POWERING ON: Food and fibre producers are behind a push to get State Government to lower electricity tariffs.
POWERING ON: Food and fibre producers are behind a push to get State Government to lower electricity tariffs. Warren Lynam

Bring back the cane, urges sugar refiner

INDUSTRY assistance costing $3 million over five years had the capacity to revitalise Sunshine Coast cane farming and drive an additional $5 million into the region annually, the head of one of Queensland's largest sugar producers said this week.

MSF Sugar CEO Mike Barry has urged all tiers of government to back the region's growers as a boost to the Coast's economy.

He said a healthy industry would also ensure clogged drainage systems in flood-prone areas were maintained and functional.

The investment would enable growers to meet heavy re-establishment costs.

MSF's Maryborough Mill has capacity to take more than 100,000 tonnes and is offering long-term contracts to growers willing to commit to supply.

It has identified 1520ha of land held by 15 families as capable of producing 100,200 tonnes under full production.

Growers were currently producing about 23,000 tonnes for Maryborough.

In 2002, the year before Moreton Mill closed, growers were producing 525,000 tonnes of cane a year on the Sunshine Coast, in the process achieving a yield 7.5 tonnes a hectare greater than the average for southern Queensland.

A combination of good producing soils, low inputs and no need for irrigation meant growing costs here were low.

"The Coast is one of the best cane growing areas in Queensland," Mr Barry said.

"It gets the right amount of rain at the right time. It is high yielding and better than Maryborough."

However re-establishment costs at $2500 per hectare were prohibitive for land that had lain dormant since the Moreton Mill closed.

Grower reluctance remained the biggest stumbling block, with few having the stomach to invest heavily after many "bet their homes" on the failed Cow Candy stockfeed project which collapsed last year.

They warned that to return to cane properly would take five years, one year longer than current contracts offered.

Garry Petersen, the region's biggest grower who has maintained 162 hectares under cultivation since the Moreton Mill's demise, said with world sugar at $440 a tonne and cane fetching $37 per tonne prices were reasonably good.

But he warned if it dropped it would be the end for his family farm.

Mr Petersen did not think either subsidies or low interest loans were the answer.

"The 160km to the Maryborough Mill is the killer," he said.

"Growers are 10 years older and others have moved on to other jobs. Some are too old to continue.

"There are no great blocks of cane land. It's all on small titles with areas close to urban areas being sold off as real estate and for the golf course.

"We will never see a return to the past.

"We make enough to keep things going. I hope like hell the price goes up.

"I'd love another crop to come along but there's not too much else grows on the flood plain."

Mr Petersen said while Maryborough growers had irrigation costs those on the Coast had the cost of transport to the MSF mill. Those costs, at $5 a tonne, were heavily subsidised by the mill but margins were tight.

Mr Barry said if half the money spent on the failed Cow Candy venture had been spent on production for sugar the Coast would have maintained a vibrant industry.

The state agriculture department said while there were no formal or funded projects involving cane land here the Sunshine Coast Business Council was drafting a 12-month strategy on developing agribusiness in the region which would include possible future uses of cane land.

A CSIRO study had also identified 29 crop species/enterprises for further agronomic and economic analyses.

These included hemp, maize, oats, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane, sweet potato, cassava, taro, avocado, banana, coffee, lychee, macadamia, mango, Australian native foods, cucumber, melon, potato, pumpkin, watermelon, ginger and strawberry, as well as turf, sown pastures, bamboo, cabinet timbers, hardwoods and softwoods.

Kawana MP and Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie said he encouraged those wanting to replant cane on the Sunshine Coast to investigate whether they met the criteria for the Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority's low interest First Start or Sustainability loans.

Maroochydore MP and parliamentary Speaker Fiona Simpson, whose parents' Yandina cane farm was affected by the closure of Moreton Mill, said she wanted to see a proposal that generated longer-term sustainability, rather than just require on-going subsidies.



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