With tight margins and the cost of replacing capital equipment climbing, the example being set by Sundown Harvesting shows that small cane growing enterprises can survive and thrive if farmers take a co-operative approach to business.
Established in 1970 as a partnership between four farming families with a specific interest in harvesting, the business has grown to include planting and fertilising equipment as the growers work to boost productivity and improve their environmental stewardship.
The group cuts across 750 hectares annually, equating to around 70,000 tonnes of cane.
Half of this belongs to the partners and the other half belongs to nine other growers in the immediate area.
Sundown Harvesting partner Sam Spina, who brings to the group a wealth of experience in rural banking, is a big believer in the co-operative business model.
“We’ve tried to establish ourselves as a group that’s a little bit progressive,” Sam said. “We try and have new machinery, we finance new machinery and make repayments rather than trying to have a lot of repairs and maintenance every year.”
And he says none of the farmers would’ve been able to achieve what they are doing now on their own.
“We have found as a partnership we’ve been able to finance machinery at a higher level – more sophisticated machinery, good haul-out equipment, good planting equipment as well as good fertilising equipment,” he says.
In straight-forward economic terms, it’s about achieving economies of scale, getting maximum value per unit cost from capital equipment.
It’s a business model Sam believes is suited to smaller growers in the Innisfail area.
“Probably 75% of growers that supply South Johnstone mill are under that 5,000 tonne or the hundred-acre mark,” Sam says. “As individuals, those growers would not be able to invest in the machinery that we invest in.
“Everybody knows a new full track harvester costs close to $600,000, GPS mapping and auto-steer on that harvester, almost $35,000.
“It’s the same sort of money involved in installing the GPS mapping and auto-steer technology in the planting tractor and that’s a lot of money for a grower that produces 5,000 tonne of cane.”
The co-operative approach also assisted with the business case in seeking funding assistance for equipment through the Australian Government Reef Programme, formerly known as Reef Rescue.
Assistance from the program has been put towards a GPS and auto-steer system on the planter, the GPS and auto-steer systems on a new harvester and a variable rate control system to be attached to the four tonne, triple row, stool splitting fertiliser box.
Working in tandem with GPS, the variable speed control system will help the growers to get into the more technical elements of crop mapping and adjusting the rate of fertiliser being applied on-the-move.
Given that soil types can vary greatly, even within individual rows, the system will mean nutrients can be applied more strategically and more frugally. A good outcome for the Great Barrier Reef and for the fertiliser bill!
Most importantly, it won’t be just one farmer using the fertiliser box. The variable rate system is a shared resource among all of the partners in Sundown Harvesting.
“When we lodge our applications for the Reef Programme funding it’s always better that those applications benefit a large amount of hectares,” Sam said.
“I guess I can understand that not only government, but all of us, want to be able to get the best bang for our buck and the best bang for our buck comes from being able to spend that sort of money and have a lot of hectares utilise that technology.”