MSF Sugar’s Maryborough mill closes down

MSF Sugar’s Maryborough mill has crushed its last cane with the company announcing it was decommissioning the facility.

Instead, contracted sugar cane will be crushed elsewhere from 2021.

The decision comes after Rural Funds Management purchased 5409 hectares of MSF Sugar’s cane growing land in the district earlier this year, with a view to replanting with macadamia nuts.

Canegrowers Maryborough chairman Jeff Atkinson said while the news was disappointing, an agreement between MSF and Isis Central Sugar Mill was advanced for the cane to instead be processed at Childers.

“MSF Sugar has a responsibility to ensure growers are not disadvantaged and that arrangements are made to satisfy its obligations under our current Cane Supply Agreement with the company,” Mr Atkinson said.

“We remain confident that there is a bright future for growing sugar cane in the Maryborough region, and we will engage constructively to ensure that happens.”

Sugar mills crush out for 2020

More than 29 million tonnes of sugar cane has been crushed in Queensland this year with the season set to close this week.

The last bins will be tipped at Mackay Sugar’s Farleigh, Marian and Racecourse mills, signalling an end to the 2020 season.

While weather conditions have varied across growing regions, impacting total yield, this year’s production is up slightly on the 28.4 million tonnes crushed in 2019.

In North Queensland, the last of Wilmar’s eight mills crushed out at the end of November, despite a rain delayed start to the season.

Victoria Mill in the Herbert region processed the last bin of cane on November 29, several hours after the last cane went through the rollers at nearby Macknade Mill.

Wilmar general manager operations Mike McLeod said Wilmar processed 14.925 million tonnes of sugar cane this year, to manufacture more than two million tonnes of raw sugar.

“Our total throughput was slightly down on pre-season estimates due to dry conditions in three of our four milling regions,” Mr McLeod said.

“The Herbert was the exception. The crop grew on from in-season rain and the total volume crushed in the Herbert was 90,000 tonnes above the original estimate.”

Mr McLeod paid tribute to growers, harvesting contractors and Wilmar employees for getting this year’s crop off, despite rain delays and challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Herbert, 4.25m/t was crushed with an average CCS of 13.2 units. The Burdekin mills processed 7.9m/t (CCS 14.61), Proserpine crushed 1.54m/t (CCS 14.35) and Plane Creek crushed 1.23m/t (CCS 14.23).

Further north, Tully Sugar’s mill crushed out on December 3, after a wet start to the season.

Canegrowers Tully deputy chairman Jamie Dore said just over 2.46m/t of cane had been crushed, which was equivalent to the 10-year average for the region.

“It was very wet at the start and very dry at the finish,” Mr Dore said.

“It was pretty good all round with a lot of crop variability, which was weather related.

“Some had good rain and had good tonnages, and some were well below average in southern areas like Kennedy and Bilyana where the dry affected the crop.”

Mr Dore said CCS averaged 12.96 and the mill had performed well during the season.

In the Far North, the grower owned Mossman Mill finished their second season running operations after buying the facility back from Mackay Sugar in 2019.

Far Northern Milling director Maryann Salvetti said their 70 growers from the Mossman and Tablelands region had provided over 800,000 tonnes of cane, with the season ending on October 23.

“The weather was very kind to us, the crop was down a little bit mainly because of the dry early in the season on the coast where they don’t have the ability to irrigate, but overall it was a good season,” Ms Salvetti said.

After 82 years, Mackay’s Bonaventura family harvest the last cane field

As his cane fields went up in flames for the final time, Mackay councillor Laurence Bonaventura reflected on 82 years of his family’s farming legacy.

“It’s a bit of a sad occasion, but it’s about knowing when is a good time, and I believe this is the time to finish cane growing,” Cr Bonaventura said.

As a councillor for the Mackay region, he has decided to retire as a farmer and focus full-time on his other commitments.

Cr Bonaventura’s family arrived in Australia in 1914 by recommendation of a relative, who said there was “good money in the sugar industry, as long as you’re prepared to work hard”.

His grandfather and father bought several neighbouring blocks, where they cleared land, planted cane and expanded their production.

Over the years, the Bonaventuras have witnessed big changes in the industry.

“When my grandfather came out and started cutting cane, it was originally green, then burning cane became popular,” Cr Bonaventura said.

“So then we went to burnt cane, first cut by hand and then by harvester.”

“Then in the 1980s and 1990s we went from burnt cane back to green cane harvesting with modern machinery.”

Celebrating the last harvest

To celebrate the momentous occasion, Cr Bonaventura decided to invite friends and family to witness one final cane fire before harvesting the crop.Celebrating 75 yearsCelebrating 75 years of Rural reporting.Read more

“I was overwhelmed by the response of people who came,” he said.

“To have those people share the final event with me, and go down the next day to watch the harvester cut that final bit of cane, it helps with that changeover.”

While the Bonaventuras will no longer grow cane on the block, the country is now being leased and will continue to supply cane to the local mill.

“I think I’m doing my father proud that the land he cleared will continue to supply cane to the mill,” Cr Bonaventura said.

“It was very emotional, not so much on the day because I had plenty of friends around to keep my spirits up.

“But the next morning I must admit I did shed a tear.”

New TAFE course focuses on cane farm profitability

CANEGROWERS are being encouraged to participate in a TAFE Queensland course aimed at improving farm profitability.

The new course aims to develop the skills and understanding necessary for growers to make informed decisions about sugar pricing.

Canegrowers chief executive officer Galligan said competition in sugar marketing and the ability to forward price has opened up new opportunities for growers to enhance their profitability.

The Canegrowers organisation has teamed up with TAFE Queensland and the Rural Jobs Skills Alliance to create the course called Pricing Essentials for Cane Growers.

“As an industry entirely exposed to the fluctuations of world sugar prices, we need to be clever to compete,” Mr Galligan said.

As an industry entirely exposed to the fluctuations of world sugar prices, we need to be clever to compete.– Dan Galligan, Canegrowers

“Canegrowers recognises that the ability of growers to maximise their returns is enhanced by understanding of commodity markets, their own costs of production and capacity to manage business risks.”

The new TAFE course fits neatly into a suite of resources created by Canegrowers.

“The more information and skills they have at hand, the better placed growers are to take opportunities to improve their profitability – something which is critical in times of low world sugar prices as we are seeing now,” Mr Galligan said.

The course will be delivered between February and May in most sugarcane growing regions.

Cane farmers can register their interest online with TAFE Queensland or through a Canegrowers’ office.

This program is subsidised by the Queensland Government.

North Queensland sisters Jess and Emily Garland follow in dad’s tracks as train drivers

Amid the high-vis, hard hats and machinery at the Plane Creek Sugar Mill in Sarina, south of Mackay, two young sisters are showing they’re not afraid to get behind the controls of a sugarcane train.

It’s all in the family for Jess and Emily Garland, who both got their locomotive driver’s accreditation earlier this year, following in the footsteps of their dad, Ian, who’s been at it for 20 years.

“I started off working in retail and I came over here for something different,” said Emily, 26.

“Something different” for Emily involves driving an 18-tonne loco within the mill grounds. 

“I’m in the yard, bringing the cane into the full yard from the flat every day, so the mill can keep going.”

Younger sister Jess, 24, operates a 40-tonne locomotive, hauling bins of cane through the countryside from farms to the mill.

‘It’s pretty cruisy’

a young woman sits in the control area of a cane train
After being her dad’s driver’s assistant throughout the 2019 crushing season, Jess Garland’s now stepped up and drives a 40-tonne locomotive.(Supplied: Wilmar)

It’s repetitive, but rewarding.

“I’ll take out some empty bins from the mill and I have specific sidings I have to drop off to some of the farmers,” Jess said.

“Once I finish up at the last siding, I turn around pretty much start bringing back whatever full bins they have ready to go, back to the mill to start being crushed.”

Jess began as a driver’s assistant in 2018, and last year her driver was her dad, Ian.

“He actually taught me a lot of what I’m doing this year,” Jess said.

two young women in high vis shirts stand in front of a rail line
Train driving sisters Emily and Jess say they’re not not intimidated by the heavy vehicles they operate.(ABC Tropical North: Angel Parsons)

“I was a little bit hesitant about moving up, but once I actually finally did it and got into proper driving I got more comfortable with it.”

The sisters are not the only women in the job, but some friends are surprised to learn what they now do for a living.

“They’re like ‘I don’t know how you do that!'” Emily said.

“[But] now I know how to do it, it’s pretty cruisy — not as hard as I thought it was going to be.”

‘I’m proud of them’

Long-time locomotive driver Ian Garland was chuffed to have his daughters behind the controls.

“I’m proud of them,” he said.

“It could have turned out totally different I suppose, they could have said ‘no I don’t want a job in the mill’.”

“I’m glad that they have, and also they do enjoy what I’ve enjoyed over the years.”

Traditionally, cane trains are operated by a driver and assistant, also known as a shunter.

The shunter jumps on and off the slow-moving engine to ‘throw the points’, which involves flipping over a large lever at an intersection to switch the directions of the track.

But remote shunting units (RSU) are increasingly being rolled out across the country, allowing for driver-only trains.

Ian Garland this year made the tough decision to fly solo on an RSU.

“I stepped up onto the newer loco and handed down the busted-arse one to my daughter,” he said.

three people stand at the front of a cane train
Driving trains through cane country and having your family as your colleagues? Sounds pretty good to the Garlands.(Supplied: Wilmar)

‘Toolbox meetings at home’

Now that Jess, Emily and Ian are all drivers, they don’t work as closely together.

But dinner conversations usually centre around one topic.

“We have our own toolbox meetings at home, what’s going on in each others’ shift and that,” Emily said.

When quizzed on who’s the best driver, the rivalry in this family remains friendly.

“Definitely me. Nah, definitely be Dad — he’s got the more experience,” Jess said.

World events conspire to squeeze sugar profits from NSW milling co-operative

This year’s annual general meeting of the NSW Sugar Milling Co-operative, held at Ballina on Friday, was a puritan affair thanks to COVID-19, with social distancing measures in place and no refreshments available of any kind – not even a cup of sweet tea.

It set the mood for a sober assessment of a sector struggling in a world-wide excess of supply, with commodity prices below the cost of production.

Profits are down for all of Australia’s sugar milling enterprises with Queensland millers shouldering the worst of it. Mackay Sugar shows a profit on paper but a real life assessment proves otherwise. Isis, Bundaberg and Maryborough are exposing significant losses.

In NSW, the co-operative branding itself Sunshine Sugar is holding its own – in spite of the turbid year.

The spot price is just below 15 cents a pound on the Chicago ICE index and while that looks encouraging, after coming up from 12c/lb last year, it is a long way from helpful with future bids dropping back to 13c/lb.

Meanwhile, spent sugar cane ratoons are not being replanted across vast swathes of Qld near Bundaberg to the point where mills at Maryborough and Bingera have shut down for good. Finasucre, which owns Bundaberg Sugar Limited, is investing heavily in local macadamia production.

On the NSW Northern Rivers macadamias have encroached into all three valleys after floodplain production proved itself. Macadamias at record prices return ten times the value of sugar at the moment.

The enthusiasm to take part is driving up the price of land by a third on the Lower Clarence, as offers come in from keen investors.

On top of that there are early concerns about the ability of the three Sunshine Sugar mills to continue to produce using a declining feedstock, but that is not a worry for the moment.

Brad Jacques, Ken Ryan, Richard Miller and Matt Young.

Co-op CEO Chris Connors admits on-going work to improve transport efficiencies, continuing right through COVID in spite of the downturn, was a move critical to their survival.

“We wouldn’t be here if not for that,” said Mr Connors, citing details like four axle trailers and the ability to carry more load as key. A new freight and logistics warehouse at Harwood with immediate highway access is already paying for itself.

The decision to improve that part of the business proved itself this year to the point that the co-operative was on track to make a modest profit until COVID-19 when sales to wholesalers and retailers slumped 25 per cent during July and August. Profit and loss are now in fine balance.

To sell Sunshine Sugar as a point of difference the co-operative’s marketing arm has worked hard to create new products, like low glycemic index sugar, popular in Malaysia before that country modified the recipe and made the product locally.

Aldi has recently show interest in stocking the low GI product, produced at the Condong mill.

However, the large supermarket chains generally do not return a price that is sustainable.

“We make nothing out of them,” Mr Connors said.

Thus the push to find alternative markets and to increase efficiencies continues into 2021.

One pilot project will take green cane leaves at harvest and mill them into livestock feed pellets. An offshoot of the process will turn cane “trash” into value added cellulose packaging.

A project marketing botanical water will also come in to full production at Condong for the 2021 season with a redesigned plant expected to produce at least 10million litres of absolutely pure water from the sugar cane extraction process.

The AGM was also used to pay respect to the loss of two great leaders in the NSW industry.

Wayne Rogers, Pimlico, lost his life earlier this year in a tractor accident and was remembered for his role as an early adopter of best practice. In his honour a new harvest training program will bear his name. Another respected farmer, local member and minister, Ian Causley, Warregah Island, was remembered in his passing, with his name now adorning the new freight warehouse at Harwood.