Murray Oakes
Interview with: Murray Oakes (MO)
Occupation: Cane farmer
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Location of Interview: Oakes and Sons’ farm, Maroochy River
Date of Interview: 30 September 2003

Murray Oakes was born in Nambour in 1967 and after attending school and completing an apprenticeship as a diesel fitter he joined his mother and brother on the family farm, becoming the third generation to farm cane in the area. In 1992, Murray and his brother Gordon decided that expansion was the key to success in farming sugar cane and they began a series of purchases that has seen the Oakes become the second largest cane grower in the area after the Moreton Mill. In 2003, Murray expects to harvest in excess of 30,000 tonnes of their own cane, apart from the contract harvesting that they are also doing in the local area that will be another 35,000 tons. At only 36 years of age, Murray is most concerned about where his future and that of his neighbours is going to lie and he is most active in finding the path for the way ahead. Whatever it is, one gets the feeling that this genial and warm man will find the way and succeed.

 

Audio file

Murray Oakes oral history [MP3 141MB]


Transcript


GM: This is a recording of an interview with Murray Oakes recorded by Gary McKay for The Last Crush, Maroochy Libraries Project, recorded on Tuesday 30 September 2003, at Valdora.

Murray firstly thanks very much for taking time out at this really busy time of the year to help us with this project. Could you tell us about your grandparents’ and parents’ history in the sugar industry, maybe starting at Childers?

MO: My grandparents had a cane farm in Childers (from around 1923 to 1937) and I’ve been told they had it for five years and they only got two good years out of that and had three drought years. So they decided to come to this region because there was better rainfall. They bought in River Road, Maroochy River, approximately in the mid-1930s and that ended up being a partnership between the parents and their three boys (the middle boy died during the War years). That evolved and that partnership split up – I’m not sure what the date was (mid-‘60s) - but that partnership split up and my father took on part of the farm and he kept farming that until he passed away in 1976. My mother ran the farm until it was handed over to my brother and myself in 1992.

GM: What is your brother’s name?

MO: Gordon.
 

Gordon and Murray Oakes with their cane crop, 1974

GM: Where were you born?

MO: At Nambour Hospital, but we lived on the farm.

GM: So Nambour born and bred. The farm that you have got here today, is that still part of the original farm?

MO: We still own my grandfather’s farm, yes; it is down the road from where we are at the moment.

GM: You basically came into your own right as a farmer when?

MO: In 1992, that was when my brother and I became partners in the business.

GM: Describe your farm now in terms of acreage and production.

MO: We have an assignment of about 366 hectares and that will give us production in a normal year in excess of 30,000 tons.

GM: Would you be one the biggest farmers in the area?

MO: We would probably be the second largest farmer; Bundaberg Sugar is the largest farmer.

GM: So Bundaberg Sugar has their own farms?

MO: Yes.

GM: Did they just buy out growers or how does that work?

MO: No, they have owned land over a long period of time and they have picked up some large parcels of land and they have been very big farmers in the district.

GM: Whereabouts is your farm located?

MO: Our home base is basically in the Maroochy River-Valdora region. And we also have other farms in the Yandina Creek and Yandina regions.

GM: How would you describe the type of land that you actually farm your cane on?

MO: We have seven farms and there is a fair variety of land over those farms. The majority or the largest portion of one type would be flood plain, which is a peat soil going onto forest soils. Then we have a bit of the Forest Grey country and then we have one farm that is a hilly red alluvial country and the rest or the balance is just creek bank with undulating country along the creek lines.

GM: The most productive?

MO: The most productive is probably the flood plain and just above the flood plain; it is the most productive and economical.

GM: And I guess it is the area that has been in your family the longest; your grandfather and father probably had that type of land?

MO: The original farm was on the flood plain.

GM: What is the big difference between farming down here on the flood plain and say farming up on scrub flats or somewhere like that?

MO: It is easier to farm on that. The lower country or the best flood plain country has got the best production or the riverbank has got the best production. It is the best soil; it is the silt. Over the years every time it floods, all the silt gets dropped on the flood plain and that is the best soil around. You get a lot of erosion and that kind of thing up on the hills, which is a bit hard to handle. Probably the best way to put it that you are better off to have a farm where the water lies, not where the water runs from. But in saying that, the flood plain can also be quite challenging because you have got be able to get rid of the water and the lower you get the worse it gets as well.

GM: So drainage is important.

MO: Drainage is very important.

GM: How do you learn all that?

MO: I suppose we are lucky being involved in an industry that is so old; you don’t really have to ‘learn’ all that, you just have to look around. Look around you and see what happens and pick up on what has been done before you and just improve it a little bit.

GM: Did you and your brother do any special agricultural courses?

MO: Yes, my brother did two years at the Burdekin Rural Education Centre; he did a course in tropical agriculture. I am a diesel fitter by trade and I did ten years in that industry before coming over to the farm.

GM: I think being a diesel fitter would be extremely important because I look around your workshop here and just the amount of stuff that you have just to keep everything going.

MO: That is probably because we are a fairly large farm, and that is probably one of the main differences I suppose between us and some of the other farming businesses in that we have a lot of equipment and we also do (contract) harvesting as well. I think at last count there were in excess of 15 wheeled tractors and there is in excess of 30 engine-driven machines on the farm.

GM: That really brings me onto my next question. What do you think the capital investment in your farm would be today? Imagine if you had to go out and buy everything – not counting the land.

MO: Funnily enough I wouldn’t count the machinery as the capital investment. Our capital investment is the land, that is what our family has always focussed on is that we make the farming operation work so that there is enough profit margin in there to hopefully continue acquiring land, to have steady and progressive growth. If we get to a stage where we sit stagnant, we would then decide to have a look at where we are going and why are we doing this.

GM: I think that might have been the problem with the Moreton Mill. They hit 500,000 tonnes twelve years ago and haven’t increased.

MO: No, that is right. That is one thing with this business; we have had fairly big growth. For instance, when my grandfather came here the story in the family goes that he wanted to be large enough to have his own hand-cutting gang and that was about 800 tons that was required. Well we will cut in excess of 30,000 tonnes this year.

GM: He is probably looking down and smiling.

MO: Well we have had a lot of growth, yes.

GM: What sort of harvesters have you got?

MO: We have two machines; one is a full-tracked machine, which is a 1996 model Austoft. It was built in Bundaberg and we also have a back-up machine (also used as) a plant cutter, which is a 1989 model Austoft, which is a wheeled machine.

GM: The tracked machines are pretty expensive?

MO: Yes, they are fairly expensive but it is proportional to what they do as well. The machine is expensive whether it is on tracks or wheels.

GM: I was talking to Vic Flatt and he didn’t harvest this year. He got a guy to do it for him who had a tracked machine and he said that not only did he come onto his land ten days earlier than he could have because of the wet ground, but he lifted 1000 ton in two days and he said he just couldn’t have done it.

MO: Yes, well that is the same model machine that cuts Vic’s cane.

GM: And you do contract harvesting as well?

MO: Yes.

GM: It must keep you flat out.

MO: Yes, well - this we will not know until it is finished - but our estimate is 68,000 ton this year. So that is a lot of cane to cut in one year. It is a lot more than we have ever cut. It is quite remarkable really to think that the first harvester that my father bought - we have got a manual in the office that says it is capable of cutting 25 tons per hour.

GM: What sort of harvesting did your father do? Was it by hand?

MO: He was involved in the industry when it was hand cutting, but he was one of the first growers to get involved in chopper harvesters. I think that he was one of three that applied to supply cane in billets. I can’t remember what year it was, but my brother was two when he bought the first chopper harvester.

GM: How old is Gordon?

MO: He is 39 now.

GM: Okay, so that was 37 years ago (1966). Well they have been around for a while, haven’t they?

MO: Yes.

GM: So have you ever done anything other than chopper harvesting?

MO: For cutting cane, no, not myself; I wasn’t even born when they bought the first chopper harvester. We have cut cane by hand for plants, but to be honest I wasn’t involved in that very much.

GM: What do you reckon your farm is worth?

MO: Worth? Trick question. Because of all the uncertainty at the moment it is pretty hard to put a value on it, but in really round figures, if you had 1000 acres and you sold it for $5000 per acre, it is worth 5 million dollars.

GM: How many people actually work the seven farms that you have all year round?

MO: We normally have three full-time staff, plus my brother and myself and then during the crushing we usually increase that by two.

GM: Is your land that you have, is that all serviced by cane rail?

MO: No, we have two farms that are serviced by road transport. One goes directly to the Mill and the other goes to a railhead, but the majority of our land is on railway line.

GM: The farms where they pick it up by road, does the Mill provide the transport for that?

MO: They subsidise it.

GM: What are the main changes that you reckon you have seen not only in growing cane, but also in harvesting cane?

MO: Probably the biggest change that I have seen is probably using chemicals to control weeds instead of doing it by cultivation and the adoption of chemicals on a pretty large scale. And also the adoption of minimum tillage compared to full cultivation of the paddocks after they have been harvested.

GM: Can you just explain the difference between those?

MO: In the past the conventional way was to burn the cane and then after it had been harvested you rake up all the trash, burn the trash and cultivate the inner space with a rotary hoe or a similar implement and then every time you get a few weeds run out there with rakes and tickle up the soil to keep those weeds at bay. Whereas with the introduction of chemicals, you are able to reduce the number of workings you had to do for cultivation and then they have also found that you really didn’t have to cultivate that soil so much. So we find now that we are basically just harvesting the cane, putting a little bit of chemical on it, a bit of fertiliser and not doing any cultivation at all. So it has reduced the workload a lot. It has mainly been driven by economics and it has possibly also allowed the ground to be got onto much quicker for wet weather.

GM: Because it doesn’t break it up as much?

MO: No.

GM: We talked about chemicals to suppress weed growth, what about fertilising, how much fertiliser is required these days?

MO: We are probably in a transition mode at present because of the economic times; we have reduced the amount of fertiliser we have been putting on. If the industry continued, we would probably do more work on collecting data and looking at what we are actually gaining out of each kilogram of fertiliser that we are putting on. In the past there has been enough money in it that you would always put on a certain amount of fertiliser and then a bit more for good luck. We seemed to have gone away from that; things are much tighter now. And also there is much more recognition of environmental concerns than there was in the past. Not so much that people were not worried about it, but it is just that it wasn’t even thought of as an issue. Whereas now I suppose the best way to put it is that in the past you had the bottom line, which was the dollar, whether you made money, or you didn’t. Nowadays you have the triple bottom line: whether it is economically viable, whether it is environmentally acceptable, and socially compatible. You have got to recognise all those three things - you cannot just look at one of them individually.

GM: That is very good, yes. It is just so true and they feel it a lot more up north don’t they? There is a lot more drainage with the Reef?

MO: The Great Barrier Reef has brought that to a head in the northern regions, but I must admit this region has been quite progressive in looking at the issues of nutrient run-off and soil erosion and chemical run-off and all that sort of stuff.

GM: Do you have much interaction with DPI?

MO: Personally I don’t have that much, but I am active in all the Canegrowers groups that do have interaction – not so much with the DPI - but the sugar industry has its own research arm. It doesn’t have a lot to do with DPI directly. Through the Canegrowers Organisation there is a lot of involvement with environmental groups and government agencies. There has been a lot of good work done and there is a lot of room for some more work to be done as well.

GM: You are obviously very much aware of the requirement for sustaining productivity. What sort of crop rotation method do you use?

MO: We have probably been pretty focussed on just growing sugar cane; we are 100 percent sugar cane up until now, and we don’t have any other crops. We put in a few green manure crops, but with the adoption of laser levelling about seven years ago we actually put the crop rotation on hold because every time we had a block fallow we would have to do major earthworks to the block to level the block up to shed water and our plans were that once we had all that laser levelling completed then we would get back to a fairly good rotation crop. And what is happening now is that industry has identified that soya beans and other legume crops can be very beneficial to your soil and that was the direction that we were heading. Unfortunately we might not get there.

GM: That is mainly for nitrogen is it?

MO: Yes it is, but it is also to look after your soil and to get organic matter back into the soil and all that kind of stuff. And it gets rid of that monoculture. Sugar cane is a monoculture; it has got no biodiversity and by having a break crop or rotation crop and all that kind of stuff it will get rid of that monoculture. It helps and is beneficial to soil organisms and all that, and it will increase their numbers and they will hopefully be predators to the nasties in the soil.

GM: It is very complicated this sticking bits of cane in the ground I must admit. What sort of varieties of cane do you grow?

MO: It is hard to pinpoint the major varieties. We have got a wide spread of a lot of them, but we would have a lot of CP51. We have got a lot of H56 - we probably grow more H56 in this district than anyone else because it is on marginal country and it crops fairly well even though it has got low sugar. But we are phasing out of that. Then there are the Queensland-bred canes, which are Q141, Q151, Q154. We planted a little bit of Q188 which is a new variety - and Q190. Q138 we have a fair bit of and that is fairly good in marginal country.

GM: And who gives you the advice on these varieties?

MO: Most of the varietal advice comes through the BSES and the Moreton Cane Pest and Protection Board, which my brother is one the canegrower representatives on. And the rest just comes from interaction with other growers and through the Canegrowers Organisation.

GM: What was the BSES?

MO: The BSES - the Bureau Sugar Experimental Station.

GM: And I guess like everyone else you have varieties that mature early, in the middle of the season and then late?

MO: Yes, we do. We usually try and clear the flood plains fairly early because that allows them time to be fairly advanced if a flood comes over them at the end of summer. So you try and keep your early to mid-season maturing varieties on the flood plains. Often harvesting in this area seems to control a bit where you end up harvesting anyway. No matter how much planning you go through about when you are going to cut a block, if it is too wet and you can’t get to that block then you have to go and cut a dry one. So often you have to sacrifice the CCS to cut the cane anyway. So therefore the actual CCS and the harvesting pattern are often over-ridden by the weather conditions anyway and we do take that into account when planning what canes to put where.

GM: So what are the main tasks that keep you occupied during what the Mill call the ‘slack’ season?

MO: Well we decided that quite a few years ago that they should change the name because we don’t seem to have a ‘slack’ season!

GM: Yes, because it seems most inappropriate doesn’t it?

MO: We have a saying - or there is hearsay in our family- that the slack season really came about when it was all hand cane cutters - and this farm used to carry a lot of staff - and obviously in the growing season that would be when everyone had a bit of a break and everything. Whereas now we have a smaller number of staff, but we have a lot more equipment, so basically this machinery and this equipment takes up all of your time in the slack season. It is usually about the end of February by the time all the cane is out of hand and that is when you can’t get a tractor over it, so then you have got to finish tidying up all the initial problems that you have had from the crushing. All of your permanent staff have got to have holidays etc. and then you usually have got earthworks to do on your fallow blocks and a bit of drainage and any other housework that has got to be done; crossings fixed up and that sort of stuff – infrastructure jobs. And then after that you have got to get all of your equipment ready for the next harvest. It is usually about three months worth of work just preparing the equipment for the harvest.

GM: Down on the river flat or floodplain type of land, do the drains take up a lot of maintenance?

MO: Yes they do. Once they are in, most of the maintenance is controlling the weed growth. So we usually do that at the end of the crushing. We sometimes try to have that tidied up by Christmas time and what we don’t get done by Christmas is done shortly after. And every year you have a certain amount of work involved in clearing out any drains that have silted up. Most of the work with drainage is putting the infrastructure in place.

GM: What do you think has been your best season?

MO: I would have to check the dates, but I think in 1997 we cut our highest tonnage and we did it relatively easily, it was ’96 or ’97. The mid-‘90s were pretty good to us.

GM: Best CCS?

MO: I don’t follow the CCS that strongly, but once again the mid-‘90s were fairly good for that as well.

GM: Worst season?

MO: The worst season that this business has ever seen - or the two seasons - were 1999 and 2000. It was a total disaster.

GM: What caused that?

MO: We got a terrific amount of rain in 1999 during the harvest – we got 130 inches (3.25 metres) of rain in 1999. We had a lot of trouble shifting the crop because of the wet ground conditions and about halfway through we decided - and we had a fairly large crop as well - we decided we would have to buy a tracked buggy to go beside the harvester. We cut 15,000 tonnes with the tracked buggy. But we never got any decent growing conditions after that because we continued to get wet weather. Everything we harvested in the wet conditions never grew (very well), so in the following year in 2000, I think we only harvested about 17,000 tonnes and we should have been up around the 30,000 tonnes. And on top of that the price for those two years was $280 or $270 (for 1999) and something like $250 (for 2000).

GM: A bit ordinary.

MO: Yes, and those two years it was crop-driven as well as price-driven and with talking with all our family they were the worst two years that this business has ever seen. It is probably the only time that anyone knows that there had been a loss made.

GM: What do you think have been the more memorable milestones for your own farm?

MO: It probably is the continued expansion. My brother and myself became partners of the farm in 1992. In 1991 we were involved in buying a block of land and since we have had ownership, we have bought another two farms. So we have expanded from about a 20,000 tonne farm up to about a 30,000 tonne farm in the last decade or so.

GM: Do you have a lot of debt?

MO: Yes, we carry a fair amount of debt.

GM: Is that a worry to you right now?

MO: It is a concern but it is something that you have to deal with.

GM: Mmm, and have a nice bank manager.

MO: That’s right.

GM: Now harvesting in the green or burning your cane, I have been around a few farms now and there are different ways of doing it. Which way do the Oakes harvest their cane?

MO: We try to harvest burnt as much as we can; in reality that ends up being about 60 percent. It can end up being about 50/50 - it depends on the year. We haven’t set ourselves up to manage the green cane farming yet. We were certainly heading down that track, but it depends on the industry whether we get there or not.

GM: And what are the things that are driving that, is it the cane trash?

MO: No, it is as I mentioned earlier, I suppose it is the triple bottom line. We think we can make more money out of doing it; we think we can be more environmentally acceptable because it would be better for the environment – we can probably reduce some of our fertilisers and reduce our chemical input and that sort of thing. We also think it would probably be more socially acceptable because we won’t be burning and would be harvesting the crop green and it would be less intrusive to the neighbours. That is why we were heading that way, but as I say we haven’t quite got there yet.

GM: I mean off your farm you would produce a shed full of mulch wouldn’t you?

MO: Well it would be too much mulch to sell on the mulch market today.

GM: You would flood it!

MO: That is right.

GM: I mean I have seen how much the Rickards have got lined up along the side of Toolborough Road up there.

MO: The mulch ends up being that for every seven tonne of cane you get one tonne of trash. So you can quite quickly work out.
(Editor’s note: for the Oakes this would be 4285 tonnes or 17,140 bales)

GM: That is a lot of trash.

MO: Yes and you get in excess of 40 little bales to a tonne of trash; the little square bales.
(Editor’s note: that would be 120,000 bales)

GM: Yes because the big (round) ones only weigh about 250 kilograms don’t they?

MO: Yes you get about three or four to the tonne; it depends on how wet they are at the time.

GM: What have been the changes in harvesting that you have seen since you were a kid?

MO: Probably the quantity of cane being cut every day or every week and every year for each group. Harvesting used to be such a big deal; it involved quite a few people. There was always so much inventing And it was always so much a big part of the farming operation, whereas now with the new machines you just go out and do it sort of thing. It is not a big a deal as it used to be.

GM: Yes, I have seen photos of the harvest and there are people everywhere and now when you go onto a property there are only one or two blokes that you see.

MO: That is exactly how I see it as well. I can’t sort of remember very much about it when I was young, but as a teenager even back then on this farm it would always involve quite a few people – there was a certain amount of stature involved with people who did that work and we have sort of found in about the last ten years we realised that it is not as big a deal as everyone was making out. You have just got to get in and do it. A lot of it was the attitude. I suppose that it probably wasn’t that long since they had finished doing it by hand. Since we have got rid of that attitude it is amazing just how much work we have been able to get through.

GM: What do you do with your cane trash at the moment?

MO: At the moment most of it gets burnt or cultivated back into the country; a little bit of it gets used for mulch for gardens.

GM: The drainage system that you have got on your farm, can you describe that?

MO: Yes on our flat flood plain farms we are part of a voluntary drainage syndicate called the Coolum-Yandina Road Drainage Syndicate. It involves about 11 farmers and encompasses about 800 hectares and we all voluntarily put in a levy per tonne of cane produced – sorry, per hectare of land that is involved I mean - and that scheme has been running for in excess of 30 years. It has got four main drains that run…

End of Side A Tape 1
Start of Side B Tape 1

GM: Murray we were talking about the drains?

MO: Yes the drains run in excess of two kilometres long and some up to three kilometres long. They run two kilometres down into the swamp that goes down to Coolum Creek and they have a network of drains that run right up through the farms and out as far as (and) towards Yandina Creek. These days there is not a lot of work in keeping them maintained, but the amount of work that was put in in the late ‘60s and ‘70s was quite remarkable.

Swamp Drainage Scheme, Coolum Road, ca 1973
 

GM: Was this the project that Ossie Apps was involved with?

MO: Yes, Ossie was one of the people that were involved. My father, Johnny Ward, Don Rickard, I can’t think of all the people who were involved now and I have left someone out, but I am only a young person and I don’t know so much about it, but I am actually chairman of the group now so I am involved in keeping it running now.

GM: Ossie told me that the first day that they took an excavator out there, that it sank all the way down so that only 18 inches (450 mm) of the cab was left showing! It completely disappeared!

MO: Yes, there are some quite amazing stories. They used to take the fuel down to the excavator in boats and take it down in 20-litre drums. And the mosquitos down there! People wouldn’t comprehend now, the mosquitos were that thick that it was just unbelievable. People actually worked in pretty adverse conditions to get those drains in. We have a little dozer and some of the drains were pushed in with our little dozer, the drains were the width of our dozer and it just used to keep pushing out dirt up onto the surface and the drains would go down deeper down the height of the whole dozer. But that was done probably just before I was born.

GM: And the reason was to make sure that the land kept on draining, is it?

MO: Well this was originally just swampland; this farm where I am now it was just billabongs down toward the north there.

GM: And this runs alongside Valdora Road?

MO: Yes, beside Valdora Road and at the boundary of the farm was a levee bank where a drain was dug and the spoil was made into a bank and they would just hook up a pump with a little Fergy tractor and pump the water over the boundary onto the neighbour’s place because it was just scrub. So every time it rained they would just go down and start the tractor up and pump the water over the bank. So then you had each farmer - this farm and Ward’s farm and Apps’s and everyone just used to pump their water over the bank and then they realised that this wasn’t sustainable and it wasn’t progressive enough to utilise all the country, so they got together and put this network of drains in. But even to this day there are some pretty heated debates about levee banks and where water should go and all that sort of stuff.

GM: Do the (Maroochy) Shire (Council) have much to do with it?

MO: It has been a voluntary drainage scheme; it is not a registered drainage board so the Shire Council is very good; they always participate in any work that we carry out that assists in their roads, but as far as the arguments between growers, they like to keep their distance. It is probably a good point to make that over the years the farmers that have been involved (worked with the Council). When the bridge collapsed on Coolum Road, the farmers would go down and use their equipment to put in diversion bridges to get the traffic through and I can remember as a kid my father doing work to help the Council to get cars through and that sort of thing. The Council has recognised that the farmers have always assisted in all this development of the floodplain – of this water – so that they any time we have asked for their help they have been very good with it along the Coolum-Yandina Road.

GM: I think you have answered this one, how do you get your cane to the Mill. Two of your farms use motor lorries.

MO: Yes.

GM: B-doubles or semis, are they?

MO: No, just semi-trailers with four bins on each trailer.

GM: And the rest go through the cane rail system.

MO: Yes, we have delivery points on our farm and they deliver the empty bins and we use roll-on, roll-off trailers for our harvesting group, so we take the bins and fill them with the harvester and take them back and put them back on the line.

GM: So you use a bin-out system. How do you get them off that little trailer?

MO: We have winches that winch them up onto the trailer and winch them back down again.

GM: Is that fiddly?

MO: No it’s not fiddly; it is something that you just get used to. Most of the stuff (machinery) is all home-made stuff that the farmers make.

GM: So you don’t have any portable line that you run in the paddocks?

MO: No, not any more.

GM: That is a relief I suppose.

MO: That’s right, portable line is now a thing of the past.

GM: When I heard Ossie Apps describing how the farmer was responsible for getting it in and packing it and all that and he said ‘you learn the hard way’ about getting it level and not having bins slide off into the bush. Tell us how the allotment works with the Mill and with cane inspectors coming around saying how it is going to be done.

MO: Well you do an estimate before the season starts and every farm does an estimate and they compile that to get a district estimate. And then on that estimate they will give you an allotment and each harvesting group has an allotment per week that is their responsibility to supply. Then when the crops gets to 40 percent, they do a re-estimate and I think when it gets to 80 percent,they do second re-estimate. The idea of having this is equity among growers. Because of the CCS gain in the middle of the year, it would be unfair if someone cut all of their crop in the middle of September. So if every harvesting group has to supply a certain amount of cane every week for the crushing, it makes it fair and equitable. The reality of it is that in a dry year it works reasonably well and in a wet year it turns into a fairly big disaster, and you get some growers who are great and go to a lot of effort to make sure they supply their allotment on time and you get some people who don’t. There are always a lot of arguments about equity as well.

GM: How many people are there in a harvesting group?

MO: It depends on the size of the group; some harvesting groups will be just one individual farmer that cuts 2,500 tonnes per year, so he will have an allotment per week to get that 2,500 tonne out. Some groups might be 70,000 tons that might involve ten farmers. So a harvesting group is a group that is responsible for an allotment per week.

GM: And what is your allotment per week?

MO: Ours at the moment is about 3,300 tonnes per week.

GM: So you would be basically cutting every day?

MO: Yes cutting every day. This year we have only gone five days per week and not continuous, but we have just been through a period and I think this will be our first weekend off after three weekends in a row.

GM: What is your relationship like with the Mill?

MO: I would like to think that ours is pretty good. We have always tried to be fairly progressive and tried to see problems from all directions. There have been times when we haven’t agreed with certain things that have happened but we would always like to think that we had a good relationship with the Mill.

GM: With these estimates of your cane crop, how do you actually do that?

MO: It is a bit of a stab in the dark sometimes; it depends on the growing season; sometimes you can be way out with the estimate. Ours is usually done on a gut feeling of what looks to be there at the time of the estimate being done. Once the crushing gets going, you just keep data on the tons removed per hectare and you can start to set a trend on what is left.

GM: So then you get a fairly good guesstimate?

MO: That’s right.

GM: Like it traditionally produces between this and that.

MO: And the Mill assists in this in that they keep and make available to you five-year trends of what has been happening. So you can take a guess and compare that to the mathematical data as well. But it is hard to estimate sometimes.

GM: One thing also that I noticed - I looked at photos of cane that was being cut in 1920s and it was really tall, it seemed to be just seriously tall cane, and the varieties today seem to be shorter.

MO: Yes, I can’t comment on that; I am too young to know. One thing that we have known in our own farm is that production has increased in the last 30 years. The modern varieties seem to have more sticks per a certain area and they spill out more profusely. Some of the varieties weigh very well per foot of cane, like 10 tonnes per foot (in height), compared to some of the other varieties that are less. But also it is not just what you produce in one year that is important, it is what you produce over the cycle of the crop, which might be five years, and probably one of the big changes is that with mechanical harvesting you are knocking your stool around a lot more, so you have got to have varieties that can handle being knocked about, and that is even being exaggerated in the last ten years that I have been actively involved in it. Because we seem to knock our stool around even more than we ever did. So we have got have varieties that can put up with that.

GM: How high does the mechanical harvester knock this cane down?

MO: It cuts the cane off at ground level.

GM: What is the greatest challenge you face as a cane farmer not counting the closure of the Mill?

MO: Well the greatest challenge at the moment - and in some ways it is fairly recent - is that the world sugar price is so low and our sugar that gets sold is vulnerable, it is totally vulnerable, to the world sugar price. To continue growing cane we have got to be very efficient to survive with the world sugar price being so low. So that is probably our major challenge and as I said that is fairly recent and it recently came about because of the change in the world sugar price. But other than that we have always seen our challenge as operating this business, this reasonably large business and using labour to get there. Because we have always employed labour, we treat that as a challenge and as with some of the subjects that we have already touched on before we have environmental issues and social issues.

GM: It really is about farm efficiencies isn’t it?

MO: Yes. We did treat it as a challenge and it was a quite exciting challenge.

GM: Why have you started growing pineapples?

MO: I would have to say the reason is the closure of the Mill. We want to utilise some of the land and we have got to try and keep this business going, so we have identified that as an option. And we considered diversifying before, but we didn’t take the plunge and do it and so now we have taken that plunge.

GM: Did your grandfather or father ever have mixed farming?

MO: No, they were always just sugar.

GM: I notice that out north of Vic Flatt’s place mixed farming seems to have been a tradition out there in some areas and in some families anyway.

MO: Yes, probably the reason my grandfather and father didn’t have mixed farming is that the bulk of their land at the time didn’t suit anything else. And in later times we looked at diversifying but the business had become so good at what it was doing, the advice that was given was stick at what you know and what you do best. And the returns were quite good; we didn’t make millions out of it, but the return on investment from an accounting point of view was quite good. So we looked at diversifying into other pursuits other than agriculture even and we were advised not to.

GM: Whereabouts are you growing the pineapples?

MO: At Yandina Creek and the hill at Valdora.

GM: You need really well drained land don’t you?

MO: Yes.

GM: Because they always seem to grow on the side of hills.

MO: Yes, well part of that industry is going through change as well and to be more efficient they have got to get off the hills and get onto the flatter country because it has become to expensive to farm on the hills.

GM: The sort of future, what do you think?

MO: A few ideas got floated around to try and make the sugar industry have a reason for being on the Sunshine Coast and one thing that I was quite keen on and tried to get off the ground - but it didn’t get going anywhere - was that we are pretty close to the effluent disposal sites at Coolum, the sewerage treatment plants, and if we could use the effluent water that would give the sugar industry a reason for being here, so all the community would say, “Hey, they are being good fellows; they are treating or taking all that effluent wate’. By using modern irrigation systems like drip tape and all that sort of thing, we could have possibly had greater yields and also solved the effluent problem. But unfortunately if the sugar industry doesn’t stay around, that won’t happen.

GM: Well I have got a feeling that the use of what people call ‘grey water’ is only going to become sustainable when there is no other option. People just see it as being too hard.

MO: Well I am pretty sure it is not too hard and if the farmers and the government agencies probably let an opportunity slip by them; the next thing is they will be treating the water to drink anyway.

GM: I am sure of it. So what other potential does your land have for cropping?

MO: We are looking at growing some grain and fodder crops; we have planted a little bit of corn just as a trial.

GM: For stock feed?

MO: Yes, for silage for dairy farmers. We are not holding our hopes too high; we have just got some concerns with the weather conditions around here to grow and harvest those crops. But we certainly realise we have to try and in trying we will make a few mistakes. And then after that, there is the possibility of looking at some tree crops maybe, a bit of horticulture.

GM: When you say tree crops, do you mean like orchards?

MO: Maybe macadamia nuts or tree crops like that – lychees - we haven’t researched them fully yet, but we believe that the possibility is there for something.

GM: Given the pressure on the Redlands area in Brisbane, which has always been known for market gardening, is there any potential on the Sunshine Coast for market gardening?

MO: There is I think a bit of potential. We have got a pretty high rainfall and it has always been – and I am not an expert and I don’t know – but I have been told by the more experienced farmers that we have got too high a rainfall to do those crops, but what I am finding is that with technology, there are chemicals available to hold some of those diseases at bay and that sort of stuff. So sometimes you have got to have a go before you actually find out. I think if we can grow food here and meet that triple bottom-line criteria, I think it is sustainable. But you can never ever forget that there is going to be pressure from urban encroachment. At the moment the State Government and the Council have got that tied up with zoning of this farmland and until that zoning changes, there is an opportunity to farm.

GM: I just think that with the El Nino effect that we experience year after year after year for the last probably two decades now that the growing of stock feed seems like a good option to me because those blokes out West just aren’t able to grow it and yet we can.

MO: Transport issues seem to be a big problem with stock feed; we are too far away from the stock and it is only in a drought year that we are going to sell anything from here and it is only at the beginning of the drought. Once all the cattle have been sold or shifted, the graziers don’t buy any more because there are no cattle to feed. They don’t buy stock in. So actually this year there was very little demand for stock feed from this region. And that is why there seems to be the potential to exploit growing other crops might be better. But I don’t have the answers. I don’t know; we have got to try it and see.

GM: Well Ossie (Apps) is growing corn for human consumption. Vic Flatt had a shed full of pumpkins, he got 27 tonne off three acres, and he was very happy with that and he said he did it just basically because he needed a little bit more income because it just wasn’t working. What type of trial grain fodder crops are we looking at?

MO: At this stage it is corn for silage and we might try a bit of sorghum and dolicus lab lab to be made into hay and baled and wrapped in plastic.

GM: I will have to ask you how you spell that, what is it?

MO: Dolicus lab lab. Dolicus I think it is spelt.

GM: What is it?

MO: It is just a legume.

GM: Are these things being instigated by the Canegrowers Association?

MO: Most of it has been instigated by the commercial proprietors - the businesses that supply us with all our inputs like fertilisers and chemicals and produce and all that sort of stuff. Canegrowers have remained focused on keeping the sugar industry going. So they haven’t been seen to be doing anything too much outside that. It is a bit like being stuck between a rock and a hard place because if they promote other industries too much they might be seen as trying to…

GM: They are no longer the canegrowers are they?

MO: That is right.

GM: So what will you do if the Moreton Mill closes?

MO: Our plan at this stage is to keep exploiting this pineapple opportunity that we have started and we will also look at intensifying our trial of other crops on the flood plain and we will have a bit more time on our hands then to research some other crops as well, maybe some tree crops. We will possibly, depending on our labour and staff at the time, look for off-farm work for some of the existing equipment that we have got. Because we live on the Sunshine Coast it would be pretty silly to ignore the fact of all the development and the housing industry. We believe that we have got a lot of skills and a lot of existing infrastructure in place and we just have to learn to apply ourselves to something different.

GM: Is trucking cane to Maryborough a viable option?

MO: I can’t answer whether it is viable or not. We are very keen on pursuing that option and we still are waiting on some more feedback on who is interested and how it is going to be achieved in this district. We have worked out our prices fairly thoroughly, but even since we have done that the world sugar price keeps going down.

GM: We need a serious amount of cane disease in Brazil.

MO: We do, someone needs to take some ‘Orange Rust’ over there.

GM: As you are harvesting now, are you getting ratoons on your cane or what?

MO: We haven’t done much with our ratoons at all. In this last week we have just started spraying for weeds in our ratoons and we will be still monitoring the situation at Maryborough over the next six weeks or so before we start putting fertiliser on it. But everything has been left to the last minute and it is not very good.

GM: It is a shame. When you put your plant sticks in and you start growing and you get maybe four ratoons, is there a peak in those ratoons like the third year is the best?

MO: The first ratoon is usually your best crop. Your first and second ratoons are where you make all your money. Your plant crop has the potential to be fairly good if things go right. So you sort of have your plant, first ratoon the peak is pretty good; the second ratoon, and by the time you have got your third ratoon it will often start to drop off and by the fourth ratoon it is getting down. All that depends on how it is treated at harvest and the growing conditions. If it gets good conditions you can still get good crops in the fourth and fifth ratoon. But usually in this area we struggle to get consistently good conditions on every block all the time, so therefore as your blocks get older and you knock your older blocks around they get taken out.

GM: What other outlets will you look for for your cane crop?

MO: If we can send cane to Maryborough for a period of time, to buy time, then this business will get behind the project to look at using the crop for stock feeds or other uses. We have got a few consultants hired and at this stage the concept looks quite attractive, so that is probably the main reason why we are interested in sending cane to Maryborough to buy time for a little while to exploit these other opportunities. If nothing comes to fruition within two or three years, by that stage we will have geared ourselves to shut right down.

GM: Or something else will have been taken up?

MO: Yes, or one of these other ideas will get going.

GM: Is one of these things that they are looking at, this co-generation?

MO: No, co-generation isn’t high on the list down here because the projects we are looking at are probably much smaller projects. The one at the moment is that it will be a one-mill operation and the bagasse after the one-mill will still have a fair bit of sugar in it and it will get put through a dryer which is new technology for the sugar industry in this region and then that will remove all the moisture from it. Sugar cane has a fair bit of moisture in it. That will give you a fibre that is high in protein and high in sugar, but you can compact it into a fairly small space and get a high volume sort of thing – low weight and small volume. The juice that comes off the first mill, heat can be a free component off the dryer that can be used to turn that juice into syrup and that can even be mixed back in with that dry fibre or maybe sent to another mill for toll crushing. That is why we are quite keen to get involved with Maryborough because they are a fairly progressive mill and they are interested in looking at these ideas. For a couple of years, until we get this plant up and running, they might take our sugar cane and then after that they might be interested in taking our syrup and bagasse if they want it for co-generation and we could keep the other products here to value add and they are also learning by what we are learning down here.

GM: Does that mean you would have to establish a new mill?

MO: It would be a new facility; it may not be called a sugar mill. It would be a processing facility and much smaller than what we have got now and more modern and only run by a small number of labour people and it would also give us the ability to try some other technologies on the front of that to maybe separate the (cane) rind off and use that for manufacture or building products or get the wax off it and use it for pharmaceutical products. There are a lot of things out there at the moment we would like to exploit.

GM: If the Mill closes, apparently the line has all got to be ripped up.

MO: Yes, the line will go. Anything from now on will be full road transport. Some people don’t like it, but it is the reality.

GM: You could probably get into a more efficient road transport too by not having the cane bins, by using belly-tippers or something.

MO: That is dead right, we would possibly still have the Mill here if the growers had accepted the change to road transport quite a few years ago.

GM: Well it is an expensive piece of infrastructure with 120 kilometres of line.

MO: It is and it just became outdated and costs too much to run.

GM: What do you think will be the greatest loss to the area if the Moreton Mill closes?

MO: It is pretty hard asking a cane farmer. I suppose - and not looking through my own eyes because it will be a loss to us and this great business that has been income producing and profit-generating for so many years in our family - but I think the loss to the area will be the aesthetic value. You drive from the highway through to the coast on the Sunshine Coast and you drive through lush open canefields. Anyone who lives in Bli Bli, Buderim or up at Rosemount or places like that, they all look out over canefields and I think that will be a loss to the Sunshine Coast, but that is change.

GM: Yes, good answer because everybody else has said exactly the same thing. A lot of people have said much the same thing, the aesthetic beauty of the place.

MO: I think that is what it is.

GM: I think it is one of the attractions why a lot of people live here. Well mate, I am going to let you off the hook now and let you get back to work. That is the end of the interview and I would like to thank you very much.

MO: No worries, thanks

End of Interview