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.

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