A sugar mill is investigating growing cane in inland central Queensland after being squeezed out of coastal areas.
The Isis Central Sugar Mill wants to plant 6,800 hectares of sugar cane around the North Burnett town of Gayndah, increasing supply to its mill near Childers 100km away.
Chief executive John Gorringe said if it proved feasible, the company would spend $10 million developing a rail line and upgrading its mill to improve capacity.
“We see the potential of growing very large quantity of sugar cane, up to 500,000 tonnes and creating 90 full-time (equivalent jobs) which will also increase the capacity here of the mill and utilisation of the mill,” he said.
The mill currently crushes about 1.4 million tonnes per year, and the additional supply would see the volume increase to rival the production of the two Bundaberg Sugar mills to the north.
About 94 per cent of Australia’s existing cane was grown on the coastal fringe where rainfall and irrigation makes water readily available.
Mr Gorringe said the company was looking for new areas to grow cane as traditional growing areas were squeezed out by urban sprawl and the rising popularity of tree crops.
“In the local area the suitable land is quite constrained and the Gayndah area has very large quantities of very good quality agricultural land,” he said.
“Water is the deficiency. We recognise that there is a lack of water suitable water allocations currently and this project would require likely further water infrastructure to enable it to occur.
The federal Coalition has announced it would provide a $1.2 million grant to fast-track a feasibility study into water supply for the project, should it be re-elected.
The Member for Hinkler Keith Pitt said planning for the project had been underway for a number of years, and could capture 28,000 megalitres of unallocated water in the Burnett catchment.
“The intention for this money is to determine where we can find additional water or use water which is already in place to produce up to 500,000 tonnes of sugar cane in the Gayndah area and be able to transport that of course across to the Isis mill,” he said.
Tree crops crowding out cane
Isis mill chairman Peter Russo said the move did reflect the pressure cane growers were feeling from the expansion of macadamia and avocado plantations in the region.
“We are being fairly heavily attacked I suppose by tree crops and they’re permanent fixtures, once a tree goes in the ground we won’t see it for cane for quite some time,” he said.
“We have searched and we are continually searching our local area for tracts of land, they’re very few and far between.
“That’s the great temptation with Gayndah, there are vast areas of land up there that are unproductive at the moment.
“It’s all dependent on water. We have the Burnett River sitting beside with great potential storages of water that are under-utilised.
He said the project could return previously productive land that had gone unused back to agriculture.
LNP Member for Flynn Ken O’Dowd said there was interest in growing cane in Gayndah.
“Gayndah is predominantly citrus and beef production but this will give them another shot in the arm,” he said.
“We’ve had tours over there a couple of months ago, there is good interest.
“We’ve got the soil types, that are very conducive to growing cane and there are many varieties of cane coming out these days,. There is anti-frost [variety] that’s been looked at.”
Varieties, rail, key to inland success
Isis CEO John Gorringe said the company would start cane variety trials this year to establish if the plant would thrive in a cooler climate that was subject to frost.
He said it was also purchasing rail line and assessing if it would change the gauge to suit cane trains as part of the development.
“This project has a couple of enablers, certainly water is a key enabler and cost efficient logistics is another,” he said.
“It would require transportation via rail so the Isis mill has acquired some redundant Queensland Rail line between Maryborough and Gayndah that we would intend to utilise for this project.
“We would also need to construct a series of connecting rail line to connect to our existing rail network.”
Many of the jobs predicted to be created by the project would be in rail maintenance, and would be located in Gayndah.
The Coalition also announced a grant of $750,000 to fast-track a feasibility study into upgrading the capacity of the Bundaberg Channel, including channel upgrades, improved water security and augmentation of the Bundaberg Water Supply Scheme, which could add 100,000 megalitres to that scheme.
Conservationists say project could be good for fish
Wide Bay Burnett Environment Council president Roger Currie said water stored at the nearby Paradise Dam was historically underused.
“If a project was capable of using some of that Paradise Dam water and particularly Burnett system water, that would be a positive for lung fish because it means that Paradise Dam wouldn’t be full as often as it is, which results in lung fish and other commercial fish deaths on the fishway when it overflows,” he said.
“If the 28,000 megalitres could come out of the system without impacting the key water related assets of the river, which is lung fish, turtles and commercial species, it’s definitely a project worth looking at.
“As long as they can model it correctly to indicate that they won’t be any Great Barrier Reef impacts as a result of that sort of expansion.
“That’s something that I think both the State and Federal governments should be looking at.”
But he warned any intensification of farming in the catchment would need to be carefully managed to ensure nutrient and sediment runoff did not reach the reef.
“We know that the Burnett system and the Mary system are considerable contributors of pollution to the Great Barrier Reef,” he said.
“When our flood events happen in the Burnett and the Mary they naturally travel north to the reef.
“Possibly in Gayndah, that distance away from the river, maybe the loadings could be dealt with.
But we’ve had to be sure that nitrates, phosphates and other chemicals …would not be significantly increased as a result of that proposal.”
The feasibility study is expected to be complete in 2017.