmar’s eight mills crushed out at the end of November, despite a rain delayed start to the season.

Victoria Mill in the Herbert region processed the last bin of cane on November 29, several hours after the last cane went through the rollers at nearby Macknade Mill.

Wilmar general manager operations Mike McLeod said Wilmar processed 14.925 million tonnes of sugar cane this year, to manufacture more than two million tonnes of raw sugar.

“Our total throughput was slightly down on pre-season estimates due to dry conditions in three of our four milling regions,” Mr McLeod said.

“The Herbert was the exception. The crop grew on from in-season rain and the total volume crushed in the Herbert was 90,000 tonnes above the original estimate.”

Mr McLeod paid tribute to growers, harvesting contractors and Wilmar employees for getting this year’s crop off, despite rain delays and challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Herbert, 4.25m/t was crushed with an average CCS of 13.2 units. The Burdekin mills processed 7.9m/t (CCS 14.61), Proserpine crushed 1.54m/t (CCS 14.35) and Plane Creek crushed 1.23m/t (CCS 14.23).

Further north, Tully Sugar’s mill crushed out on December 3, after a wet start to the season.

Canegrowers Tully deputy chairman Jamie Dore said just over 2.46m/t of cane had been crushed, which was equivalent to the 10-year average for the region.

“It was very wet at the start and very dry at the finish,” Mr Dore said.

“It was pretty good all round with a lot of crop variability, which was weather related.

“Some had good rain and had good tonnages, and some were well below average in southern areas like Kennedy and Bilyana where the dry affected the crop.”

Mr Dore said CCS averaged 12.96 and the mill had performed well during the season.

In the Far North, the grower owned Mossman Mill finished their second season running operations after buying the facility back from Mackay Sugar in 2019.

Far Northern Milling director Maryann Salvetti said their 70 growers from the Mossman and Tablelands region had provided over 800,000 tonnes of cane, with the season ending on October 23.

“The weather was very kind to us, the crop was down a little bit mainly because of the dry early in the season on the coast where they don’t have the ability to irrigate, but overall it was a good season,” Ms Salvetti said.

After 82 years, Mackay’s Bonaventura family harvest the last cane field

As his cane fields went up in flames for the final time, Mackay councillor Laurence Bonaventura reflected on 82 years of his family’s farming legacy.

“It’s a bit of a sad occasion, but it’s about knowing when is a good time, and I believe this is the time to finish cane growing,” Cr Bonaventura said.

As a councillor for the Mackay region, he has decided to retire as a farmer and focus full-time on his other commitments.

Cr Bonaventura’s family arrived in Australia in 1914 by recommendation of a relative, who said there was “good money in the sugar industry, as long as you’re prepared to work hard”.

His grandfather and father bought several neighbouring blocks, where they cleared land, planted cane and expanded their production.

Over the years, the Bonaventuras have witnessed big changes in the industry.

“When my grandfather came out and started cutting cane, it was originally green, then burning cane became popular,” Cr Bonaventura said.

“So then we went to burnt cane, first cut by hand and then by harvester.”

“Then in the 1980s and 1990s we went from burnt cane back to green cane harvesting with modern machinery.”

Celebrating the last harvest

To celebrate the momentous occasion, Cr Bonaventura decided to invite friends and family to witness one final cane fire before harvesting the crop.Celebrating 75 yearsCelebrating 75 years of Rural reporting.Read more

“I was overwhelmed by the response of people who came,” he said.

“To have those people share the final event with me, and go down the next day to watch the harvester cut that final bit of cane, it helps with that changeover.”

While the Bonaventuras will no longer grow cane on the block, the country is now being leased and will continue to supply cane to the local mill.

“I think I’m doing my father proud that the land he cleared will continue to supply cane to the mill,” Cr Bonaventura said.

“It was very emotional, not so much on the day because I had plenty of friends around to keep my spirits up.

“But the next morning I must admit I did shed a tear.”

New TAFE course focuses on cane farm profitability

CANEGROWERS are being encouraged to participate in a TAFE Queensland course aimed at improving farm profitability.

The new course aims to develop the skills and understanding necessary for growers to make informed decisions about sugar pricing.

Canegrowers chief executive officer Galligan said competition in sugar marketing and the ability to forward price has opened up new opportunities for growers to enhance their profitability.

The Canegrowers organisation has teamed up with TAFE Queensland and the Rural Jobs Skills Alliance to create the course called Pricing Essentials for Cane Growers.

“As an industry entirely exposed to the fluctuations of world sugar prices, we need to be clever to compete,” Mr Galligan said.

As an industry entirely exposed to the fluctuations of world sugar prices, we need to be clever to compete.– Dan Galligan, Canegrowers

“Canegrowers recognises that the ability of growers to maximise their returns is enhanced by understanding of commodity markets, their own costs of production and capacity to manage business risks.”

The new TAFE course fits neatly into a suite of resources created by Canegrowers.

“The more information and skills they have at hand, the better placed growers are to take opportunities to improve their profitability – something which is critical in times of low world sugar prices as we are seeing now,” Mr Galligan said.

The course will be delivered between February and May in most sugarcane growing regions.

Cane farmers can register their interest online with TAFE Queensland or through a Canegrowers’ office.

This program is subsidised by the Queensland Government.

North Queensland sisters Jess and Emily Garland follow in dad’s tracks as train drivers

Amid the high-vis, hard hats and machinery at the Plane Creek Sugar Mill in Sarina, south of Mackay, two young sisters are showing they’re not afraid to get behind the controls of a sugarcane train.

It’s all in the family for Jess and Emily Garland, who both got their locomotive driver’s accreditation earlier this year, following in the footsteps of their dad, Ian, who’s been at it for 20 years.

“I started off working in retail and I came over here for something different,” said Emily, 26.

“Something different” for Emily involves driving an 18-tonne loco within the mill grounds. 

“I’m in the yard, bringing the cane into the full yard from the flat every day, so the mill can keep going.”

Younger sister Jess, 24, operates a 40-tonne locomotive, hauling bins of cane through the countryside from farms to the mill.

‘It’s pretty cruisy’

a young woman sits in the control area of a cane train
After being her dad’s driver’s assistant throughout the 2019 crushing season, Jess Garland’s now stepped up and drives a 40-tonne locomotive.(Supplied: Wilmar)

It’s repetitive, but rewarding.

“I’ll take out some empty bins from the mill and I have specific sidings I have to drop off to some of the farmers,” Jess said.

“Once I finish up at the last siding, I turn around pretty much start bringing back whatever full bins they have ready to go, back to the mill to start being crushed.”

Jess began as a driver’s assistant in 2018, and last year her driver was her dad, Ian.

“He actually taught me a lot of what I’m doing this year,” Jess said.

two young women in high vis shirts stand in front of a rail line
Train driving sisters Emily and Jess say they’re not not intimidated by the heavy vehicles they operate.(ABC Tropical North: Angel Parsons)

“I was a little bit hesitant about moving up, but once I actually finally did it and got into proper driving I got more comfortable with it.”

The sisters are not the only women in the job, but some friends are surprised to learn what they now do for a living.

“They’re like ‘I don’t know how you do that!'” Emily said.

“[But] now I know how to do it, it’s pretty cruisy — not as hard as I thought it was going to be.”

‘I’m proud of them’

Long-time locomotive driver Ian Garland was chuffed to have his daughters behind the controls.

“I’m proud of them,” he said.

“It could have turned out totally different I suppose, they could have said ‘no I don’t want a job in the mill’.”

“I’m glad that they have, and also they do enjoy what I’ve enjoyed over the years.”

Traditionally, cane trains are operated by a driver and assistant, also known as a shunter.

The shunter jumps on and off the slow-moving engine to ‘throw the points’, which involves flipping over a large lever at an intersection to switch the directions of the track.

But remote shunting units (RSU) are increasingly being rolled out across the country, allowing for driver-only trains.

Ian Garland this year made the tough decision to fly solo on an RSU.

“I stepped up onto the newer loco and handed down the busted-arse one to my daughter,” he said.

three people stand at the front of a cane train
Driving trains through cane country and having your family as your colleagues? Sounds pretty good to the Garlands.(Supplied: Wilmar)

‘Toolbox meetings at home’

Now that Jess, Emily and Ian are all drivers, they don’t work as closely together.

But dinner conversations usually centre around one topic.

“We have our own toolbox meetings at home, what’s going on in each others’ shift and that,” Emily said.

When quizzed on who’s the best driver, the rivalry in this family remains friendly.

“Definitely me. Nah, definitely be Dad — he’s got the more experience,” Jess said.