Thinking outside the square has proved crucial for Queensland canegrowers to recover faster from ex-tropical cyclone Debbie.
Father and son Lui and Gary Raitieri grow sugarcane across 170 hectares at Proserpine, which took a direct hit in the category four cyclone.
The family property suffered extensive damage, but some key innovations put in place on their farm in recent years has helped them bounce back better.
The Raiteris are members of an initiative called Project Catalyst, a partnership between canegrowers, the government and private business working to find ways to improve both farm productivity and growers’ environmental footprint.
“One thing we’ve been doing is using a lot of that bi-product from the mill sugar press, the mill mud, to build up nucleus in the soil,” Lui Raiteri said.
“Normally we put it on top, but now through innovation and through Catalyst and our own urge to want to do it differently, we’ve been burying it.
“That’s stood by us this time, because it’s still there. It would have got washed away, god knows where it would have landed, but it’s still there, and we’ve benefited from that.”
Tony Jeppesen’s Bloomsbury cane farm, although about 50 kilometres away from where the eye of cyclone Debbie passed over, was also significantly damaged.
“We had huge quantities of timber down,” Mr Jeppesen said.
“We spent a week with two excavators just so we could drive around the farm. That didn’t include the other jobs you had to do as well. We still haven’t fixed our road network, we’ve lost all our gravel and creek crossings.”
Mr Jeppesen is a founding member of Project Catalyst, and has worked hard to improve water management on his cane farm.
“In an event with such a mass of water like cyclone Debbie, you can’t really plan for those scenarios,however, with Project Catalyst and changing the way we do things and looking at our management that just keeps us aware of everything we do and everything we do we can do better,” he said.
“We live right next to the Great Barrier Reef … it’s a crucial part of our leisure activities, our local area, it’s incredible for tourism. So we do what we have to do we make sure we have as minimum off farm impact.”
Run-off mitigation is also a critical part of the Raiteri’s Proserpine farm.
“I think there’s 30 hectares that we can’t catch, all the rest of it we’ve got drains set up that all go down into a recycling dam where we can pump that water back out just so we reuse it on our farm and we don’t have any runoff on our farm, or very little,” Mr Raitieri said.
The innovations proved invaluable during cyclone Debbie.
One sediment trap which was empty prior to the cyclone, afterwards was full of silt.
“The sediment trap has gone from two meters deep of available space to full in the most recent cyclone,” Project Catalyst chairman Craig Davenport said.
“That’s sediment that hasn’t ended up in those waterways and won’t end up in the reef.
“That’s sediment that can be removed from that trap, used again on the farm and protected from that waterway.”
Still, the damage to crops and farms has set canegrowers back considerably.
The sugar juicing business Mr Jeppesen spent years building from scratch is now no longer viable.
“For that I needed a straight stick of cane, and there are no straight sticks of cane, so it’s finished,” Mr Jeppesen said.
“There were six or seven people employed in that business.”
“We’d purchased forklifts and things so there’s been some pretty big costs there — that’s a 100 per cent loss.
“There is no going back from it, there is no more employment, I’ve lost the market.”
The harvest has also been slow-going, because of the amount of debris still strewn in cane paddocks.
“You name it, there’ll be tyres, there’ll be roofing iron, whatever anybody had in their backyard, it’ll be in the paddock,” Mr Raiteri said.
“We’ll just have to take that as it comes when the harvester gets there. There’ll be a lot of damage to the harvester from logs and things like that and there’ll be a lot of pulling up, having to shift everything out of the paddock and go again.”
Damaged crops also means there is less clean cane available for planting for next season, which growers say will have flow-on effects for several years to come.
“For the cane to recover it’s going to be at least six years for us to get our cycle back in rhythm,” Mr Raiteri said.
“Financially, we’ll be looking at least at 10 years for us to get back on top of it.”