North Queenslanders join to celebrate agricultural history, but hope for sweeter future as sugar prices dip to near-record lows.
Burdekin sugarcane industry members have shown their skills at hand cutting cane in their annual competition as they prepare for season when sugar prices have plummeted.
For over 100 years cutting sugarcane by hand was one of the toughest farm jobs in Australia.
But 50 years since mechanised harvesting took over from the humble cane knife as the sector’s preferred method, the Australian Hand Cane Cutting Championships has revived the near-lost art.
Cane cutters from ages 16 to 85 competed at the championships, held annually in Home Hill 100 kilometres from Townsville, to celebrate the region’s agricultural history.
The Burdekin harvests around 8.5 million tonnes of cane from 75,000 hectares, making it the nation’s largest sugarcane district.
Local mayor and competitor Lyn McLaughlin said preserving local history was behind the event, as well as acknowledging sugar’s ongoing importance to the economy.
“The sugar industry has four sugar mills, contractors and haul-out drivers so it really is the lifeblood of our district.”
Cutting up to 15 tons of cane every day was par for the course when 84-year old Bruno Jung first wielded a knife.
The farmer from Deeral south of Cairns moved to Australia from Germany in 1954, saving money to buy his 60 hectare farm by working hard cutting cane.
“I cut for nine years, then I knew I was beaten.
“It’s easy to cut if you are strong and you have the ability.”
Competitor Luke Malan, 27, works in environmental management in the sugar industry and said the going was tough.
“I think I went all right, didn’t come last so that’s good,” he said.
“I’ll come back next year and try and raise the bar I guess.”
Sugar price slumps
In recent months growing concern over global sugar reserves has seen prices crash to their worst level in years.
Huge stockpiles of sugar are held by India, following years of large crops driven by government subsidies for farmers.
The current price of sugar on world markets is around 11 US cents per pound, which translates to under $A400 a tonne.
Burdekin Canegrowers chair Phil Marano said that was below the cost of production for even Australia’s efficient farms, at a price that had not been seen for a decade.
“Price-wise, it hasn’t been this bad for over 15 years,” he said.
“It’s going to make it tough for growers, me included and all growers in Queensland.”
Mr Marano said efforts to remove heavy subsidies for sugar and establish a level playing field could take years to achieve.
“Sugar seems to be one of the most heavily protected commodities in the world for some reason,” he said.
“They took action in the World Trade Organisation, it takes years and years to resolve.
The 2018 cane crush has already begun in Mackay, with other districts across Queensland and New South Wales to follow within weeks.