Used in everything from coffee to curry, sugar is a key ingredient in many people’s lives, but how much do you know about where it comes from?
Sugar starts its journey in cane fields in Queensland and northern New South Wales, before being harvested, loaded onto cane trains, and taken to sugar mills, where it is processed into granulated sugar.
Fourth generation farmer Gerard Puglisi was born into sugar cane farming.
The farm he lives on with his wife and two children has been in the family since 1924.
“I’ve grown up with it and I’ve always had the burn to be a part of the industry,” Mr Puglisi said.
Each year he plants and harvests about 180 hectares of sugar cane — a tropical grass that reaches up to 4 metres in height when it is ready to harvest.
“From when you plant the field, you aim to harvest it about 11 or 12 months later,” he said.
“Not every variety of cane will flower, but that’s a good indication — once the pink flower comes out it basically says, ‘That’s it, I’m not going to grow any more, come and harvest me’.”
Once harvested by hand with the aid of a cane knife, sugar cane is now harvested with specialised machinery.
Cane harvesters and haulers are driven independently, but work together to cut the cane from the ground, chop it up and load it into collection bins.
Alf Delorenzi has been driving cane harvesters in far north Queensland for nearly 30 years.
“My father was a harvester driver in his days and I grew up with him and kept it going,” Mr Delorenzi said.
He said a good harvester and hauling team could cut more than 2,500 tonnes of cane per day, much more than an army of men carrying cane knives ever could.
“The old fellas, they’d bloody roll in their graves if they saw us cutting like this nowadays,” he said.
From the haulers, chopped sugar cane is transferred into cane train bins that wait on purpose-built railway lines criss-crossing the landscape.
Pulled along the rails by high powered locomotives, fully laden cane trains can weigh more than 600 tonnes.
While they rarely travel faster than about 25 kilometres per hour, stopping a cane train can take some time.
The final stop for cane trains is at a sugar mill, where sugar cane is processed into granulated sugar.
Mackay Sugar’s Mossman mill general manager Haydn Slattery said each cane bin was weighed when it arrived at the mill.
“It’s then sent through a shredder which spins at high speed and pulverises the cane into shredded bagasse (cane fibre),” he said.
“We then have an extraction process where we use very hot water to wash out the juice or the sugar that’s in the cane.
“About 12 per cent of the cane that comes through the mill is actually sugar juice, and that’s what we’re trying to wash out of the fibre.”
To maximise the amount of juice that is collected, cane fibres are repeatedly passed through a series of squeezing rollers that extract every last bit of sugar.
The extracted liquid is then sent to be concentrated in large, vacuum-sealed vats.
“We boil away the water that comes through with the cane so that we take it from 12 per cent sugar content right up to about 70 per cent,” Mr Slattery said.
“And because the juice is boiled in a vacuum, it prevents it from burning or becoming like toffee.”
Even at 70 per cent sugar content, the concentrated liquid still runs freely through testing taps on the side of the syrup tank.
The high sugar content of the syrup ensures that, if left to sit, it will begin to form crystals and turn into a dark brown, viscous sludge.
This sludge is fed into high speed centrifuges that further separate the water from the crystals, which lighten in colour as they dry.
“That turns it into the crystals or granulated sugar that the general public are used to seeing,” Mr Slattery said.
He said once the sugar was completely dry, it was sent via conveyor belt to silos outside the mill where it was collected by trucks that took it to ports and refineries around the country.
“For each 10-tonne bin of sugar cane that comes into the mill, we’re looking at about 1.2 tonnes of sugar that goes out,” Mr Slattery said.
“And the whole process can take up to 40 hours to complete.”