Occupation: Project Manager, Moreton Mill, Bundaberg Sugar Ltd
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Location of Interview: Moreton Mill, Nambour
Date of Interview: 18 November 2003
Born in Childers in 1942, Graham Coleman was born into a sugar cane growing family and has had ‘sugar in his blood from the day he was born’. After a succession of courses and working his way up from apprentice fitter and turner to eventually Chief Engineer at Mourilyan Mill, Graham was appointed as the General Manager of the Moreton Sugar Mill in 1978. He was instrumental in lifting the Moreton Mill from the ranks of low production to where it reached record tonnages just before he was posted to overseas mills in 1997. After several years overseas Bundaberg sugar sent him with the mission to help save the mill where he had spent almost half his career in the industry. It has been his melancholy duty to close the Mill down after unsuccessfully trying to find a way forward for the Mill with the stakeholders in an industry environment that always had the odds stacked against it. His has been a difficult and heavy duty, but the respect that he is shown by everyone around the Mill, and by the growers, is testament to Graham Coleman’s personable character.
Graham Coleman oral history [MP3 136MB]
GM: This is a recording of an interview with Graham Coleman, the Project Manager of Moreton Mill, Nambour recorded by Gary McKay on Tuesday 18 November 2003 for the Maroochy Libraries Last Crush project.Graham firstly thanks very much for giving us your time at this seriously busy time of the year and a seriously busy time for the Mill at this stage. Could you tell us when and how you got involved in the sugar industry?
GC: I actually grew up on a cane farm, so I suppose sugar has been in my blood right from the day I was born. I grew up in the western part of the Isis District. I actually entered the sugar industry in a more positive way, when I was about 16 I suppose. After finishing high school in Bundaberg, I served an apprenticeship with Isis Sugar Mill (near Childers) in mechanical engineering, which was fitting and turning in those days. I continued to do studies and moved up through the ranks from a fitter and turner on shift in sugar mills to engineering and eventually becoming Chief Engineer of Mourilyan Sugar Mill for a number of years in north Queensland and then back to Isis Mill as (Assistant Chief Engineer and later) Chief Engineer and then down to Moreton (Mill) in 1977.
GM: So you were here (back) then? What jobs did you have here at the Moreton Mill?
GC: Howard Smith Ltd owned the Moreton Mill in those days; they had just bought the Mill in 1976 and I had previously worked for Howard Smith at Mourilyan. I accepted the job as Production Supervisor down here at Moreton and a year later became the General Manager of the Moreton Sugar Company Ltd. Yes, I started as the Production Supervisor of the Mill and became General Manager and stayed in that role for the next 19 years. I left Moreton Sugar Mill in July 1997 and I worked for Tate and Lyle - who was the owner of Bundaberg Sugar Company then - I worked for them in China where they owned the majority share holding in two sugar companies and I was Chairman of the Board of those two companies. We also managed those two companies in China and I sat on the board of another five companies over there that Tate and Lyle had an interest in. In about 2002 it must have been - earlier last year - I returned to Moreton Sugar Mill to try to help the sugar industry here find a way to move it forward so that it would survive into the future. Unfortunately we were unable to find a way and the future of the sugar industry has since gone in the opposite direction and now it is about closing the Mill as smoothly as possible with a minimum effect on the whole community.
GM: It must be fairly nostalgic to come back to a place where you spent so long turning out sugar?
GC: Oh yes, that is very true. When I first came to Moreton Mill, it was a small mill crushing about 350 – maybe 400,000 tonnes of cane (per annum), and it had a lot of very old equipment that had been run down. It was a public-owned company (prior to Howard Smith’s purchase) and not much money had been spent on the Mill for a number of years. When I came here, Howard Smith were very keen to upgrade it, to increase production and so we spent quite a bit of money. We spent more than $12 million dollars in those early years upgrading the Mill, putting in modern equipment, making it very efficient, increasing our farming land, increasing our production. Unfortunately in those days we could not increase production as fast as we would like to. Increase in production was dependant on various organisations in those days, for example the State Government would decide if there was going to be an expansion in the sugar industry - the State Government - and through the Central Sugar Cane Prices Board, an expansion would be offered to the various milling regions and each mill got anywhere between one and half and three percent of cane-growing land. So the small mills kept relatively small compared with the big mills when it came to expansion. It was not until the 1990s that the method of expansion was opened up much more widely.
GM: You were fairly hamstrung in that regard weren’t you?
GC: Yes in those days it was fairly difficult; each mill had a peak and the peak was made up of that sugar, which could be sold on the domestic market, plus those contracts made overseas that could be viewed as being contracts with a relatively low risk. So each mill had a sugar peak and that was relative to tonnes of sugar and Moreton Mill’s peak was relatively low, and expansions were more or less based on peak and the area of assigned cane-growing land. So we were hamstrung, yes.
GM: Were you here when the Mill hit 500,000 tonnes?
GC: Yes I was, that was back in 1991 and that was a very significant achievement for Moreton Mill we thought at that stage. I can remember we issued everyone a T-shirt commemorating that occasion.
GM: Everyone talks about that as a milestone.
GC: Yes, it was a significant milestone. Moreton Mill went on to achieve, I think it was, 676,000 tonnes. It was pretty close to 700,000 tonnes of cane the same year that I left in 1997, and the next year was a good year also; it was just a little bit less than that record tonnage. Unfortunately then in 1999 they had very wet year - one of the wettest years on record. The crop was down that year and a lot of the cane was harvested under very difficult conditions and the next year the production was lower still. It has been difficult times since then because the price of sugar went very low and whilst the industry did pick up a little bit in tonnage, the tonnages were still too low by today’s standards for a sugar mill to be in a viable situation.
GM: With those wet seasons it is not only that season but the one following gets hit doesn’t it?
GC: Yes. Well in the case of Moreton we know from past years that if you have a very wet season and there is a lot of difficulty harvesting, eventually growers will have to harvest their cane if it stays wet for a very long period in any one season. A lot of damage is done to the stools of cane in the field and it takes two to three years to fully recover from that crushing season.
GM: Your family grew up in the Isis District. Was your father involved in sugar?
GC: Yes, my father was involved in sugar. He grew sugar cane all his life and dairied as well in a fairly dry area of the Isis District; no irrigation in those days, and he was also on the Isis Canegrowers’ Executive. He was a Councillor of the Isis Shire for some 37 years. So in my very young days – even as a child – I helped plant cane and cut cane in my school holidays, especially when I was a teenager so I was exposed to sugar in those very early days and I enjoyed very much growing up on a cane farm.
GM: You have come back as the Project Manager. What is basically your charter?
GC: Well as I said originally it was to try and help find a way forward to save the sugar industry here, to find perhaps value adding; to make sure the sugar industry here on the Sunshine Coast could survive. But unfortunately as it turned out that was impossible, we couldn’t find a way forward, we couldn’t reach an agreement with the canegrowers that would enable us to make the place much more efficient and grow at the same time. But of course there are other factors affecting that. One was the very low sugar price (on the world market) and the other was the location of the Moreton Mill. It is right on the edge of the cane growing area. If you look at the factors that really have brought an end to the life of the Moreton Sugar Mill, you could sum them up as saying: insufficient volume of cane to keep the Mill viable in this day and age, the continuing urban encroachment, people pressure in this area - everyone wants to come and live on the Sunshine Coast - so urban encroachment continues to rob the sugar industry of a lot of land. It’s roads, it’s housing allotments, universities, schools, airports – all those sorts of things have added to it. I mentioned before the location off the Mill. Our transport costs are very high, some 400,000 tonnes of cane are brought to the Mill on a very long cane railway line and the tonnage of cane per kilometre is very low by industry standards. Really the cane railway line needed to be a lot shorter for the small amount of cane, but due to the geography of the region, cane is grown up quite narrow valleys like creek valleys and river valleys. So the cost of transport is very high. New land that needed to come under cane is some 60–70 kilometres away and while the sugar price is very low - it looks like it is going to stay down there - the cost of getting the cane to the Mill is very high and would always be high from those areas. Last of all, but not least, the sugar price is extremely low and I am afraid that Australia is going to have to live with low sugar prices because of what has happened in places like Brazil, where they have increased production and can survive and even make money at very low sugar prices; also Thailand and other parts of the world (can remain viable at current low world market sugar prices).
GM: Has Brazil got very low labour costs?
GC: Yes, labour costs in Brazil are about 1/20th or less than those of Australia, but Brazil is a very good place to grow cane apparently. The soil is very rich, very fertile, rainfall is ideal and they have a lot of relatively new and very large mills over there from what I understand. Some mills are crushing many times what some of our biggest mills would crush here in Australia for example. And they have adopted Australian technology with very big broad-acre farming. From the time that they plant cane to the time that they’d deliver it at the factory it is virtually tended to 24 hours per day, so they have been able to reduce costs considerably by adopting Australian technology, which a lot of our industry hasn’t taken up yet. Further, they have devalued their currency as well. Which makes it possible - we are told - for a lot of their mills, if not all of them, to make a profit at six cents per pound US equivalent ($ 0.09 cents per 0.4 kg). Whereas that is very difficult for us and certainly in this area we can’t match that.
GM: Apart from being bothered for interviews, how do you spend your day and what do you do all day every day at the moment?
GC: At the present time my day is very busy being involved with employee matters leading up to the termination of employment and the closing of the Mill. I am also involved in grower matters leading up to the closure of the factory. Those matters are relative to the cane railway line, the crushing for the final year, the preparation for the smooth closure of the factory and the removal of the equipment we need to remove before full dismantling takes place.
GM: When will that dismantling take place?
GC: We are due to finish crushing on about 4 December and as soon as the factory has been cleaned up, washed down in those areas where it has to be washed down, dismantling of equipment will commence. Firstly we will be removing equipment that we can use in other factories, i.e. turbines, gearboxes, motors, automatic control equipment and all that sort of thing that can be used in the industry and help the rest of the industry, especially in the Bundaberg Group. The equipment that cannot be sold will be removed by a demolition contractor and I guess some of the older equipment will go for scrap (metal).
GM: What about the 120 kilometres of cane railway?
GC: Well we have an agreement with the growers that is related to crushing this extra season, and under that agreement growers will provide a waiver to the company for its responsibilities in relation to the cane railway line. Which means that the cane railway line that passes through farms will become the property of canegrowers, except for the heavy rail that we, our company, will pull up and will be used in other areas.
GM: You said ‘extra season’ before.
GM: So 2003 is an…?
GC: Is an additional season over and above the company’s plan. The company announced closure at the end of last year, but we have agreed with the growers to operate an extra year to give them time to prepare for whatever that they wanted to do to take over from sugar. This time last year they were carrying out feasibility studies into the production of ethanol with a fairly large company and that was their plan at that stage but that has presently been put on the back burner I understand.
GM: Yes, that ethanol became a serious political football for a while didn’t it?
GC: Yes, yes.
GM: And everyone seemed to have their views and whatever. What do you think is the most important part of your job at the moment?
GC: I think the most important part is to make sure that things go as smoothly as possible, to assist the Mill employees in every way that we possibly can so that they are able to continue with the company as long as they can, and find employment after they have gone. We have hired a company to try to assist them along the way. Also we want to make sure that things go as smoothly as possible with the canegrowers; help them to the extent that we can and just make sure that they get all their cane off this year and that the railway line is pulled up in those areas where we are going to pull it up with the least disruption to them. Also there are all the other issues that go with that with regards to cane payments and employees’ wages and redundancies and working with the (Shire) Council and the community so that the closure of the factory has the minimum effect that we can enable it to have on the community.
GM: It is not like you can just close the doors and walk away.
GC: No it’s not. There is quite a lot of planning.
GM: It will probably take what, a year?
GC: I would think it would take at least a year before everything is fully finished and the site is cleared.
GM: The day the stack comes down is going to change the look of Nambour because it has been around for a long time hasn’t it?
GC: Yes, it will. Actually the current stack went up in 1975 with the new boiler then. So I don’t know how many stacks would have been in place over the Mill’s lifetime but I imagine it is probably the third or fourth or maybe even the fifth one.
GM: Is the Christmas tree going up this year?
GC: At this stage we are trying to find a way to make sure the Christmas tree goes up for the final Christmas here.
GM: I mean everybody talks about it; it is a real landmark.
GC: Mmm, I think the community would be disappointed if it wasn’t there so we are planning for that.
GM: What has been the most challenging part of this whole project?
GC: The closure project?
GC: I think the most challenging part has been trying to make sure that everything goes as smoothly as it possibly could. Just making sure that the canegrowers are able to achieve what they wanted in the closure process, also making sure the employees were able to achieve what they wanted in the closure process, but at the same time the company was able to satisfy the needs of all parties. And you know, negotiations with the Canegrowers Association and with Mill employees has been quite long and drawn out, but hopefully it has ended up as smoothly as we could possibly achieve. I think it has. It has been going quite well. I have got to say that the employees have been very responsible; they have been extremely good in trying to meet the challenge, which is hard on everyone, but they have acted very well and there has not been one day lost to the crushing operation or to the factory – even in the off season – due to any ill feelings or any negotiations in relation to the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that we have with them. Likewise the negotiations with the growers have been long and drawn out but generally speaking they understand the situation that the Mill is in. We understand the situation that they are in and it was very largely brought about by the circumstances that we are in on the Sunshine Coast. As I say, everyone wants to come and live on the Sunshine Coast and at the same time we are battling against a very low sugar price and it looks like it is going to be there long term, if not for ever.
GM: Yes it is a tough one. What preparations have been made during this period when 2003 was to be the last crush? What sort of things did you have to put in place?
GC: We had to have a final collective agreement with the canegrowers that satisfied their needs and satisfied the company’s needs and that has been achieved. It has worked out so that they are as happy as they can be with the agreement. Also we had to have in place an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement with the employees so that they were as happy as can be under the circumstances. That Enterprise Bargaining Agreement includes a redundancy payout on their termination of employment with us. They of course will be involved in removing the equipment that needs to be removed. Also it enables them to do some planning for the future - those who are young enough to stay within the workforce somewhere. Our company has offered opportunities within the Bundaberg Group in other areas for those people who want to continue on with Bundaberg Sugar Ltd. Also we are providing training through a company for finding jobs elsewhere: writing resumes, how to go for an interview, etc.
GM: Yes, because some of them would not have been for an interview for a long time!
GC: Yes, that is right, and a lot of them have never had to write a resume – they have been with us for many years, and they have never had to go for another interview, since maybe 20 or 30 years ago. So they are receiving training in all aspects of finding another job and how to present themselves, and also generally coping with the closure of the factory. That has been going on for some considerable time and I think it is more than six months now. So, they are being walked through as gently as possible with as much preparation as possible. I think they value that. I think the employees appreciate that.
GM: I think that the fact that you said you hadn’t had a day lost in dispute or anything like that speaks pretty highly of the workforce doesn’t it?
GC: It does, it speaks very highly of the workforce. We have got a very good workforce here; they have been very good over the years and we have quite an efficient mill here as a result of that. As I said the big problem is not the Mill proper itself, not the employees. It is outside of our control. It is many things.
GM: What has been the toughest part of the whole process?
GC: The closure part? I think the toughest part would be trying to keep everyone as happy as is possible and that would have been during negotiations with the canegrowing community, negotiations with employees and unions, and also there has been - earlier on, not so much in recent times – negotiations and talks with (Maroochy Shire) Council. Trying to find a way forward initially was extremely tough and was not able to be reached. And then trying to find a way for as smooth a closure as possible, and also providing time for the canegrowers to find an alternative use for their sugar cane or their land. I think it can be said that our company has tried as hard as possible to try and meet all those objectives, but it hasn’t been easy. It has been quite hard and at the end of the day you can only do the best that you possibly can and I think that time tends to allow people to recognise that, that that has happened. I think that if I look back over the years though and say what has been the toughest hurdles to get over in some 20 years of being here I would have to say battling against low sugar prices, and there were (frequently) low sugar prices, also trying to get the sugar production up to a level that would keep the Mill viable in the long term. That has always been a battle to try and find away to increase production and also meet the requirements of all the various players in the sugar industry. In the early days we were hamstrung with limited expansion. When we were able to expand, the players in the industry always wanted something additional, so it was always a battle to try to achieve what we wanted to achieve. I think the regulation has tended to hold the industry back in recent years; the Sugar Cane Prices Act and the regulation that goes with it has probably outlived its time. It served us very well in the past, but no longer serves us as well as it should.
GM: In your time with the Mill, what do you think were some of the more memorable milestones? We mentioned the 500,000 tonne crush. What other things do you think really stick out in your memory?
GC: I think when I first came here in 1977. We were going through a period then where production was cut back to peak because Australia then was a member of an international sugar agreement (and there was an overproduction of sugar in the world). So whilst our company, Howard Smith, who had just purchased this (mill) the year before, was keen to pur some money into the Mill, it was an era of some excitement where we could still spend a bit of money on making the Mill more efficient and tidy it up. But it was only a couple of years later when the world situation turned around and we were able to produce more cane. So probably one of the more exciting times was the early ‘80s when we were able to spend quite a bit of money and turn the Mill into a good efficient sugar mill, with more automatic equipment, a revamped milling train and new equipment and equipment that would allow for expansion in the future. So the early 1980s were good times for Moreton Mill and quite exciting times. At the same time we bought extra land that we used for expansion after that period. However, in the mid-1980s the sugar price went down to rock bottom and it was a difficult time where we had to tighten our belts and also we had a couple of bad years. If I remember rightly we had a couple of years around then that were quite dry growing seasons, but ended up wet crushing seasons so we had a couple of small crops. We got over that period and we had our ups and downs after that but there were some quite good times up until recent years. But one time that sticks out in my memory was I think it was 3 o’clock in the morning of 1 September 1981, when the boiler furnace had a type of a ‘melt down’ I guess you would call it in this day and age. The boiler apparently ran low on water and the automatic shutdown systems or the alarm and automatic shutdown system didn’t work for some reason. They failed to work and the two operators on the boiler were unaware that the water was so low. The next thing there was an over heating (of tubes because of low water level) and one of the tubes – it blew out – and the remaining water very quickly emptied out of the boiler. And yet the boiler kept on feeding fuel into it…
End Side A Tape 1
Start Side B Tape 1
GM: This is Side B of Tape 1 of an interview with Graham Coleman and we were talking about the boiler failure and the temperature got to 1000 degrees.
GC: Yes, well the inside of the furnace is 1000 or over 1000 degrees Celsius, so the tubes inside that furnace - and it is a water-boiled furnace - all have to be full of water. In operation they are heating the water up and the main part of the main bank is where the steam is produced, which goes up to the big steam drum at the top. Anyway the furnace ran out of water - all the tubes all emptied out and so the tubes themselves all over heated. They would have been white hot probably, they all just buckled and bent inwards and the whole furnace overheated and as I said the right word probably is – almost the right word is - a ‘melt down’. Of course we had to pull up immediately, we had 6000 tonnes of cane burnt and that boiler had to be fixed immediately because it was mid-way through the crushing season. The 6000 tonnes of cane were sent to Maryborough over the next couple of days and they crushed that up there so the canegrowers wouldn’t lose any money with regards to the cane that had been (burnt and) harvested. But how to fix a boiler furnace in a short period of time was an enormous challenge. And of course we had to get a whole lot of new tubes in and there were no tubes in Queensland that were available. It is a John Thompson boiler and a phone call immediately to John Thompson in the early hours of the morning started the process that allowed us to get the tubes. The tubes had to be bent to a certain shape and fitted in and the fellows at the Mill were very good. We worked around the clock with the help of a contractor and we had that boiler going within three weeks. We finished the crushing season and got all of the cane off (in reasonable time). So the actual number of crushing days that we lost was only 15 crushing days because we weren’t working weekends back in that period. That was a very big challenge and probably one of the worst disasters - mechanical failures - that I have seen in the sugar industry. It was a credit to everyone involved that we were able to fix that (the boiler) and have it going again (in such a short period). Because if you had to rebuild that furnace in the off-season, it would have taken every bit of five months to do what we did in that very short period of time. So, many thanks to all involved, especially the Mill employees here.
GM: I spoke to one of the fitter and turners and he had just come out of his apprenticeship I think when he was here, and he said he looked inside and it looked like a big boiler full of black spaghetti.
GC: Yes, that’s right.
GM: That’s how he described it.
GC: I can remember the chief engineer here who phoned me up as soon as they cooled it down in the early hours of the morning and I suppose it was probably around 4 o’clock in the morning or something like that, and he told me afterwards that when he looked inside, having opened the door at the top of the furnace, he said he just wished he could have dropped dead! It was so much of a problem and to wonder how you were going to fix that with all the canegrowers of course wanting to have their cane crushed that year and the whole community watching. So that was probably – it is certainly the worst mechanical failure that I have seen in any sugar mill. But it ended up that nothing was lost in the end except it did cost money of course, when I say nothing was lost, we did get the whole crop off and we achieved our goal as far as crushing was concerned.
GM: What would it have cost to repair the boiler?
GC: It would probably have been over a million dollars. It costs well over a million dollars to re-tube one now, and that is different to re-tubing the convection bank, the main tube bank of a boiler. So that particular job would have cost around a million dollars way back then I think, from memory.
GM: How would you describe your relationship with the canegrowers from the time you first came here to right through until today? How has that relationship been with the Mill?
GC: Well typically the canegrowers have always tried to protect their interests and receive as much (money) as they possibly could for their cane, likewise the Mill has to protect its interest and be profitable otherwise you can’t justify running a factory at a loss. Unfortunately because over 85 percent of Queensland’s sugar is sold on the world market and we are only price takes - we can’t set the price – whatever the world market price is at the end of the day, that is what we will get. So the cake is only going to be a certain size. It is just normal for the canegrowers to want as much as they can get for the cane and for the Mill to want as much as it can for its share (of the proceeds). With only a small cake to divide up, both parties always fight quite hard to protect their share of the cake, or gain a little bit bigger slice of the cake. So that is typical, that’s normal and whilst it has led to the efficiency of the sugar industry - I think it has contributed enormously to the efficiency of the industry - that has always been there. The relationship with myself, and the company and the canegrowers has always been very good. We have had plenty of healthy debates. We have looked at moving the industry forward and have moved it forward in many areas, but I would say that our relationship has always been very good and I hope it finishes on a good note. Likewise I would have to say that our relationship with our employees has always been very good. There were plenty of times when we had debates and squabbles - in the early days especially – when we were trying to modernise the factory, and that meant reducing numbers, more automatic control equipment, more computerisation and that sort of thing. Naturally the unions don’t like that. But if you’re going to keep a factory operating at a profit you have got no choice in this day and age.
GM: Mmm, it would be like going back to hand cutting cane wouldn’t it?
GC: That’s right, so generally speaking I think all you have got to do is look at the history of the Moreton Mill and see the amount of lost time that we have had through industrial matters you can see that our relationships with the employees and the canegrowers have been very good.
GM: How would you describe the attitude of the Mill workers in relation to the closing of the Mill? I think we touched on it briefly, but how would you describe that mood?
GC: The Mill employees fully understand the situation that the Mill is in and the fact that it has reached the end of its financially viable life. The mood currently is that they have accepted that it is coming to an end - closure is inevitable - and generally speaking they are working as well as they have always worked. It has been a matter of acceptance. I think going back a couple of years ago, was fear of Mill closure and there was quite a bit of concern, then they go through the denial stage and all that type of thing. Generally speaking whilst they would prefer the Mill to be viable and keep going into the future, they understand the situation and have accepted it and they are looking for their future in other areas, i.e. where they go from here. We are helping them the best we can to find a way forward into the future for those who intend to carry on working elsewhere.
GM: When you said ‘denial’, I had someone else refer to that and they said that everyone seemed to be waiting for the ‘white knight’ to charge in and save everyone and everything would be all right. Something would come along, you know? But when you have got so many external factors pressuring in on it, it is tough. What do you think is the likely future for sugar in Queensland?
GC: My own personal view is that it is going to be very hard into the future. There is an urgent need for restructuring and that means freeing up the Act, further deregulation in line with what the State Government has proposed. There is certainly a need for that. There will have to be some assistance with restructuring as the Commonwealth Government has said, but if at the end of the day, the sugar price is going to stay down where it is now and it looks like it could be around there or not much above there, it will be a different sugar industry. The sugar industry will probably contract; there will be less cane farmers, they will probably be bigger farmers on more broad-acre scale farming. There will be Brazil-type farming 24 hours a day and there certainly will be fewer sugar mills. Unfortunately I can’t see any other way; we used to be the best in the world. Brazil can do it better than we can at the present time and we have got to catch up to Brazil and see if we can improve (over and above Brazil).
GM: It has been an evolution hasn’t it?
GC: It has been an evolution. It is sad, it is very sad, because not Nambour now, but once Nambour would have relied very heavily on the sugar industry – mainly on the sugar industry – but not so much now. However there are sugar towns in Australia, further up the coast that do rely mainly on the sugar industry, (and have) no other industries that have a big effect on their economy to the extent that sugar has.
GM: I am thinking of towns like Sarina.
GM: If the mill goes, the town goes.
GC: Yes, you could be right. There is Childers, Bundaberg, Ayr, Home Hill, Innisfail; lots of places where sugar has a huge effect on the economy, it is the main player in those areas. But I can see that growers - whilst the sugar price is low and staying low – growers are looking at alternate uses for their land and that is going to happen.
GM: It is interesting because I have spoken with some growers who are now third and fourth generation and it seems almost to have done a full circle because speaking to a bloke out at North Arm and he said that when his grandfather first started farming, it was all mixed farming.
GM: And he is basically going back to that, not as much as they used to, but it looks as if the wheel has come right around.
GC: Yes and that is going to happen in more areas than the Sunshine Coast region.
GM: And staying on that theme, what do you think will be the impact on Nambour?
GC: Well just in the town of Nambour itself - and not looking at the wider area because there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to the current canefields themselves - but for the town of Nambour there probably will be quite some impact for the first couple of years, but with whatever else takes place on this site – what ever replaces the Mill – I think it will provide an opportunity for Nambour to really go ahead. And I know that the Chamber of Commerce and other groups within Nambour have various ideas of what could replace the Sugar Mill. I have no doubt that something will come up and replace the Sugar Mill that is conducive to putting a large input into Nambour. I think with the factory gone, Nambour will probably boom. It will go ahead in leaps and bounds – in some years time – not the first couple of years, and it will provide an opportunity to make it quite a pretty site with new buildings in this area or something new.
GM: When you have gone through all this process of the closing down, has it been Graham Coleman that has had to stand out at the front of the crowd and give the facts?
GC: Oh no, our company has been very good; we have chosen not to conduct our business through the media. We have purposely chosen that path and our company has kept a lot of the flak away from us locally. Our spokesman is outside of the region and for anything that does go through the media. But generally speaking we have gone about it in a very professional way I believe and purposely not pointed the finger or blamed anyone for the closure of the factory; it is just a fact of economics really. And we haven’t put anyone in the front row here to take all of the flak. Our company has handled that very well, I think.
GM: Did you have to talk to blokes like Ross Boyle?
GC: Yes, I deal with Ross and fellows like Ross; he is in a very difficult situation himself and the other members of the Mill Suppliers Committee in trying to find a way forward for the Sunshine Coast sugar industry and now for the replacement of it. But really they have been at the forefront of negotiations and they fully understand the situation that the Mill is in and we fully understand the situation that they are in. And at the end of the day we don’t blame each other, it is really out of the control – or the majority of the things that are bringing the industry to a close here - are out of control of both the miller and the grower.
GM: That’s exactly what Ross said. So what will Graham Coleman do after the site is cleared and there is a big ‘For Sale’ sign sitting out the front and everything has been finished? What happens to you?
GC: Well I haven’t thought that far ahead really, but my age (61) is such that probably I should relax a bit or just quietly drift out of the sugar industry and play a bit of sport of some sort.
GM: Has it been a stressful time for you?
GC: I think in trying to run a sugar mill, especially a sugar mill in this area – it is small and it has never had a comfortable volume, that has always been one of our problems: insufficient cane; pressure of the community in general and when I say that I mean urban encroachment and generally people pressure, environmental issues, because we are right on one of the most beautiful places in Australia, environmentally everything has to be perfect or otherwise we would be in trouble; occupation health and safety but I suppose that is Australia-wide. All of those sorts of things put a lot of pressure on the people at the top in the companies because at the end of the day if things don’t go well they are the people that have got to front up to the situation, and/or the authorities that you have to deal with. So there has been pressure there - I don’t know whether I could say it has been too stressful. There have been occasions when it has been quite stressful, but the pressure has always been there to try and make ends meet, while at the same time meet all the requirements of the Government and all the rest of the regulations that we have on us in this day and age. And I might say that our overseas competitors don’t have all that (forced) on them.
GM: If you had a silver bullet like the Lone Ranger and could solve everything, and removing sugar prices out of the equation, if we were still competitive on the world sugar arena, what could have made things different?
GC: If we were competitive and that is assuming that the price was reasonable, okay, what could we have done? Really we are in the hands of the (Maroochy Shire) Council and the State Government. If we went back far enough we should have preserved more agricultural land in close proximity to the Mill. Now I fought very hard for that from the day I came here right through until the day I left in 1997 and whilst we had some success, we also lost 1000 hectares between 1980 and the year 2000 to urban encroachment and other uses - not all urban encroachment - like there are roads and a road around the airport and the university. Also some growers went out of cane and split up their land into hobby farms or sold off bits and pieces off, but it amounted to over 1000 hectares in some 20 years. It would have been good to be able to preserve agricultural land because one thing that we don’t recognise in Australia is that less than 10 percent is arable land, that is land that we are able to farm. We don’t have an endless supply of land. Australia is mostly desert or semi-desert. It is not good agricultural land. The stuff that is agricultural land is not always considered to be good agricultural land; it can be quite marginal. Also Australia lacks water; that is one thing, the Sunshine Coast has plenty of water and it was good for farming of various crops – especially sugar cane – but there just wasn’t enough land close (to the Mill). It is quite a hilly region in between all these river flats so there were quite a few things going against it. But ‘a silver bullet’: preserving agricultural land, expanding as early as possible and much greater expansion than what we were able to achieve, and value adding. Unfortunately no one has found any really good value adding, but value adding may well have supplemented sugar and perhaps tourism. We couldn’t find a way with tourism, but there may have been some (small opportunity) there. Other things that are made from sugar may have been possible, but all the efforts that we put in over recent years have been unable to find anything (worthwhile).
GM: I mean ethanol really got kicked around and then got kicked into touch.
GC: Yes, well ethanol is really only viable in those countries where it is supported by the Government to some degree; it is either mandated and they grant tax concessions or there is some other type of support. I think that ethanol probably will be a viable proposition in Australia sometime in the future, but it will require Government (legislation) for a 10 percent blend or some percentage of blend in fuel and it will probably require some Government support also.
GM: We didn’t seem to have any political will to do that – from anywhere.
GC: No not at the present time in Australia, it is not there. I think that it is closer than what it has ever been but it is not there yet.
GM: It will probably be too little, too late, which seems to be the time frame that they use.
GC: Well Brazil grows ten times the (cane) crop that Australia grows, i.e. they grow about 350 million tonnes of cane at the present time. Half of that crop goes to ethanol. Of the 50 percent that remains, half of that is sold onto the domestic market, about 12 million tonnes of sugar I suppose – and that receives some support within Brazil that keeps the price up to a reasonable level. The other half of the 50 percent that is turned into sugar is sold onto the world market and that is sold at the current moment at an extremely low sugar price (around 6c per pound U.S.).
GM: And you mentioned China before?
GM: Is China a big player, or is it all domestic?
GC: China produces a lot more sugar than what Australia does. For example in our best years, we (Australia) we produce close to 5 million tones of sugar. Almost a million tonnes is sold onto the domestic market and that leaves about 4 million tonnes for export. China produces up to approximately 9 million tonnes of sugar and anywhere between 8.2 and 8.6 million tonnes is sold onto the domestic market; usually all the sugar that is produced in China is consumed in China. There may be a little bit that gets smuggled outside of China when the prices are up, via some neighbouring countries.
GM: My last question, what do you think will be the greatest loss to the Maroochy area when the Mill closes?
GC: I think that probably people will miss driving into Nambour and seeing (rising) vapour and some smoke coming out of the chimney during the crushing season. But also they will miss the cane fires, even though there are less cane fires nowadays because more cane is harvested green. I think that will be a loss. There will be no more cane fires, assuming that cane does go. Or even if cane stays, it will not be used the same way that it is now. The other thing will be the locomotives running around the cane fields during the crushing season hauling in cane bins. They will be things that people notice mostly. Presumably the Maroochy Shire Council will continue with their present policy and green fields will remain. I hope that we are able to see green fields in various parts of the Sunshine Coast for a long time to come. But they will the visible things that people will miss the most.
GM: I think the landscape is going to be the biggest thing. I think that will be affected. Just one thing, you mentioned the cane trains, what will happen to all the diesel locos?
GC: Some will go to other mill areas. Some of the small ones may remain with the (Nambour) Museum for example. We are not too sure about that, it hasn’t been decided. The two steam trains in the park will probably go to the Museum or to the local community anyway. It is possible that they might resurrect them for tourism in the future. Generally speaking, the diesel locos that are worthwhile continuing to operate will continue their life in another area.
GM: Graham it has been a good interview and I know you have been very busy and I would like to thank you very much for your time today.
GC: Thank you Gary.
GM: And we will call it quits and talk again.
GC: Yes, thank you.
End of interview