Occupation: Cane farmer
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Location of Interview: Flatt’s farm, Yandina
Date of Interview: 23 September 2003
Vic Flatt was born in Nambour in 1943. He comes from a long line of cane growers who can trace their first farm in the North Arm area, near Yandina, back to 1888. He has worked in cane since before he was 15 and has been growing cane on his own farm “Sweet Acres” since he was 20 years of age. He has steadfastly followed the rules for crop rotation and maintaining good farm hygiene that has been rewarded with several awards for his productivity and high CCS tests. Vic’s farm is spread over a variety of terrain and is in an area where the cane rail system has never been utilised and lorries have carted his cane to the Mill for the last 40 years. Many of his relatives are also heavily involved in the sugar industry as growers.
Sadly, Vic will cease to be a cane grower if the Mill closes, but he will still ‘keep his hand in’ growing other commercial crops, such as pumpkin, peas and beans, which he has dabbled with and found good returns. His other passion in life, beside his wife Rhonda and growing family of grandchildren from their four daughters, is the Salvation Army where he is a lead cornet player. Fellow growers describe him as a ‘really nice bloke’ and it is immediately evident when one enters the Flatt farm.
GM: This is a recording of an interview with Vic Flatt recorded in Lees Road, Yandina on Tuesday 23 September 2003 For the Maroochy Libraries Last Crush Project.
Vic thanks very much for taking part in our interview today. Could you tell us what your family history is here in this area, in terms of farming?
Flat family history in cane farming
VF: Well my grandfather selected property here in 1888; they didn’t start growing sugar cane until about 1932. So my grandfather was growing cane up until about 1938, ’39 and my father got married and he took over the farm and farmed land here, the same land as I have today. I came home in 1958 from High School and I have been here with him and then I finally took it all over in ’83 and that is some of the history of sugar cane in our family.
GM: This original farm of your grandfathers - like yourself he became a Salvationist and went off preaching. From when?
GM: Until when?
VF: About 1928 when he retired.
GM: So he was away for quite a long time?
GM: And how big was that original farm?
VF: The farm that he selected was originally 45 acres (18 hectares). He did lose about three acres (1.2 ha) when they re-aligned the road and it finished up as 42 acres (16.8 ha) and that was the original farm, Gary.
GM: And you were about to tell us about timber getting in the area?
VF: Yes, when grandfather left in 1895 to go to Melbourne to go to the Salvation Army Training College, he left his brother - who was his actual brother, but was called Fred Butler - he was left in charge of the farm to pay the rates and things like that. Now in those early days, there was very little way of earning money and the rates tended to build up at the Shire for probably some years until it was quite a sizeable figure and then he would arrange for timber getters to come and cut timber off the farm to pay the rates up to that point. And so this would keep repeating itself. Eventually a case mill (was built on the property) – two brothers, their surname was Abel – they built a case mill on the farm and they were cutting timber off when they came back.
GM: Right, now you were born on New Zealand Day – Waitangi Day – 1943, the 6th of February.
VF: That’s right.
GM: Born in Nambour?
VF: Yes, Nambour General Hospital.
GM: And educated at Nambour?
VF: In Yandina, I did all my Primary School in Yandina. I started school there in 1948 and left in 1956, and then I did one year – 1957 – at Nambour High School and then I did an agricultural course there, which was two years, but I only did one year. My father got an extra assignment and asked me if I would like to come home and that sounded like a very good idea at the time.
GM: Now the farm kept operating. Your father didn’t go away during the War?
VF: No. His brother Harry Flatt did. He went to the war and was in New Guinea and Dad went to enlist, but in those days because he was the sole farmer they said he was essential services and he was told to go home and keep growing cane.
GM: Good idea. Was it always assumed that you would go onto the land?
VF: I think it was the hope of both my mother and father that I would, and being a country boy I suppose, growing up on the farm and following my father around from a very early age - I can remember even going at probably 10 or 11 and going and chipping cane with him and all that - but I suppose I fell in love with the land too.
GM: I mean you really spent your formative years didn’t you as on the job training?
GM: Sort of like a long apprenticeship.
VF: It is. You’re at your father’s heels all the time when you are not at school.
GM: Before we had the interview you talked about leasing. So the 42 acres is somewhat larger now? What have you got today in terms of acreage and production?
VF: Well, when I first came, we had the 42 acres; that was 1958. By 1963 the property next door became available, which was 60 acres, which is actually where I live now. We were able to buy that at a very big sum of £5,500 ($11,000) in those days - for 60 acres. And it was the talk of the district in this area that I paid way too much for it, but that was the price, which is ridiculous by today’s standards. That was 60 acres and there was a very small cane assignment on that and a very small sugar peak – I think it was 13 acres assignment and four and half ton sugar peak.
GM: What does sugar peak mean?
VF: That was what in those days we were entitled to grow and the Mill to receive - four and half ton of sugar, which was really only about 30 ton of cane. And that was all you were eligible to cut and at times the Mill took Number Two peak sugar. That was Number One what I spoke about and Number Two was sometimes at a smaller (lower) price, but if the overseas price (of sugar) was up, it was at a higher price. So then I was granted – I was only 20 years old when I bought it – and when I turned 21 I was able to take the title deeds and in 1964 they were granting new assignment in this area. Because I was a young fella and we had already got bulldozers in and we were clearing the land which showed initiative, the Mill representative came out and he interviewed Dad and I and he could see that we were going somewhere and I was granted up to then a 45-acre assignment and I think I was given something like a 78-ton sugar peak.
GM: What was on the land that you had to clear?
VF: It had been what we call felled by timber cutters, but all the stumps were still in the ground, and so it was sort of semi-cleared. It had been a dairy farm. So we got Reg Hennig in with a 200-horsepower dozer and in a few days he made quite a bit of a difference to it.
GM: Why have you started growing other crops like pumpkins and beans and peas?
VF: From time to time in the early days my father grew strawberries, and beans and peas back in the ‘30s, because in those days it was more mixed farming and they grew some sugar cane and they grew these other crops too … They were sort of pioneers in clearing the land and that was the way they financed themselves, so when I grew up my father grew those sorts of crops. And from time to time when sugar prices went down in the late ‘60s we went and grew beans and peas those days. When sugar improved in the ‘70s and we got bigger, the need for growing these small crops wasn’t there; we never grew them. I tried once again in ’83 when things went bad and I grew them for a couple of years. But the last year I have gone back in them mainly just to earn a bit more income. The income in the cane is so low that I decided to turn my hand to these things.
GM: I look around your lounge room here and I see some awards, could you describe what these awards are for?
VF: The first award I received in 1996 was for small harvester efficiency. In 1970 I bought my first wholestick harvester and ran that for five years and then I bought a Don Solo chopper harvester and I ran that for five years and then in 1980 I bought a Massey 102 harvester, which has been a wonderful harvester and I have cut my own cane with that. And because I was always very reliable and I serviced the machine very faithfully and it ran very efficiently, I didn’t have very many breakdowns at all because it was all caught in the shed before I went out. In the end they awarded me that first one in 1996, later on I think around 2001 on another farm that I was leasing next door, again I got some very high tests and one group of bins went in and it tested 17.96 CCS and so that year I received the award for the highest test recorded in the Mill that year. Last year in the 2002 season the Mill had been keeping records in the Yandina-North Arm area for the last five years and I won that award for the highest productivity for a farmer in the Yandina–North Arm area.
GM: That is what they call this area, Yandina–North Arm?
GM: How many cane growers are in this area?
VF: I don’t know how many I would have been competing against, but I would say in the vicinity of 15 to 20.
GM: What do you think is the capital investment in your farm is in terms of machinery, equipment, land and all that sort of stuff?
VF: In land and capital investment. It is hard to really put a price on what my machinery would be worth, but if I had to buy it new I would think today it would be just in machinery I would have a quarter of a million dollars tied up in machinery. In land, if you were buying cane land in this area, $5000 would be a good price per acre for cane land and seeing there is about 90 acres of actual cane land and there is a 102 (40.8 ha) in the whole property, you would have to be looking at a half-million dollar investment in the land. That is just in the land - that is not in improvements or anything. So I would say, to be conservative, you would have three quarters of a million tied up here in value.
GM: How many people work the farm all year round?
VF: One works it all year round – that is me – as an owner/farmer/worker – and then I have casuals of one or two other men to help me plant, and when I was harvesting there was always a bin out man so that was a casual.
GM: How long does it take to harvest your crop? Do you have early, mid and late maturing canes?
VF: Yes, early maturing varieties, mid-maturing varieties and late maturing varieties.
GM: So you start harvesting around about July?
VF: Correct, generally the first week of the season is the first week of July and you start harvesting and that continues through until it is finished and that is generally about 22 weeks - depending on wet weather and the size of the crop - but we always like to have it off by at least the first week of December and no later. But we have cut right up to Christmas.
GM: How would you describe the bulk of your land?
VF: Most of the land here is in probably two or three categories. You have the land around Browns Creek which is alluvial soil and very, very productive and I have 17 or 18 acres (7.2 ha) of that alluvial flats – creek flats we call them. Then we move up onto other flat land, which is not… this alluvial stuff does flood, the other doesn’t flood and there is probably what we call scrub flats and that was what it originally was – scrub country - and that had been cleared and I would have probably some 40 or 50 acres (16-20 ha) of that type of land. Then we go into the elevated land - or the hill land we call it - and that was forest land and that was much harder to clear because there were bigger trees on it and it wasn’t scrub land and that is sort of a grey clay land and not as productive as the alluvials or the scrub flats, but still produces good cane. So there are three categories on my property.
GM: It really has to be fairly gently sloping land at the most, doesn’t it?
VF: That’s right. You don’t want too steep a land, rocky land and it is just what we call undulating land.
GM: Do you harvest into bins and then go by train?
VF: Here they go by road transport and it is semi-trailer.
GM: I saw a little loading ramp up the road and is that where you run the bins up onto the back of the truck and you have four bins on the back of a truck?
VF: That’s right, the loading ramp and four bins go back in by semi into town.
GM: Do you cut in the green or burn your cane?
VF: I always burnt my cane especially because of the type of harvesters I had. I had the Massey 102 and it didn’t really handle green cane - it was a 1973 model and it was really built for burnt cane. This year, because I am not harvesting my cane, I have gone into a group and Gary McCord cuts it in a contract and he has been basically cutting green.
GM: So you do not have to pay an impost for burnt cane now, do you?
VF: No, not if you cut green.
GM: Is that a lot of money that the Mill levies on burnt cane?
VF: No, it is only 10 cents a ton - the burnt cane levy. It is not proven, but is a fairly accepted fact, that if you cut green a lot of times your tests are up to half a unit better. So what you do pay in an impost for burnt cane is ten cents a ton, you reap a reward by cutting green - even though you pay 30 cents a ton more to harvest green than burnt - because you use more fuel and the contractor charges you approximately 30 cents a ton more. You tend to win up to about 80 cents more in your higher CCS. So you are at an advantage.
GM: What about the amount of mulch that you get out when you cut green?
VF: That is a good factor, but in this sub-temperate zone I don’t like to leave all the trash. What I have done this year when Gary has cut green is get Cecil Davison who comes out and bales it in big large round bales and takes probably about 80 percent of the trash away and leaves the rest, which we can then handle and work into the ground. This is another avenue too to make some money.
GM: What do you think has been your best season?
VF: I suppose it is very hard to single one best year out, but I have had probably three or four ‘best seasons’. I think around 1980-81 was some of our best seasons in production and price.
GM: Right, because you could have a really good year of productivity but if the sugar price is down, you are behind the 8-ball aren’t you?
VF: That’s correct Gary. So 1980–81 were good productivity years and good prices. Those two I can single out. I think 2001 was another good year for production and I did get some very hight tests, which are shown up in that figure of 17.96 and the price wasn’t bad that year - I think we received something like $31 or $32 dollars per ton of cane. Why 1980-81 was good years was we were the receiving $35 per ton in those years and your costs weren’t anywhere near what they were in 2001. The Seventies were good years and I had some good years in the Seventies, excepting 1973, and we may speak about that directly, but the other years were quite good.
GM: Let’s get onto 1973. I take it this was a bummer of a year?
VF: A rough year Gary, yes. It had all the trademarks to be a wonderful year. We had beautiful cane; those days I was harvesting with a Toft J-150 wholestalk harvesting machine with a Toft grab loader. It had been working wonderfully in 1970, 71 and 72. The season dawned with an exceptionally good crop – perhaps the price wasn’t too bad, I can’t remember – that first week of the cane season on Sunday afternoon, everyone was burning and getting ready to start and it was very light spitting rain, very light and cloudy. By Monday morning about 10 o’clock it had started to get a little bit heavy and do you know by Friday night we had 38 inches (one metre) of rain that week, with a cyclone that flattened every stick on the farm! And talk about flooding and erosion, I had ground on these alluvial flats that was ready to plant and we had a flood over it and there was soil everywhere and even in some of the hills the wash and erosion was enormous because you don’t get that sort of rainfall normally.
GM: You are talking about a metre of rain!
VF: That’s correct - 38 inches. And I don’t think there was a stick on the farm standing; it was just like a steamroller had gone over it. And I think for four five or six weeks we couldn’t cut a stick, the ground was that wet and then it rained and it rained some more and we couldn’t get on the ground. Eventually we did start harvesting on soggy ground and the machine couldn’t handle it and some had made an attempt to cut. But it was a terrible season Gary. I think at the end of the season, 25 or 30 percent of my cane was still in the paddock.
GM: So it just lays down and dies, does it?
VF: It doesn’t die. No it didn’t die, but it laid down and of course by this time - six weeks later - there was no CCS in it – no sugar in it – and a lot of it we had to hand cut. Eventually I did get Keith Landt, who took pity on me and bought a chopper in, and we cut about three or four hundred ton and helped me out. But all I can say is that in all the seasons that I have had, droughts were bad but it was the most disastrous year because the ground never dried and I had this wholestick machine that really couldn’t handle it.
GM: Did it just affect a certain area around here?
VF: No, the whole area. There were contractors, one of them that cut the Mill cane - Sutters I think his name was - he had a J-150 the same as me and went and told the Mill he couldn’t cut their cane and the Mill had to buy their first chopper machine to try and cut it.
GM: I think Jim Attewell a loco driver spoke about the 1973 season being a bad one and they didn’t pick up a lot of cane.
VF: It was a shocker.
GM: And at the end of that year we had the 1974 floods, didn’t we?
VF: That’s right. Brisbane had the ’74 floods. It was unnatural rainfall. I can’t ever recall my father talking of rainfall of that intensity. Wrong time of the year and in the wintertime because it never dries out.
GM: It would have been hopeless for the guys down on the river flats.
VF: It was just a nightmare.
GM: Have you ever been flooded here?
VF: Not in the house, no, it has never come up to the house. The house has been cut off, there is a little depression over there (indicates a dip in the ground to the south of the farm house on Lees Road) and not in my time but the previous people (owners) spoke of being isolated on a little island with water all around them in the 1951-52 floods, which were very big in this area.
GM: I have seen photos of the 1951 floods. You talk about rain knocking the cane down. What about wind, has that ever been a problem?
VF: Yes, but wind doesn’t flatten it. It is generally associated with rainfall. You always get the rain that softens the stool in the ground that allows the cane to fall over and it is the combination of the rain and the wind. You can understand that when it is raining, the tons of water that are locked up in that leaf of the crop up in the top. And so you have got the weight of the water, the wind and you have got wet ground that is soggy and over she goes.
GM: That explains to me where I read in a newspaper article where it blew over and then it just knocked all the rest over like dominos.
VF: The domino theory. I did work out Gary once that if you had a 40 ton to the acre crop and you got rainfall and say you had half an inch (12 mm) of rainfall trapped up in the leaves and I think I worked it out that suddenly it put about 30 or 40 more ton in the top of it. And that is the weight…
GM: That is going to fall over. What about drought does that have an affect on the farm?
VF: Yes Gary, the drought years were 1965, 1969; the Seventies were free of drought and we got our next drought in 1983 and the next one was 1993 and both of those affected the productivity of the farm; we were down in tons and of course what happens in the drought is that you get no rainfall to grow the crop, so it starts raining about April or May and the crop starts to grow and when you arrive at the cane (crushing) season it is very immature with no sugar in it. So you end up with a crop that has got no sugar in it and end up having to harvest it and another problem with drought is that because you didn’t get the rainfall in the first part of the year, you always seem to get it in the second half of the year when you are trying to harvest. So they are traditionally rough years too.
GM: Have you been forced into standover cane?
VF: Yes. Always out of drought because of the rainfall. The same as ’73, you get so much rainfall in the (crushing) season, you lose so much time through wet weather that it end up at the end of the year that you probably have got 30 percent of your cane at least still in the paddock. So at that stage it is standover. And I have been very fortunate in those years to leave the standover. It doesn’t die; it ends up a very good crop generally with high sugar. So in the second year you do get a bonus from that previous year. You get no income in the drought year and it sort of compensates the next year to some extent.
GM: It must make it tough as a farmer when you get a low return. If you own your own land it wouldn’t be so bad, but if you were leasing…
VF: That’s correct. Generally a lease isn’t too bad because a lease is generally tied to paying a percentage of the crop. But you can get years where you have no income and you are paying a lease away and you go into debt over it. But if you have got Bank commitments, that is when it becomes really hard.
GM: How would you describe most of the cane farmers around here in terms of owners?
VF: I suppose it would be fairly evenly spread. There would be some of us farmers – I have no debt and there are another couple of farmers I know who have no debt – but there is probably at least 50 percent would have bought farms in the last 10 years and they are carrying quite high debts. And they are the ones that I feel for, and some of those debts could be up to a million dollars.
VF: It is scary.
GM: What have been the effects of lowering sugar prices around the world on you?
VF: Well the main effect is that it reduces your income and that is the necessity to seek another income from other streams; an example is why I am growing beans and peas and pumpkins.
GM: And you had a good return from the pumpkins, didn’t you?
VF: Yes I did all right out of pumpkins Gary, they produced a heavy crop. I got 27 tons that I sold out of three acres, which is a very high productivity, and I didn’t do too bad out of the price. So that was a big help.
GM: You must have seen over the years a lot of different types of harvesting on the land? Would you like to go through and tell us about from when you can remember as a young fellow?
VF: Correct. Well, always since I can remember the cane has been burnt. But my father when he started cutting cane, it was cut in the leaf and it was cut green! And I think that would have been quite a challenge - to cut it in the green. But when I first came home, at the ripe old age of 14 and three-quarter years, my first harvest was when I was 15 in 1958 and my father and I cut by hand. We cut by hand burnt cane and loaded by hand and that was quite a challenge for a young fellow. I did enjoy it, but it was hard work. Then by the Sixties front-end loaders became quite prevalent in the sugar industry and we never bought one, but we were able to lease one from a neighbour who had one and it was just sitting in the shed and he wasn’t using it.
End Side A/Start Side B
GM: This is Side B of Tape 1 of an interview with Vic Flatt for the Last Crush Project.
Vic, we were talking about cutting by hand.
VF: Correct, I didn’t mind cutting by hand. It was the loading that was very heavy on you, especially loading cane in the middle of the day in the heat. So when we could get a front-end loader that made life a lot easier because all we had to do was cut it and top it by hand and use the front-end loader to load it. So I saw that through and choppers first appeared in this area in 1966 and we went into a group with the first Massey Ferguson side cart harvesters and we did two years with that and the contractor went broke and then we went back and got hand cutters in and bought our own front-end loader and I used to load the cane for the hand cutters. By 1970 wholestick machines appearing and you could get them second hand up North and in Bundaberg quite reasonable and my father and I discussed this and said if we could get control of all the farm and the harvesting we would be better off. So we bought a Toft J-150 full stalk harvester in 1970 with a Toft grab loader and we used that until 1975. Then choppers were really taking over and the mills were really going that way and they could cut downed cane or sprawl cane or any sort of cane. So we bought a Don Solo.
GM: Sprawl cane is what?
VF: When it is not flat on the ground, but it is spread out. Instead of standing nice and perpendicular and straight, it sort of sprawls. There is cane when it is flat on the ground and you have got sprawl cane and what we call straight cane. So we bought a Don Solo and we ran that for five years. They were quite primitive (compared) to today’s harvesters; they were really only developing chopper harvesters and by 1980 I got the opportunity to buy through Massey Ferguson Suncoast Machinery a Massey Ferguson 102 cane harvester. It was actually the cane harvester that the Moreton Mill bought in 1973 to harvest their cane when their cane all got flattened. It was that machine that my father-in-law sold them. So I bought that and it has been a wonderful machine that I ran for 23 seasons. I looked after that and ran it and this year, because of my age (60), the motor needed a lot of money spent on it, I decided to put her in the shed and get a contractor in to cut it.
GM: What do contractors charge?
VF: Gary charges me about $6.35 for burnt cane per ton and 30 cents extra for green plus GST.
GM: When you were hand cutting this cane as a young fellow with your dad before you had the front-end loader, what were you loading it onto?
VF: They used to have mill trolleys; they were wholestick in capacity and they were just sort of a wooden tram lorry with the wheels underneath and four sticks that came up.
GM: So it’s what the Mill called a cane truck.
VF: Cane truck that’s it.
GM: So you were still putting it on the back of motor lorries?
VF: Yes, we put them on. They used to go by road transport; they had a line on the back of the truck and a winch and they would come into the farm with two empties and they would drop them off and they would drive over to the full ones and winch them up onto the truck and take them away and left two empties for you to load.
GM: They have never had rail in this area?
VF: There was portable rail, in the wet season. We never owned any, sometimes we used to borrow the neighbour’s (Williams), but no there was never ever locos and rail in this area. It has always been road transport. Before the Second World War – this might seem unbelievable - but before that they used to cart it over in German wagons to a little siding at Bridges and they would take it off and load it over there. I don’t know whether there was no derrick at Bridges - there was one at Yandina - I think they had to double-handle it at Bridges. That seems hard to believe, German wagons were operating. And then when the War came in this area, because there was a great need for the military to control transport on the rail with armaments and things, the railway told all the farmers they couldn’t put their cane on the rail anymore and that was when it first started to go in road transport Gary, during the War years. Essential services came into it, didn’t it?
GM: What did you call German wagons?
VF: German wagons, only us old-timers would remember them. They were four wagon wheels made out of wood and they don’t know what they carried - it is all pre my time - but they probably carried a couple of ton and two or four horses to pull them over. I haven’t got a photo of anything Gary to show you what they were really like, but us old fellows saw them around.
GM: They were horse-drawn?
VF: Yes, a way of conveyancing things, yes.
GM: Did your father ever have horses on his farm?
VF: Yes, he had horses when I was a kid. He had horses right up until about 1952 when he bought his first TE-20 Ferguson tractor. There were horses on the farm.
GM: And you would just haul the trucks up to where you were going to load them onto the motor lorries?
VF: Well, it was like this Gary. In those days the cane went in by road transport, but it was flat-bottom trucks and actually the trucks drove into the paddock and they loaded them on big flat backs of the trucks. They carried about four to five ton in two slings and each of these slings was actually the amount of cane that would go onto one of those Mill tram lorries (cane trucks) we spoke about. And so those trucks took it into Nambour and they had a derrick there and they had wire ropes around them and they would lift them up and they would push a little wooden (cane) truck under it and bring it down, put the chain over it and that then went into the Mill.
GM: So it was the equivalent load (of a cane truck)?
VF: Yes it was the equivalent load. And it was about 1955 they started to take the wooden back of the truck and put (tram) line and a winch on them and a lot of them were Blitzes, because they were four-wheel drive, the Blitzes they used in the Second World War, and they were a lot better to get into the paddocks in wet weather. And they had points on them and they used to winch those little lorries (cane trucks) up onto them and that is the process that we were using when I came home.
GM: Today do you use wheeled or tracked harvesters?
VF: The Massey Ferguson 102 that I spoke about was a wheeled harvester, but the contractor today, Gary, has been using tracks for at least the last ten years probably and that is what he has got and he is cutting the cane with this year.
GM: Basically it means he doesn’t get stopped too much, doesn’t it?
VF: That’s right. This time they came in and when he harvested here, he took 1000 ton off in two days, and I could not have cut on these soil conditions in the wetness that he could cut on and have no trouble. I said, ‘Gary, I could not cut that with my wheeled machine’, and he said, ‘No’ and he was operating probably a week to ten days before I could have.
GM: That would be an expensive machine.
VF: Certainly it is an expensive machine. To replace that machine today you are looking at 600-$650,000.
GM: That is a lot of sugar.
VF: That is a lot of sugar and that is probably one of the things that the sugar industry is facing is the high capital cost of tractors, machinery and gear. To the return you make, it makes it very small margins.
GM: I guess it makes it hard to compete with countries like Brazil flooding the market?
GM: What is your relationship like, and what has the relationship been like, with the Mill over the years?
VF: My relationship, and with our family, with the Mill has always been quite cordial. The cane inspectors that we have dealt with, I think that if you are fair with them and you treat them as you should treat your fellow man, they have always been very cooperative with me and our family.
GM: Now the cane inspectors come out at the beginning of the season and I guess during the season as well. I would like to know how they assess how much is in that crop.
VF: Correct. The estimate really has always been, well I have always tried to work it with a dual purpose with them and me working together. I think if it you leave it to the cane inspectors probably what they do is just look at the figures and see what the productivity has been in the last year and they look at the crop and they say it’s much the same. But generally with the cane inspectors that I have worked with, we sit down together and they usually say, ‘Well Vic you probably know as much about this as me, and we sit down and I say, ‘Well I think there is that much cane there.’ And if they have got the history of working with you and know that you don’t over-estimate or under-estimate and that you are pretty accurate, we generally arrive at a pretty close figure. That is how I do it.
GM: And he tells you that in these weeks here we are going to cut.
VF: Well you are given an allotment and that is tied to the crushing capacity of the Mill and even the (harvesting) contractors are like that. Depending on how much cane you grow, you have that percentage of the crushing capacity of the Mill and are from that given an allotment per week or per day and when I ran my own machine I was given a weekly allotment and that is what I did. Sometimes, and this is where working together and having good relations with the Mill was always an advantage, because sometimes I would have a block that had more in my weekly allotment and I would ring them and I would say that there was more than my weekly allotment, can you help me out? And they would say yes or no and I always took that answer and then you would get another block that didn’t have your weekly allotment. So it sort of worked out as long as you didn’t try to take advantage and they were very helpful. Well I found that Gary, anyhow.
GM: You have got a lot of bush around here as well.
VF: Mmm, the creek especially.
GM: Do bushfires ever become a problem?
VF: Not here, no. Not here. We have quite timbered areas and the main timbered areas are the creek course - Brown’s Creek in particular. That is a well-marked tree area and there are such great areas of cane that… The bushfires were around when I was a kid but as the area got more and more cleared and became more cane, they disappeared.
GM: In times of drought - and we do have the fires - do you ever have to irrigate your cane?
VF: No, there is never the water Gary, because when it gets that drought, the creek stops flowing and there would not be the water in the creek to ever supply when it came to irrigate 100 acres (40 ha) or 150 acres (60 ha) of sugar cane.
GM: It would soak up a lot of water.
VF: My word, you would have to have big facilities for that; that is why they need big dams on big rivers. The only irrigation I can carry out is for small crops where you might irrigate an acre or half an acre (.5 ha - .2 ha).
GM: What sort of crop rotation system do you use?
VF: I am glad you asked that question Gary, because our family has always been a great believer in not over-taxing the land in production. Sugar cane is generally grown as a plant and three ratoons, so it generally is a four or five-year cycle and then you (rotary) hoe it out. I am a great believer in resting the soil for one year and growing green manure crops on that soil. It is a practice that was very prevalent in the sugar industry years ago, but in later years it has tended to be forgotten. Some people hoe their cane and replant it the same year and don’t rest the land and put any fallow crops in it. I believe that is one of the reasons I get the higher productivity because I look after the soil. I get soil tests on it, I monitor it and I lime it when necessary and I grow my green manure crops and the tests that I get back after my soil tests, even the local agronomist that looks after this for me says, ‘Vic, your soil is still testing like virgin soil’. This is where I believe it pays off. I think if you grow 80 percent of your cane and rest the remainder every year, you get higher productivity off the 80 percent than you will at the 100 percent. If you don’t, you burn it out. And this is proved around the world Gary.
GM: Yes, Ossie Apps uses a similar system; he does one and four ratoons.
VF: You have got to, Even the Israelis - and these men are clever - and they got a Israeli soil scientist out up in the North to see why they had a decline in productivity and when he saw what they were doing to the soil, he said the answer is in your own hands. Rest your soil; look after your soil.
GM: Do you have to use much fertiliser?
VF: Yes, when you get your soil test back, they give you a recommendation because sugar cane does pull out a lot of NPK, nitrogen, phosphate and potash out of your soil. So they give you a recommendation to maintain that fertility. The recommendation that has been given to me - and that I always run with - is about 600 weight (6 bags) of fertiliser to the acre (.5 ha) of what we call a ‘one shot’ and I believe that maintains the fertility of the soil.
GM: What do you think has been the biggest difference between the ways you farm your cane and your dad did?
VF: Mechanisation. I have learnt so much from my father - and my grandfather was English - and they understood from the English system that you had to look after the soil. In England they always rested their soil and they brought that with them. So there was that angle, but the productivity has increased since I took over from my father and even while we were working together, as our mechanisation became better, our soil hygiene became better. Weeds treated with chemicals in these later days enables you to keep the cane cleaner. All of these things. I can remember on just the 90 acres that we had where if we got 17 or 1800 ton off that productivity we were happy. I have even climbed up to (2700 tons) off the same area.
GM: Is that what you mean by farm hygiene, keeping your soil rested?
VF: Yes, if I could say the word farm hygiene is a sort of holistic approach to the whole thing. You must have clean seed - that is the plant that you use - it has got to be free of ratoon stunting disease, and it is very important that you have farm hygiene in that area. And then your farm hygiene runs through to your weeds and how clean you keep your ground. I see some farmers that have got more paspalum in their ground than cane, guinea grass and things like that, you just can’t have weed competition with your cane. And yet if you look in the area at the good farmers, there is one notable fact that their cane is exceptionally clean of weeds.
GM: How do you keep your weeds down?
VF: Mainly since about 1978 I started to move into chemical application. Before that it was all mechanical; it was all cutaways and spinners and chip hoes. I still use chip hoes, I am not too proud to use a chip hoe! I think all good farmers own chip hoes.
GM: It is a shame someone can’t find a good use for weeds. If there is I have got some really good ones at home!
VF: Isn’t it amazing, it doesn’t take any effort to grow weeds, but you know with chemicals you have got good men to advise you on what chemicals to use. It is the old story isn’t it? If you let your weeds seed, the seeds of those weeds are seven years hard work. If you can keep onto your weeds and never let them seed... I sit on a tractor with a chip hoe on board most times and if I see a bull (giant) paspalum or a guinea grass, I am off and chipping him out, don’t let him seed. I have worked for farmers where the populations of some of these grasses are in the thousands and millions in an acre, but it is a rare sight if these things get away on a good farm that is practising good farm hygiene.
GM: What do you think is the greatest challenge you face as a cane farmer, not counting the likely closure of the Mill? At the beginning of the year, when you are getting your crop ready, what is the greatest challenge you face?
VF: I would say the weather is your greatest challenge. If it is kind to you, things go fairly smoothly. If the weather goes against you Gary, she is a hard row to hoe. The weather is your biggest challenge.
GM: What are you going to do if the mill closes?
VF: Well I face this squarely. If the Mill closes - and I have been to all the seminars, most of them, and I looked at cash flows and cost of production and I have had invitations to send cane to Maryborough and various things - but if the Mill closes at Moreton, I shall cease to be a cane farmer. I have had 46 wonderful years on the farm and I have enjoyed every one of them, but to try and produce cane and receive a price that is less than the cost of production seems futile.
GM: It doesn’t seem to make sense, does it?
VF: It just doesn’t make sense Gary. So what I will do - and being my age of 61 next February - I always had a vision that I would like to retire at 62. It is something my wife Rhonda and I have spoken about various times and as you get older, your health starts to suffer. Well it is the strength that you haven’t got and the get up and go. And I have seen some time some very good farmers stay too long and in the end you could see the decline come because they couldn’t keep it clean and keep the weeds out. I was going to retire at 62 so if I get to 61, I will ease myself into retirement.
GM: You don’t think you would go into market crops or market gardening?
VF: Yes. I won’t sell all the land, but I will in the next two years be faced with selling some of the deeds of my property. I have three deeds, so I will probably sell one off and I will retain some. I think I will always dabble a little bit in growing small crops.
GM: You dabbled in pumpkins and did very well!
VF: That’s right, and even beans and peas. We didn’t lose money we made something. If you can make $10,000, it is all a big help when you don’t owe anything. And I will probably dabble a bit. I think one of the things that I will do I would probably like to travel a bit around this wonderful Australia. And I will probably come back and grow a few crops in the off-season.
GM: What do you think is going to be the greatest loss to the area - the Maroochy Shire - if the Mill closes, apart from Vic Flatt not growing cane any more?
VF: That’s right. That is a big question Gary. I think it is a two-pronged thing. I think they are going to lose the scenic beauty of the sugar cane in the area. I think there is nothing prettier than to drive around - and this is not only from the locals but those who come in as tourists - how beautiful it is to drive around and see the canefields and see the activity. So that is going to be a big miss. The landscape is going to change. There isn’t any other crop - only ginger - that I am aware could sustain a farmer to the degree that sugarcane has. It has been very kind to my family for over 70 years and it has been a great way of life. So the economic thing is going to be another big factor. The sugar industry has been a great primary producer of income in this area. Some have estimated that the Mill earns up to $20 million as a spin off with a multiplier effect of up to $80 million, and that is a lot of money that is renewable every year. That is going to be a big loss.
GM: And provided by sunshine.
VF: Provided by the good Lord and sunshine and the rain. It is a renewable resource Gary. And much of the land hasn’t got another use as yet – it may – but we haven’t got many other uses for the flood plains and that is really the crop that is best suited for it. So they are two factors that I can see just quickly thinking about it. And the families, there have been some three generations on farms, four generations, and that link is going to be broken. There is a lot of history there to pass on to your children and your families. I have no sons, but I can see that I received a great reward from my father.
GM: Okay. Well I am going to stop there and Vic I am going to finish our interview and thank you very much for your participation today.
VF: Thank you very much Gary for the privilege of being part of it.
End of Interview