High world sugar prices are resulting in a bittersweet revival of cane farming on Queensland’s fast-growing Sunshine Coast.
The industry, once the economic powerhouse of the region, has battled for survival since the Moreton sugar mill closed at Nambour in 2003.
The number of cane farmers has dwindled from 50 to around a dozen, with urban development growing on the outskirts of long-existing farmland.
But with higher prices, fallow fields are being planted again and some land owners have returned to a crop they had abandoned as unprofitable.
From cane to pineapples and back to cane
Gordon and Murray Oakes are again harvesting cane after backing away from seriously growing the crop their family has farmed at Verrierdale since 1936.
“When the Moreton sugar mill shut, it really hit us hard because we had all our eggs in one basket,” Gordon Oakes said.
“We stopped farming the cane properly and moved into pineapples.”
The brothers supplemented their income with earth moving and even small subdivisions but now higher sugar prices have allowed the brothers to move back into cane production.
“We’ve got 80 hectares under cane now and we’ll probably eventually double that,” Mr Oakes said.
“The price is looking good for this year and next year so it’s looking okay.
“If the prices are down, with extra transport costs and harvesting costs a little bit higher than the industry standard, the money’s not in it for us; we’ve got to make sure we’re not just doing it for practice.”
The cane is trucked 150 kilometres north to the Maryborough mill.
Collaborating to share costs
To cut down on costs during cane cutting, the Oakes now share a harvester, manpower and power haul machinery with the neighbouring Petersen and Leis families.
“The three of us have banded together to do it, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Mr Oakes said.
“We had our own cane harvesters when the mill was here but we sold them when it finished.”
Well hopefully, we’ll show a profit [because] we haven’t in the last few years; I’ve just been doing it for the love of it more than anything.Cane grower Barry Leis
Housing has sprung up around the cane farms, but subdivision is not currently an option.
The flood-prone farmland is currently locked up by the State Government’s South East Queensland regional plan.
It is zoned rural and no other crops have proved commercially viable on a large scale.
Mr Oakes is doubtful about the long-term future of the Sunshine Coast’s sugar industry.
“It’s not something I think our grandchildren will be doing; we don’t know how long Maryborough Sugar will do what they’re going to do and other than that, there’s no future here,” he said.
But at least for now fallow land, is being put back into cane production.
“It’s got to be helpful to the Sunshine Coast Regional Council in the short term, because the land was just a bugbear to them; it was all just getting overgrown and untidy,” Mr Oakes said.
“We’ve got little satellite suburbs growing up here and there so it’s got to take a bit of pressure off the council, finding a use for it.”
Subsidised transport costs help growers
Mr Oakes’ neighbour, Barry Leis also lost money when a prototype ‘cow candy’ factory, producing stock feed from cane for export, failed.
“I grew up on my father’s cane farm on the river and my uncle helped me out when he decided to retire and sold to me — I’m very grateful for what he did for me,” Mr Leis said.
He has farmed cane for 40 years and currently has 43 hectares under cultivation to take advantage of strong international demand for sugar.
The price of sugar has spiked and we might even make some money this year, but it could go down again.Cane grower Garry Petersen
“Well hopefully, we’ll show a profit [because] we haven’t in the last few years; I’ve just been doing it for the love of it more than anything,” he said.
Mr Leis said subsidised transport costs were helping.
“We’re fortunate enough that Maryborough sugar has come to the party and only charges us five dollars a tonne, they look after the rest,” he said.
“We’ve worked out that maybe that’s probably cheaper than if we had to irrigate because we haven’t got to irrigate down here.
“But then again, we’re not guaranteed of a crop either — we have issues with flooding here, the ground gets waterlogged and the cane doesn’t like that.
“If the sugar prices stay up and my health stays with me I’ll hopefully continue on because I love doing it.”
Three generations growing cane
Throughout the uncertainty since the Moreton mill closed the Petersen family has continued growing cane.
From Doug in his 80s to his grandson Paul, three generations work 162 hectares.
The high sugar prices have given Garry Petersen hope for this season.
“Reasonably good for a change, the price of sugar has spiked and we might even make some money this year, but it could go down again,” he said.
The Petersens are currently selling on the fluctuating world market and Mr Petersen keeps a constant watch on prices.
“We’re not in the futures market for this year, so we sell on the ‘spot price’, so it could remain good but it could drop too,” he said.
“We make a lot of decisions around it.”
Long-term future of cane remains uncertain
A good growing season last year has also helped.
“We’ve got some fairly good cane, we just need to rely on some good weather during the harvest to make sure we ensure a good crop for next year,” Mr Petersen said.
His 30-year-old son Paul is a rarity — a young Sunshine Coast canegrower.
“Long term, no one knows what the future of the industry is here but at this stage the next three, four, five years, it’s pretty promising, if Maryborough keeps in with the transport subsidies,” Mr Petersen said.
He would like to continue the family tradition of cane growing on the banks of the Petersen farm.
“I do enjoy it. I’ve been involved with other industries now and I still do enjoy coming home to the farm and working here with relatives and friends that I’ve got to know over all these years,” he said.