North Queensland farmer and soil health advocate remembered as visionary for sustainable farming

The Herbert River farming region is pausing to remember a “trailblazing” farming veteran who died last week in North Queensland, aged 81.

The son of Finnish immigrants, Matti Kangas lived on the same farm at Abergowrie, 130 kilometres north-west of Townsville, for 72 years.

He dedicated the last two decades of his farming career to improving soil health.

Mr Kangas identified that increasing soil biology and tackling the depletion of organic matter on his farm was critical to tackling a slump in crop yields — an issue across the sugarcane industry.

Herbert Cane Productivity Services manager Lawrence Di Bella first met Mr Kangas during a variety trial on his farm and described his contributions to local farming as “trailblazing”.

“We’d always get phone calls from Matti, researching stuff on the internet or chasing the science on soil,” he said.

Mr Kangas recently sold all but 1.4 hectares of the farm he was raised on, but continued to regularly attend field days and agricultural information events.

“He never really retired, he always had a passion and interest in farming in his 72 years in Abergowrie,” Mr Di Bella said.

Long-time friend Ian Kemp, another early adopter of soil health measures, said Mr Kangas was never afraid to speak out or accept risk when trialling new farming strategies.

“He was out there to do things differently and better — for the sugar industry he was a radical and upset a lot of the dyed-in-the-wool, straight down the line guys,” he said.

Nitrogen nodules on peanut roots.
Using peanuts to fix nitrogen in the soil on fallow canefields was one of Mr Kangas’ earliest soil health trials.(Karen Hunt: Rural Online)

Soil health paramount

Speaking recently to the ABC, Mr Kangas told of the huge crops, more than 35 tonnes to the acre, which were commonplace in the 1950s at his Abergowrie farm.

“We came here growing tobacco in 1948 when I was nine years old, then the sugarcane came in during the early 1950s,” he said.

“We had organic fertilisers, plenty of organic matter in the soil, not like it is today, this farm here was producing 35-36 tonnes to the acre — now it’s down to 25.”

Noticing the poor condition of soils that had been compacted by heavy machinery and exposed by cultivation, the farmer moved to cut out urea and slash organic matter into the soil at the turn of the 21st century.

Mr Kangas also turned to soil conditioners that increased microbial activity in the soil.

“Farmers can see it, smell it, feel it, the soil’s not the same – that’s got to do with the production going down,” he said.

Sugar cane in the foreground with a glass house in the background
Sugarcane yields are declining on a per hectare basis, leading farmers to seek answers in order to remain profitable.(Supplied: QAAFI Caro Martin)

New model needed

Mr Kangas was heartened in his later years by a growing focus on soil health from Sugar Research Australia and local extension provider Herbert Cane Productivity Services, but was adamant that making soil health pay was the key to the sustainable farming in Australia.

“The soil’s what grows your cane. We will not be able to afford to repair that soil when people find out what’s gone wrong, because it takes a long time,” he told the ABC.

“It’s going to boil down to dollars, and if you don’t have dollars, what do you do?”

With the global sugar price barely above production costs on his farm before selling, Mr Kangas said a new financial model to make cane farming pay was needed for farmers to remain viable.

“Food can run out, I just hope somebody will pick up this issue and do the right thing to keep people on the land,” he said.

Mr Kangas leaves behind his wife, two children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Millers say red tape limiting sugar’s growth

AUSTRALIA’s sugar production could be significantly increased to create jobs, generate better economic outcomes, and produce cleaner energy if government red tape was reduced.

That’s according to the Australian Sugar Milling Council, which has delivered a comprehensive case to the Queensland Government for reducing regulatory overload to support the revitalisation of the sugar industry.

ASMC economics, policy and trade director David Rynne said the industry was currently in a state of “regulatory overload”.

“Over the past 15 years the sugar industry has been subject to significant policy uncertainty and additional regulation and charges from a range of agencies and government-owned corporations,” Mr Rynne said.

In ASMC’s Sugar Policy Insightspublished this week, Mr Rynne said the sugar industry’s revitalisation was based on three key pillars:

  • Increasing cane and sugar yields, decreasing operational costs.
  • Increasing, or at least maintaining the area where sugarcane is grown.
  • Increasing revenues from complementary, diversified, value-added products.

“ASMC’s analysis of government regulatory interventions and cost impositions on the sugar industry make a compelling argument that cumulatively, domestic regulation is stalling industry revitalisation and a more sustainable future for the regional communities it supports,” Mr Rynne said.

“Revitalising the sugar industry will involve working closely with government departments across eight key areas including water and energy charges, access to capital, self-regulation incentives, improved land protections in state planning policy, revenue diversification incentives, better understanding the industry’s viability, and ensuring access to human capital.”

Mr Rynee said the industry was committed to supporting the Queensland Government’s red-tape reduction ambitions.

These have demonstrated by the establishment of the Office of Productivity and Red Tape reduction within Queensland Treasury, and the Queensland Productivity Commission’s publication of its Improving Regulationresearch paper, he said.

The Sugarcane Industry Sweet for Safety

Pro-Visual Publishing and their partnering industry associations have released the annual Augmented
Reality (AR) Educational Safety Guide for sugarcane farmers, a free wall poster designed to display
year-round to use with your phone, or other smart device, to view augmented content alongside the
printed safety topic content.

The AR itool enhances engagement and learning of key safety issues that should always be top of
mind when performing daily tasks. With the agriculture industry facing one of the highest rates of
injury and fatality annually, remaining vigilant and on top of safety procedures is crucial to help
ensure sugarcane workers arrive home safe every day.

Topics this year include:

– Smartcane BMP – a world-class best practice system for growing in QLD.
– Quad bike safety and regulations under WHS laws.
– Sun safety and personal protection for those working outside a majority of the time.
– PCBUs and their obligations regarding electrical safety.
– Record keeping requirements.

The wall guide becomes a useful go-to piece for solo reference or training talks and by downloading
the free Pro-Vis AR app, users can scan AR icons on the guide for additional resources such as videos,
web-links and PDF files that ‘pop-up’ in an augmented setting, providing a stimulating environment in
which to learn.

For free Guides email marketing@provisual.com.au. For all enquiries and images call
(02) 8272 2611 or email Deanna Hutchings ddavenport@provisual.com.au.

Lifelong rum passion pays off

A desire to make a truly 100 per cent Australian owned, Australian made spirit, utilising quality Australian grown ingredients has proven its worth with the products winning major international awards.

From being a dream for a 15-year-old Dampier boy, to a realisation 18 years down the track, the Illegal Tender Rum Company and Stableviews Distillery, in Dongara, have won 18 World Spirit Awards since 2015.

Their international acknowledgements include the coveted title of 2020 World Rum Awards, Style Winner – Column Still, 5 years & Under for their Illegal Tender Rum Co 2 year old Distillers Cut.

They can also announce that they have since taken out the prestigious award again at the 2021 World Rum Awards proving the quality of their products twice over, which is no easy feat..

Founders, owners, distillers and husband and wife team Codie and Hayley Palmer have shown that with patience, dedication, know-how and quality ingredients, the sky really is the limit.

“I noticed that nothing behind any bars was Australian anymore back in the early 2000s,” Mr Palmer said.

“For me primarily the focus was rum.

“I grew up in the Pilbara, in Dampier, and rum was the spirit of choice you could say, the most popular form of spirit drunk by the majority of people and one that I enjoyed.”

He said that not even the one popular rum that everyone associated with being Australian, was actually Australian anymore, as it had been sold and had become a multi-national business.

“So even then I wanted to know why there weren’t any true Australian products,” Mr Palmer said.

He said his early working life included washing dishes at local restaurant the Dampier Mermaid when he was 15 and this was where his passion for distilling alcohol was first awakened.

“One of the head chefs made his own homebrew,” Mr Palmer said.

“He also had his own little hobby still – the amazement of it all, the ability to produce something yourself and have the satisfaction of knowing what you had put into it and seeing the end product, was something I was in awe of.

“This really ignited my passion for brewing and spirit distilling.”

With having been brewing, commercially brewing and distilling for more than half his life now, Mr Palmer said this early passion turned to almost an obsession.

Lucky for us this penchant for distilling has awoken a real talent and led to the quality products being produced at the Illegal Tender Rum Co.

Mr Palmer’s passion for history is almost as strong as his passion for distilling and this is how the name for the company, the products and the labelling for the rum side of the business came about.

“The history of rum in Australia is amazing,” he said.

“Learning all about the history of rum in Australia really resonated with me, facts like at the Sydney Mint, there is still a part

of the Sydney Rum hospital.

“It was the first hospital built after colonisation and it was built with 45,000 gallons of rum.

“There is a plaque there, I cannot really explain how much I love the spirit and the history.

“The great rum rebellion of 1808 was how our name Illegal Tender Rum Co came about.”

Rum had become an unofficial form of legal tender during the early years of colonisation and this continued until 1808 when the Governor of New South Wales, William Bligh, ordered that rum be made an illegal tender, bringing about the event marked in our country’s history as the Great Rum Rebellion.

Fittingly Mr Palmer’s admiration for rum and history has certainly made him part of the story that is still being created and documented today, through his production of a unique and obviously impeccable quality spirit.

But what is so special about Illegal Tender Rum Co products and what is it that sets them apart?

According to Mr Palmer it is their ingredients and how these affect the final product.

“As a boutique/craft producer we use better quality ingredients,” he said.

“Rum is a very universal spirit and there are so many ways to produce it, it is not all about molasses.

“We source our dark brown sugar from sugar cane farmers in Queensland.

“Under Australian law you can use any ingredient from the sugar cane stalk itself, which means you can use virtually the juice that is crushed out of the stalk and ferment that, you can use raw sugar, brown sugar, dark brown sugar or molasses or any of those variants.

“With these five ingredients you have around 120 theoretical styles of rum you can produce, but 97 per cent of the world produces rum just using molasses, which is the cheapest option virtually, although it is the very traditional option and can produce a fine rum”

Mr Palmer said that he had tried virtually every style possible with those key ingredients and the one that stood out and resonated with him was the dark brown sugar, saying it tasted so much better and was better quality.

Illegal Tender Rum Co spirits are small batch, twice distilled and the end products are 100pc sugar free.

The choice to use Australian Dark Brown Sugar was a much harder one to swallow with sugar being a world commodity, meaning the price fluctuates from day to day, making it one of the most difficult ingredients to get at the same price every time creating havoc on the balance sheet.

The spirits are crafted, in small 500 bottle batches, in a state-of-the-art four plate, Column Still, using high quality rainwater and 100pc Australian ingredients.

“Although it is a more expensive ingredient the 100pc Australian, 100pc natural moist Dark Brown Cane Sugar we use has a rich distinctive full flavour and creates a far superior spirit than those made with molasses,” Mr Palmer said.

All the spirits are fermented in-house before being distilled twice, effectively removing all the sugar, and keeping all of the flavour.

Another distinctive ingredient for Illegal Tender is its water.

The distillery is in Dongara, a three and a half hour drive north of Perth on the family’s farm.

There is no scheme water on the property, so everything hinges on rainwater.

“The collection of soft rainwater is crucial to making our rums,” Mr Palmer said.

“Obviously, the water is treated, but it still carries that low mineral content that differentiates it from ground or spring water.”

The distillery has so many inimitable elements in the way it makes its spirits and one of the very distinctive ones is the zero sugar end product – in particular The Spiced.

“As far as we know and can tell, we are the only NATA (National Association of Testing Authorities) sugar free final product spiced anywhere in the world,” Mr Palmer said.

“A lot of people will just distil it and it comes out clear and they add sugars to make it look like it has been barrel aged.

“Then they fill it full of more sugar.

“The average rum these days, just the spirit, is 40pc sugar before you even mix it with anything.

“It comes from sugar, but you convert that sugar to alcohol and distil it out.

“We are literally just barrel ageing it for colour, then proofing it with rainwater and then we add distilled essential oils.”

Mr Palmer said their spiced was a labour of love as they spent the time distilling each of the 20 essential oils themselves.

Illegal Tender Rum Co’s Spiced pays homage to Australia and its native bush tucker by using uniquely Australian spices to add a different element of flavour found in traditional spiced varieties from the rum industry.

It is mellowed in French oak casks, previously used for shiraz, for a month, after which it is then spiced.

Using 20 ingredients including Kakadu Plum, Quandong, Wattle Seed, Lemon Myrtle and Wild Rosella, these spices impart a very individual Australian flair to make the end product worthy of its six awards from international spirit competitions.

Other Illegal Rum Co products include the 1808 Barely Legal white and the acclaimed Distillers’ Cut.

The tasting notes claim that at 45pc ABV the Distillers’ Cut is sure to be the smoothest rum you will ever have the pleasure to sip, the rum is also zero sugar and aged in French oak, ex-shiraz casks, for a minimum of two years or eight maturation seasonal variances – something of which Dongara has a perfect climate for maturing spirits.

The Stableviews Gin is the final product produced at the distillery.

Stableviews is actually the name of the family property the distillery is located on.

The gin is also very singularly Australian, using a juniper forward recipe base that is then infused with wattleseed, lemon myrtle and wild hibiscus.

While the spirits were the focus of the business, the Palmers found they needed to expand the business to include a cellar door, after their numerous international awards had tourists turning up at their premises, even though they were not listed as a sales site.

In 2017 they opened their cellar door and tours after officially starting their distilling onsite in August 2015 and putting their first cask away in April 2016.

“We opened the Common Place in July 2019,” Mr Palmer said.

“We have what we call an open air restaurant with a little kitchen and we serve local produce platters.

“It is only local WA produce and produce vendors.

“The cheese is from a farm halfway to Geraldton from here, the meat is from farms around Dongara – we only have local and we also have WA made and owned wine, beers and ciders.”

They have the complete backing of family and can say that not only are they 100pc local, they are also a family business.

A passion for making rum and for Australian ingredients has seen this family shine on the international stage, but their popularity is also evident on the home front.

After the effects of COVID-19 meant they closed their front of house operations for a total of 14 months, they finally opened in time for Easter weekend 2021 to a full house, under COVID-19 rules.

However, ex-Tropical Cyclone Seroja meant they had to close the following weekend and pack down.

“We were very lucky to not have had any damage to our property,” Mr Palmer said.

“But going forward we will re – reopen on Saturdays and Sundays, from 11am till 5pm.

“We have a really amazing bartender, and our signature cocktail list really has something for everyone, so people can come in, do a tour of the distillery or tasting and then sit out in the open air restaurant and enjoy the local produce- it’s actually quite an experience.

“And I enjoy having people enjoying themselves after getting an appreciation of the hard work myself and our team put in daily for their drinking pleasure.”

If you want to try some of the famed Illegal Tender Rum Co or Stableviews spirits for yourself then you can visit the distillery at 35 Illyarrie Road, Springfield.

Water allocation uncertainty swirls around Paradise Dam, sparking mental health fears

Bundaberg irrigators have gone from having one of the most secure water sources in the country to one of the most unreliable, sparking mental health concerns.

Cane farmer Judy Plath said growers in the Burnett River Scheme were struggling because of decisions about Paradise Dam and water allocations.

“Sadly, in the last couple of months, I’ve had four different farmers talk to me about suicide, which has been quite confronting,” she said.

“Basically they’re grappling with so much uncertainty, so much unknown.”

Sunwater released 100,000 megalitres of water from Paradise Dam in September 2019 and has since reduced the spillway by almost six metres to address structural and stability issues.

A decision on the dam’s future is yet to be made, with the report by Building Queensland due to be handed to the state government by the end of the year.

“There’s been all this talk about the safety of people in Bundaberg … and very little talk about the safety of farmers in terms of their futures — their emotional safety and emotional health,” Mrs Plath said.

A woman speaks at a rally, flanked by people holding colourful placards.
Judy Plath (center) says reduced water allocations are putting extra stress on irrigators.(ABC Rural: Megan Hughes)

Reduced allocations loom

Many growers invested in tree crops – including macadamias and avocados – because of the security provided by Paradise Dam.

Mrs Plath said growers had gone from averaging 90 per cent of the announced allocations every year since 2010 to perhaps 16 per cent in the next financial year.

“A lot of growers won’t be able to plant crops,” she said.

“For others, like macadamias and avocados, they’re incredibly vulnerable to losing those trees, because they won’t have enough water to see them through.”

Wallaville citrus grower Will Thompson, lived in the Riverina, in New South Wales in 2015, said 15 farmers took their lives over a six month period because of their water allocations and the lack of security in the Murray-Darling Basin.

He fears growers in the Bundaberg region will face added pressure to pay back debts despite having a reduced yield.

“People need to talk to their agronomists and talk with their water retailers to come up with a plan now, before July 1, when new allocations kick in,” Mr Thompson said.

“Be on the front foot to come up with a game plan so they can actually manage their trees or their small crops as best they can.

“Don’t be afraid to actually put your hand out for help.”

Training for industry

OzHelp will hold wellbeing and suicide prevention workshops in the Wide Bay Burnett later this month.

Mrs Plath said it would help to educate people within the agriculture industry on how to identify someone with mental health issues, including depression.

“Those four people who have openly talked about suicide with me, I’ve been caught off guard,” she said.

“This workshop is designed to up-skill people to recognise the signs, then to know what to do for the next step.

“I’m really keen on this workshop to learn how to handle these difficult situations.”

Sugar price spike benefits NSW growers thanks to forward thinking

Global sugar prices as recorded on the Intercontinental Exchange have leapt past US 17 cents a pound, much more than predicted a year ago due to rising demand while drought affected Thai production will effectively give NSW growers a premium above the ICE 11 price. They can now expect up to $38 a tonne for their cane, 15pc up on previous years.

NSW Sugar Milling Co-Operative CEO Chris Connors said a decision to “carefully hedge” half the coming crop helped secure grower prices.

Wednesday’s spot price jumped .77c to 17.94c/lb with the Australian dollar at US77c but Mr Connors warned speculators to look beyond the favourable spot price to the forward sell, which remains hovering around 16c/lb for the next three to four months.

“The forecast for the 12 months following look murky, with prices more like 14c/lb at an 82 cent Aussie dollar,” he said.

“We have undertaken careful hedging to secure those better prices. We’ve done it in the past and we’ll do it again.”

On top of ICE 11 prices NSW growers will reap a geographical premium for being a part of the eastern hemisphere, with drought in south-east Asia reducing Thai sugar cane production by half. As supply is restricted premiums go up and Mr Connors estimates that advantage to Sunshine Sugar will be 200 to 300 points or $60 to $100/t of sugar.

“We are expecting to get $480 to $500/t for our sugar, with the growers getting $37 to $38/t for their cane.

“You need hedging skills to do this but we now have certainty over 50pc of our crop. That is a positive thing.”

Meanwhile in NSW regular inundation of cane fields since before Christmas has yielded the best crop in years. Cane on the Lower Clarence, the worst flood affected of the growing regions, was well up out of the water for the most part and took advantage of warm days when the sun returned with the result that the greater biomass will likely help to reduce frost risk this winter.