More than 5,000 hectares of sugarcane farmland in Maryborough will be converted into a macadamia orchard and space for other crops.

It has been revealed that Rural Funds Management (RFM), a specialist agricultural fund manager with 1,500 investors, entered a deal to buy MSF Sugar’s land holdings with plant equipment and water entitlements for $81.1 million.

RFM Chief Operating Officer, Tim Sheridan, said they would progressively convert the land.

“RFM expects employment in the area to benefit from a multiplier effect from developing and operating macadamia orchards, as should local suppliers,” he said.Want more local news? Subscribe to the Wide Bay Weekly email newsletter.

Is the Maryborough Mill viable?

While the deal does not include the mill itself — this loss of cane farmland brings into question the viability of the mill, as it will lose around a third of the cane it crushes.

Canegrowers Maryborough Chair, Jeff Atkinson, said they were waiting to hear what this meant for their supply agreement ending in 2022.

“They have to crush that cane in some form in some way,” he said.

“That’s the detail we need to know — are they going to continue to do it presently through the Maryborough sugar mill? Or have they got some alternative arrangements?”

Around 90 growers supply the Maryborough mill with cane from the Sunshine Coast.

Canegrowers there have said this sale marks the end of the line for an industry that was once the economic powerhouse of the region, sustaining more than 50 families.

Since Nambour’s Moreton Mill closed in 2003, around a dozen remaining growers have been trucking their cane around 150 kilometres north with the support of the Maryborough mill.

“Until February this year the word from MSF Sugar was: ‘grow cane, grow cane, grow cane’,” Paul Petersen, a third generation sugar grower at Maroochy River, said.

His father, Garry Petersen, said MSF had been very good to them up until that point — and the family had been looking to expand by buying land closer to the mill.

“All of a sudden, they’ve just given us a kick in the guts and we’re pretty gutted, we don’t know what to do,” Garry Petersen said.

“We’re sitting on land that is worth quite a bit so I think our next option is to probably start putting bits and pieces on the market.”

MSF Sugar evades the question

In a statement to the ABC, MSF Sugar Company Secretary, Brad Egerton, said this sale would allow them to focus on increasing the efficiency of its sugar production operations.

An aerial view of cane fields.
The land was offered as offered as a lump sum to one buyer, leaving local cane growers feeling left out.(Supplied)

“MSF Sugar is committed nonetheless to doing all that is necessary to ensure that the 2020 season is a successful one for the Maryborough mill,” he said.

“The immediate priority is therefore the 2020 season and questions which you have asked relating to future operations are perhaps best left until such time as the results of the forthcoming season are known.

“MSF Sugar will engage with potentially affected workers, government and the incoming operator over the course of the coming months to pursue solutions.”     

Settlement of the deal is expected to happen in October this year.

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