Occupation: Chairman of Canegrowers Association and cane farmer
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Location of Interview: Boyle’s farm, Rosemount
Date of Interview: 18 November 2003
Ross Boyle is a third generation cane farmer who now farms in the Rosemount area, on Petrie Creek Road. He has been Chairman of the Canegrowers Association since July 2003 and has had the unenviable and demanding task of trying to seek solutions to the closure of the Moreton Sugar Mill and the impending demise of the sugar industry in the Maroochy area. He is a man who has an obvious passion and love for cane farming and the industry that has shaped not only his life for 47 years, but also that of his late brother and father who also worked the farm that he now sees is about to change forever. He is a philosophical man who has withstood personal abuse and tirade to try and gain a better outcome for his fellow cane growers. On speaking with Ross Boyle, one gets the impression that he will find a way to keep his farm and still work the rich soil of Rosemount.
Ross Boyle oral history [MP3 131MB]
GM: This is a recording of an interview with Ross Boyle, Chairman of the Maroochy Canegrowers Association, recorded by Gary McKay on Tuesday 18 November 2003 for the Maroochy Libraries Last Crush project.
Ross, firstly thanks very much for taking the time, I know it is a very busy time of the year. Could you tell us about your grandfather and father’s involvement in the sugar industry and the type of farms and the sort of work that they did?
RB: Sure, okay, my grandfather came here, and my father was born then too, and they came here in 1920. They purchased 101 acres here for £1300 and some of it was cleared; most of it wasn’t. They then went about clearing it, mostly by hand; draining it, and they grew small crops on the hillside and they grew sugar cane down on the flat. While they were bringing this farm into production, to get an income they leased a dairy farm at Pomona. There were12 children all up; two of them were born here and the rest were born in New South Wales before they came (to Rosemount). Sorry there were 11 children. The family stayed at Pomona and the older boys were down here preparing the farm and getting it ready. My father went to school in Pomona for a little while and then when they moved here he went to school at Rosemount – the school is no longer there any more. He left school at 14 and came back on the farm and spent his entire life working on the farm. In the latter years he was here in partnership with my uncle and their main crop was always sugarcane. They also grew many small crops including pineapples, bananas and ginger - quite a bit of ginger - they were involved in the ginger industry right from the very beginning. So that was probably what they mainly did. During that time Dad bought a couple of small neighbouring farms and we increased the size of the property by buying out neighbouring farms.
GM: Where is the farm, in the Rosemount area?
RB: Yes, it is in the Rosemount area; it is on Petrie Creek Road. We own some land on both sides of the road. Originally, of the 101 acres, there was 58 acres on the hillside and the balance was on the creek or the northern side of Petrie Creek Road. We have since sold off all bar about 13 acres on the hillside, and my sister still lives in the original farmhouse with a 1-acre block. Mum and Dad’s house, which they built during the (Second World) War, was sold about two years ago when my father moved to Sundale. He has since passed away, my mother is still alive and she is in Sundale Nursing Home. But we have increased the size of the farm, but mainly on the northern side of Petrie Creek. We bought out my uncle’s farm and bought out several neighbour’s small farms and we recently, about 18 months ago, bought out a section that we leased off Bundaberg Sugar for some 17 years. They told us that they didn’t want to lease it any more, they wanted to sell it, and so we bit the bullet and bought it. But I got it at a good price, so I was happy about that.
GM: So how did you get into the sugar industry?
RB: I guess I was born into it. I did my normal 12 years at school and headed off to be a trainee sugar chemist, which is similar to an apprenticeship in some ways. You do six months in the tech(nical) college and then you do six months in the sugar mill (during the crushing season) and you do that for four years and then you come out as a sugar chemist. The first one-year course brings you out as a cane tester, which you then work as an independent auditor between the growers and the millers where you work in the sugar mill. But I was employed by Mossman Sugar Mill after my first six months and I went up there and did a (crushing) season as a shift analyst or a bench chemist as some call it. I came home and I was going to go back. Dad was 65 years old and he said if I wanted to be a cane farmer he was ready to retire, so I didn’t continue with my course, mainly due to his age I came back.
GM: Was that course at Mackay?
RB: You could do the first year at Bundaberg, which I did and then after that you have to go to Mackay. So I did the first year at Bundy.
GM: So how old were when you became a cane farmer?
GM: Did you feel like you were going in at the deep end?
RB: No, because I was working for my father. No, it was just a natural thing really; I probably wasn’t one of those sons that just from the day he was born was always on the tractor and always doing this and that. Because with Dad being in partnership with my uncle they always had the labour thing covered and I wasn’t sort of needed so much, so I didn’t spend every afternoon after school driving tractors like some do. So I suppose in that respect I am probably not a ‘natural’ cane farmer.
GM: What was your uncle’s name?
GM: At age 18 you take over?
RB: No I didn’t take over; no I worked for Dad for about… Let me get the years right. That was about 1977, the end of ’77 I came home and I worked for Dad until 1980 and at the end of 1980 my brother came home and we took over. So 1981 was the first year I was in partnership with my brother.
GM: And your brother’s name is?
GM: So I guess you had a sort of apprenticeship, didn’t you?
RB: Yes, I did have an apprenticeship. I had a few years working for my father, which was great. He didn’t sort of order you around but he didn’t tolerate any rubbish either. If you had some hare-brained idea, you just headed off and did it and if it didn’t work he would just shake his head. But he was really good to work for. Yes.
GM: Okay. Now with your brother Hugh and yourself, what sort of development did you have with the farm?
RB: Early on I suppose we just took over, did things the way Dad did. When my brother came home he was an extension officer from the BSES (Bureau Sugar Experimental Station). He brought home a lot of ideas and we probably moved away from all mechanical cultivation of weeds and we moved into partially spraying the weeds and some mechanical cultivation, and then later on in the later years we moved to do a lot of laser levelling. We started laser levelling the blocks and that was probably one of the single most beneficial things we could possibly do in this area because of the higher rainfall. We had lots of cross-drains – surface drains as we call them - going from the low spots in the block and here there and everywhere to an underground pipe. We get very slow, through the profile, drainage here because it is quite heavy soil, so we had to use a lot of surface drainage. Once we started laser levelling so that those drains were uniform and straight and we could work the blocks so that they flowed properly and everything, it became a lot easier and the farming here became a lot easier. I bought out my brother in 1988 (sic: 1998); we had done some laser levelling and we had just started zero tillage. After I bought him out, I did two years or three years of complete zero tillage, where I just sprayed. I still burnt the cane but I left the tops on the ground and all I did was rake the stool and then spray the whole block with pre-emergent chemicals. I found it much easier but I noticed that my yields were declining. Even though we were having harsh years, I thought that my yields were declining more than they should have. So two years ago, not counting this year, so it would be three years ago I started minimum tillage; I started centre-busting the stools and this year I am going out, I think, on arguably our biggest crop ever. Which is a shame I keep telling my wife. It has taken me 25 years to learn how to grow cane and I have finally figured it out! So that really hurts.
GM: So what would be the size of your farm under cane acreage now?
RB: About 160 odd acres under cane and this year we are going to cut about 5,700 tonne. There is some fallow in that. I think our biggest year was just over 6,000 tonnes but we used to grow a lot of cane on the hillsides. I am pretty sure that we are about to have our biggest crop ever. If not, it will be pretty close.
GM: With this zero tillage, how many ratoons were you getting?
RB: Well I didn’t take it out through zero tillage right through a whole crop cycle because after three years I went back. But it didn’t shorten the ratoons; we get here about… I probably average about five or six ratoons here.
GM: On to the Canegrowers Association that you are chairman of today. Could you tell us a little bit about the organisation itself, the numbers, and the sort of framework that it has got?
RB: Okay I will tell you what I can. There are two facets to the Canegrowers organisation. One is it is a voluntary organisation in one respect whereby now growers can - if they choose to – pay a levy and receive the benefits of the Canegrowers, such as our legal advice. We negotiate on their behalf, we have magazines and all sorts of behind the scenes things. We deal with a lot of lobbying in Government and things. A lot of people probably don’t realise just how much goes on behind the scenes. Talking to Government, talking to Green groups, talking to the Mill and whatever, so we do a lot of that for the growers. Then there is a statutory thing whereby we are also the Executive; so we actually officially negotiate with the Sugar Mill. We negotiate the Cane Supply Agreement on the growers’ behalf. It is a collective agreement. Growers can opt to not be part of that agreement, but we have a power of veto over them agreeing to an agreement with the Mill. We can veto the agreement if we believe they are worse off than the collective. So basically in that respect we are protecting their rights; although if someone opted out of the collective – and it hasn’t happened in my knowledge in this area – but if someone did opt out of the collective, I wouldn’t have thought that we would interfere unless we thought that they were unduly pressured into something. The organisation here has fairly wide support although, as with any organisation, people are critical when you try and do something for the benefit of everybody, because you can’t please everybody. And at the moment because of the tension and everything that is going on, we are probably not as popular as we used to be, but that is human nature I think because people like to blame other people for what is happening instead of all of us accepting some of the blame. Some people never admit that they have any of the blame. That is one thing I have certainly (noticed). The reason the Sugar Mill is closing is that there is blame on all sides - every side - Government, the (low) sugar price, the Mill, the growers. Everybody has got to take some blame and if they aren’t prepared to do that then they are not really aware of what is going on.
GM: There are a lot of factors in it.
RB: There are a lot of factors, yes. So we have about 98 percent membership. We have got about 120 members and we have got about three or four growers that are not members for various reasons. So we have got pretty good membership. In a voluntary situation, if you have got more than 98 (percent) - unless you are giving out money or something free - you are doing pretty well. I think whilst we are not keeping everybody happy all the time, I think everybody appreciates what the organisation has done for them.
GM: You are serving for the common good aren’t you?
RB: Trying to, trying to.
GM: When did they start up, do you know?
RB: I am not too good on the history. It has evolved over the years, but I think the organisation started around the 1920s and it has evolved into what it is today.
GM: What do you see as the principal role of the organisation?
RB: I think the principal role is to offer that collective (bargaining power) and talking to the millers or Governments, Green groups; speaking as one has a lot of benefit because farmers in Australia haven’t got a big political clout because there are so few of us. For argument’s sake, on the Sunshine Coast there is probably 120 actual cane holdings and out of that there might be say 200 actual cane farmers that you would say, partners or whatever. I don’t think it would even be that high, maybe 180. So what is there, 100,000 or something people, on the Coast? So we are just a drop in the ocean. But in saying that, we hold about 10,000 hectares of land, so we are very visible, but we haven’t got a big political clout. If someone upsets the canegrowers, they are not really going to get voted out of power unless we can make our point known to others. That is how I see our role, doing that sort of thing.
GM: Until the Mill closing came onto the scene, who gave you the greatest angst?
RB: The Mill, the Mill. SCEC - Sunshine Coast Environment Council - in later years we grew to tolerate and appreciate each other more. Instead of throwing brickbats at each other, we started to enter into some dialogue and I think we both started to realise that neither of us were going to go away, although with the closing of the sugar industry, we might go away, and we decided that we would have to work together or we would just be fighting each other all the time. We were getting there, we were getting there. We had been working with a lot of Green groups - Water Watch, Maroochy-Mooloolah Catchment Care, Petrie Creek Catchment Care, Landcare - and the people on those organisations that weren’t canegrowers, and some of them were very environmentally aware, were happy I think with what we were doing. We were really getting there.
GM: You have mentioned some of the things about the numbers of farmers that there are and owners, 10,000 hectares…
RB: Roughly 10,000, a bit less really but it sounds good, it is a nice round figure.
GM: How much cane are we harvesting?
RB: I think the highest we have got up to is a bit over 600,000 tonnes, because the 10,000 hectares never became fully productive. We probably only ever harvested from about 7 or 8,000 hectares. Some of it was always intended to come into production, but then world prices got that low that it never happened. So this year we are going to be around the 500,000 tonnes. Last year I think we were about the same - it might have been 520,000, something like that. But of course this year was a very uncertain year. There were a lot of negotiations last year even to get this crush. We have had to pay the Mill the sum of $2.30, plus other things, just to get them to crush this year. They had no intention of crushing this year; they were going to close last year.
GM: Was that $2.30 per tonne?
RB: Yes, plus a few other things that added up. They originally wanted $5.50 per tonne and there was no way we could afford that, especially taking into consideration that during these negotiations the sugar price was looking like it might be around $300 per tonne and it is probably going to end up around $230 per tonne of sugar. So that is a big drop. The currency (the Australian dollar on the international currency market) has done a lot of that. We negotiated down; Kevin Bailey and myself, on behalf of all the canegrowers - again as a negotiating team - negotiated that figure down to $2.30 and in doing that we gave away some rights to do with the removal of the cane railway, which wasn’t fair to all canegrowers, but it was a way of unlocking some money without a big cost and the Mill was happy with that. And there was also a figure in there - which never really had anything put on it - but a figure of ‘goodwill’, so we didn’t call Bundaberg Sugar all the mongrels and whatever in the Press. And I don’t think we have done that. I mean, under the circumstances, I think we have been fairly calm and civilised about it all.
GM: There hasn’t been too much mud thrown around?
RB: No, not a lot. I mean really people are blaming canegrowers and they are blaming this and they are blaming that, but Bundaberg Sugar owns the Mill. They made the decision to close it not us. It is their mill and they can do what they damn well like with it. We are not happy, but at the end of the day what I hope, and what I honestly hope, is that if I run into someone in five years time, who used to be a canegrower or who still might be a canegrower, but doing something else with it, that they will say that Bundaberg Sugar did us a favour; that he will have moved on and even though it is going to be very sad and I will be cutting my last cane this week and I will be very emotional about that, but I hope that in five or ten years time that we will look back on it and think that they did us a favour.
GM: Who is Kevin Bailey?
RB: He was the Chairman. Kevin retired under extreme pressure in about July this year. I was the Deputy Chairman. Some growers pushed him, I think, to do the impossible and were calling for his head and it was one of the most nasty and unfortunate things that I think ever happened in this organisation. Kevin had my 100 percent support and the 100 percent support of the committee, but he chose to resign for his own reasons and because people were calling for his resignation, but they didn’t have good reason. There was blood in the water; it was a lynch mob or whatever - a bit of a feeding frenzy – so I have fallen into the role (position of Chairman), although I did challenge with Kevin at the election of Chairman when Graham Colley stood down. I did challenge with Kevin and Kevin was elected because it was chosen by popular vote in the committee. Then I was Deputy Chairman and we worked side by side and we didn’t have a cross word; we had a wonderful working relationship, I believe anyway, and Kevin had my support and when he resigned I was elected as Chairman. I liken it to being captain of the Titanic, knowing you are going to hit the iceberg and knowing you are not going to survive.
GM: A sort of poisoned chalice wasn’t it?
RB: There is no glory in it. Look there never was glory; glory is not the word. There is going to be no satisfaction because just the other night I was at a meeting and I was called ‘wet behind the ears’, I was called a ‘tin god’, I was called a ‘Mill crawler’ – all by the one man - but I mean you know it is water off a duck’s back in some ways, but it is unnecessary. But yes, there is going to be no great satisfaction at the end that you have done a good job. It will be yeah, all right you were the last Chairman… bad luck. And that is okay; I took it on knowing that.
GM: So how many people do you think are involved in the sugar industry?
RB: We reckon about 450, that is directly, that is almost absolutely directly. Then you can look at all the knock on and ripple effects and whatever you want or multiplying effect -whichever way you want to call it - they say it is about 2:1, so maybe about another 900 people derive a lot of income off that.
GM: What do think the gross value of cane farming is worth in the Maroochy area in terms of generated income?
RB: Direct income, probably at the moment in the order of 15-20 million dollars and then you have got your multiplying effect which they say for non-irrigated cane is around 2:1.
GM: You have had the job of Chairman since July, and you were a Deputy Chairman before that. Have you always been in the Canegrowers Association?
RB: I have been in it (the committee) for six years now. Two three-year terms now and we are coming to the end of another term in April, so in April I will have been in it for six years.
GM: And that is on the executive?
RB: Yes, that is on the committee or the executive.
GM: How many are on the committee?
RB: Seven. Kevin resigned from the committee as well and we replaced him with a gentleman by the name of Neil Page. We called for nominations because it was inside 12 months of the next election. And even with everyone telling us what to do and what we shouldn’t be doing and what we should be doing, we only received one nomination!
GM: No one wanted to put their hand up.
RB: So we are very grateful that he nominated and he is doing a great job.
GM: When you look back over what Canegrowers Association has done in the area, what do you think have been some of the major achievements?
RB: Some of the major achievements I believe were probably on the environmental side. Stopping Maroochy Shire Council enforcing the 50 metre riparian zones without thinking it through. We got that and took the heat out of that argument.
GM: Could you just explain what that is?
RB: The riparian area is adjacent to a waterway and they started wanting a 50-metre buffer between any agriculture or whatever - between the waterway and the farming. As you can see looking out the window, if you took 50 metres off all that, I have got a long narrow farm (The farm runs along both sides of Petrie Creek). I wouldn’t have had much left. No compensation, you would still own the land and you would still have to keep the weeds off it and that was one of our more heated arguments. Canegrowers (Association) have had good success with keeping rates in check with valuations and appealing. Because on the Sunshine Coast occasionally a cane farm will go for a big price just because someone wants that bit of land and of course if you start adding that into the valuations we would have all been paying these huge valuations, so we have had a lot of success there. We had a lot of successes negotiating with the Mill but in hindsight I don’t think that helped us in the end. We negotiated continuous crush allowances so that your out of pocket expenses on the weekends were paid by the Mill and we negotiated benefits in that respect, but I think in hindsight that only hastened the end of the Sugar Mill. So that is probably not a crowning achievement. We always tried to get Bundaberg Sugar to increase the capacity of the Mill; we should have just grown a lot more cane – which we could have – and forced them into doing something. It is the old ‘chicken and the egg’ (situation) you know. So we had a lot of fights over that and that caused the demise of the Sugar Mill. As well as the low prices, the inability for the canegrowers as such to sit down and meaningfully work the problems out with Bundaberg Sugar. Bundaberg Sugar is a very secretive, very antagonistic organisation, and they are very hard to deal with, very hard to deal with, and I think that has cost them dearly over the years too.
GM: When you say Bundaberg Sugar, are these the Belgian people that own the Mill?
RB: Well the Belgians own Bundaberg Sugar and they haven’t made any changes, they haven’t changed the management of Bundaberg Sugar. The management of Bundaberg Sugar will not sit down with you and open the books or tell you anything in a meaningful and open manner so that you can actually see why they want something from you. They just make demands and…
GM: And I guess the fact that our dollar value is going up against the American greenback wouldn’t be helping things either?
RB: Oh no, that is just another nail, nailing the nails into the coffin as fast as you can get them. But this will not be the last sugar mill to close, no way. Unless the prices turn around really quickly, we will see somewhere of upwards of four or five sugar mills closing in the next four of five years I believe. So, we are the start of it, but I don’t think it is going to stop here. The whole sugar industry is in jeopardy at the moment.
GM: Any other major milestones?
RB: For the Canegrowers organisation? Being only in it six years, there have probably been lots and I think everybody has got their value for money out of it. I suppose way back in the 1950s, when they built their building in Nambour, that was a good milestone and I am sure there are lots of other things. I have seen lots of negotiations along the way with Councils and whatever that has benefited us and the Canegrowers (Association) have got the right outcome for their rank and file.
GM: Why did you get involved yourself?
RB: Because I wanted to try and get on with the Mill. It probably didn’t work in the end. It took a long time, there was some of us there that thought we would like to see some change in the organisation and that change came too little too late, which is a shame. But by the same token…
End Side A Tape 1
Start Side B Tape 1
GM: This is Side B of Tape 1 of an interview with Ross Boyle. We were talking about Bundaberg Sugar and the attitude of it.
RB: Bundaberg Sugar, I mean the people, the individuals that make up Bundaberg Sugar are quite decent people - I would never say that they are not - but the actual organisation, probably led by Geoff Mitchell, the General Manager - he is a very hard-nosed, very uncaring towards the Canegrowers organisation - and I believe over the years their hard-nosed negotiations and their toughness has actually cost them money because they have missed out on a lot of opportunities. And I think they desperately need a new direction. They’ll survive because they are very tough, but if they want to really prosper and be known as a good business I think they will have to change their management style.
GM: So you took over as Chairman in July, what did you see as being your main goals?
RB: My main goal after taking over in July was to just stay in the job until the bitter end and not buckle under pressure from the odd hot head who was not game to get in there themselves and just stand on the side and throw mud - and you get that in any organisation - and try and oversee some good outcomes for the end of the crush, such as looking at sending cane elsewhere or doing other things with the crop and then to oversee the winding up of the organisation and the finish of it in this area I think. That is about the only thing that we can really hope for over the next four or five months.
GM: How would you describe the mood of the canefarmers in the Maroochy region since the intent to close the Mill was announced? How long ago was it announced by the way?
RB: Oh last year. The mood, oh I suppose at first the mood was – going back to sort of early to mid-last year - it was ‘nah, that’ll never happen.’ There will be a ‘white knight’, there will be a Government, there will be somebody who will ride in and save us. Those of us at the top end of the structure knew that no one was going to save us because they closed mills in Newcastle, they shut down Ansett Airlines, they do all sorts of things with far bigger fish than we are and we knew that we really weren’t going to get any help. We get a lot of talk about help; we get a lot of lip service; we get meetings organised and we get committees formed and whatever, but we don’t get a lot of help; we’ve got to help ourselves. So I think we went out of denial; I think there is a lot of anger, but I think canegrowers, being the fairly conservative, fairly older age groups that the anger won’t boil over into anything tangible. We’ve had one suicide, which we can attribute partially to the problem - not entirely but partially - which is very unfortunate. I think we’re going to have some troubles with people once it really sets in, once it really sinks in, when they start pulling pieces out of the Mill and trucking them off to scrap metal yards or other mills or whatever and we’ll know that it will never, ever run again, I think it will really sink in that it is closed.
GM: I should have asked you this question before; you mentioned something about the cane rail and an allowance for that. It has all got to be pulled up and you have made some sort of arrangement?
RB: Yes, we offered to allow them to leave it on the cane farms owned by canegrowers to save them money and that was part of the deal to negotiate that $5.50 down and they came up with a figure of about $1.40 a ton, that was worth, I think But it has been a can of worms but we finally got there. We received the documents where we sign it and - typical Bundaberg Sugar they want their cake and eat it - so they are going to come and take some of the line (the heavy rail) but not all of it. So that has caused a lot of angst, but we have worked through that and I think we have got a reasonable outcome.
GM: Have you seen a change in this mood? At first it was probably disbelief and then at some stage it must have become resentment and anger?
RB: Yes, there was some resentment and anger. We have sort of… I don’t know if there has been a lot of change. People go through sort of different changes. I can only talk about myself. I am not angry with Bundaberg Sugar as such or anybody in the company. I am very disappointed that collectively all of us couldn’t save the industry, because I think if we had all been passionate about and committed to it we could have. It would not have been easy - it is not easy in the sugar industry at the moment - I think we could have saved it. We didn’t. I think growers are too set in their ways. I believe that Bundaberg Sugar were just too tough and uncompromising in what their demands were. But people are moving in different ways. I am trying to hit the ground running, I am trying to get on with my life, and everybody is looking at it in different ways.
GM: Just run through some of the ideas or avenues that have been explored for cane farming and its continuance.
RB: Well, we haven’t got any silver bullets that will take over the whole area, a crop or another answer for cane or anything. So while we have ended up… I believe if you ask me what I think is going to happen, my personal opinion is regardless of what is being said in the papers, some land is going to go to development. I think there are a couple of good reasons for that. Some of the (cane) land is situated right beside prime development such as Twin Waters and Coolum and down near Caloundra and Kawana and all that and around Bli Bli and as you drive into Maroochydore. And I think just pure pressure will cause that land to eventually be used for some form of development. Now people are thinking that they are just going to whack up houses and whatever and it is going to be horrible, but I think there is an opportunity to do it properly where developers could buy a large tract of land, pay good money for it and they could leave lakes, parks, you know do the housing right and do everything right so that the outcomes are better than just a standard housing estate.
GM: Some of the estates like Seaside are like Legoland. I mean the houses are two metres apart.
RB: But that is okay as long as there are big parks and open space as well, and also another compelling reason is that the cane land is cleared. Why should you rezone 500 hectares of virgin scrub and knock it all down and put in a housing estate if nearby there are some cane lands that, okay might have a few things that you have got to overcome - like maybe there are some flooding problems – maybe there is this and maybe there is that, but you don’t have to knock down standing remnant vegetation. And I think the Green groups agree with that, but nobody wants wall-to-wall houses in this area. And that is all very well, but are we going to be just peasant farmers in the middle, you know, so everybody can have a good view? I mean everybody in Australia - you watch all these shows on telly - and you are allowed to buy a house and slap a coat of paint on it and double your money at auction and do this and do that. Why isn’t the farmer allowed to sell his farm for good money? What God-given right is there for everybody to stick their nose in and say, ‘No you can’t do it?’ We have defended these lands for years and years and years and looked after them and now that there is no sugar mill, if someone offers you a million dollars for something that is worth only $100,000 as a cane farm, why the hell can’t you take it?
There is no crop that we can identify for the flood plain and housing as such won’t happen on the flood plain either. All these people are running around like headless chooks saying you can’t develop the flood plain - it will probably never happen anyway - but there are lots of areas that you could develop. So I believe that there will be a bit of development. I think at this stage there will be some cane survive - whether it survives for our bio-dry plant, which may or may not get up in the future, which is a stockfeed plant, or whether it survives to supply neighbouring mills - but the way it is looking, the price is too low for that. And then I think there will be other crops grown in certain areas and bits and pieces will happen. There will be some tree crops, some ginger, some horse stables, maybe sorghum and corn and all sorts of bits and pieces. Some blocks will just be sold off. People will put a house on it; it might be 50 acres, they will put a house on it and have just a couple of cattle and things like that. Because people leave Sydney and they get two million dollars for their house and they come up here and pay half a million dollars for a lump of cane land and put a house on it and they think it is cheap. So that sort of thing will happen, but as for one big major industry helping out everybody who is going out, no I don’t believe it will happen.
GM: Tell us about this bio-dry plant.
RB: Well it is a revolutionary way of drying products with an energy efficient (operation). You can use waste steam out of the process or you can generate steam. We will be drying the cane, tops and all, processing it and baling it and selling it as a stock feed probably overseas to Japan and Korea and places like that. It is very early days; we may get the project up and running in the next 12 months to two years if it looks like it is going to make it.
GM: When you say ‘we’, is it a Canegrowers initiative?
RB: Well Canegrowers have been in it in the early stages, but has been a little bit overtaken by some people being a little bit impatient I believe and getting ahead of themselves. But I hope and wish them all the success because I certainly don’t want it to fail. Canegrowers are heavily involved.
GM: I notice that some growers I have spoken to, like Vic Flatt, have said ‘that’s it’, because he has got no son to take over the farm, so he is going to grow other crops and that’s it. But Joy Rickard, for example, said she is probably going to truck her stuff up to Maryborough for a couple of years until she finds out what is going to happen. Have you get any idea of what most will do?
RB: There are growers out there that are following the harvester and ploughing out the cane; there are growers out there that are just going to let it sit; there are growers out there that have ploughed out some and let the other sit and there are some growers out there that are almost farming it like normal. Not quite, I think everybody is really aware now that there is no tomorrow for Moreton Mill or anything like that. But there are some growers - everybody is doing it differently - some growers have put a For Sale sign on and bought a big slasher. Personally I have got a bit of sorghum growing and I am looking at growing a bit of turf and looking at using some treated sewerage water to grow turf and I am hoping to not sell any of the farm at this stage and continue on and maybe gear up again to grow cane if the bio-dry or something like that is a winner. But everybody is doing different things - like some people are putting cattle in; some people are doing all sorts of things. I haven’t heard of any aquaculture yet, but no doubt somebody will have a go.
GM: Yes, temperature is going to be a problem.
RB: It depends on what you grow.
GM: I read a thing in the paper about that bloke up at Innisfail who is doing very well with barramundi.
RB: Oh yes, it wouldn’t be a barramundi area here; seriously you are talking red claw or bass or something else.
GM: I hope that someone does have a go at it. So what will happen to the Canegrowers Building that you have in Nambour?
RB: I believe it will be sold next year and the funds will be distributed back to the growers. That is it and that is the way I would like to see it happen. I am only one of seven, but I believe that is a majority feeling in the committee that that is what will happen.
GM: If you had the power and the means and you had that silver bullet, what would you have done to change the current scenario?
RB: If you had a bottomless pit you would have bought Moreton Mill, although Bundaberg Sugar never wanted to sell it to us; they always wanted to keep it; they wanted to close it down because we would be a competitor.
GM: They wouldn’t want it.
RB: That’s right, they won’t say that in public, but it has been said in private. You would have bought Moreton Mill; you would have radically changed the transport system.
GM: What? To a road system?
RB: To a road system. You would have gone out and actively sought more cane land - and there is plenty out there, just not that far away in the Mary Valley and whatever. And you would have had to look at some way of value-adding or some way of taking advantage of where we are, you know, some way of bringing tourism into it, looking at different ways of doing things, because just selling raw sugar for six cents a pound (.4 kg) is, you know - a glass of water costs more than that in most countries - it is just not on; it is a Third World country thing, raw sugar. Raw sugar is finished, unless the prices turn around and a lot of people say that they will, and they might, but you would never have got anybody to lend you the money. Somebody would have had to have given you some money I think to do that or have given you the sugar mill. And then you still would have needed many millions of dollars to pull it off. And a lot of hard work, but it could have been done.
GM: What about ethanol?
RB: Ethanol got shot by everybody. It got shot by greenies, it got shot by RACQ, and behind the scenes - because we were heavily into ethanol projects – were the oil companies. They pretend to be green and they pretend to be wonderful and they have all these warm and fuzzy ads, but they love ripping oil out of the ground and selling it to you as petrol and they are not into ethanol unless they are forced into being into ethanol and our Government hasn’t got the guts to do that. And that is either persuasion; that is not a political statement. Ethanol has succeeded. It is huge in the United States, absolutely mega in Brazil, although the US produces about the same, but they have a similar population, but it is huge in both countries. It has caused enormous turnarounds for struggling rural areas because they have been able to restore their employment base and whatever and produce something that is renewable and fairly environmentally friendly.
GM: See I thought that would have been a great argument.
RB: Oh it is too simple for the Australian Government.
GM: It is a renewable resource.
RB: It is too simple. They sit down and they argue about everything; it is too simple.
GM: I would have thought that would have been a nice little tick in the box for Greenhouse (effect).
RB: Yes, but the Greens thought that we were going to clear more land to do it, but we weren’t. We were going into old dairy and old grazing and old other farming. To double the sugar industry in this area you would only have to clear – and I am only talking to go to 20,000 hectares from ten – it is possible. You wouldn’t have to clear more than 500 hectares; it is only a tree here and a tree there on grazing blocks and things. The clearing was a non-event. But they didn’t look and then they say, ‘Oh, but there will be more fertiliser’; they just hate the sugar industry, they hate it. And they have won, we are gone, we are going and unfortunately they will end up with a weed-riddled place where people buy land and park broken down caravans and build sheds and the place will look terrible if they are not careful. And they are worried about that now.
GM: When I have asked people what will be the greatest loss to the Maroochy area…
RB: Visual amenity.
RB: It is beautiful.
GM: I mean just look across here.
RB: It is rapidly changing now; it is not as pretty as it should be. It should be greener than that now, but it is not being fertilised. To the untrained eye you will pick that up more as… It stays green until gets about that high (indicates about 1.2 metres) then it will go yellow and then the weeds will take over and then it will look horrible, horrible.
GM: The future for the Canegrowers Association?
RB: I don’t think we have one here. I don’t believe that is negative, I believe that is realistic, I think we will be folding up. Election time for us is 30 April around about then - someone reading this might find that I am wrong - but somewhere around about 30 April we will fold up and I believe that there may be a small role of tidying up after that, but I don’t believe we will go to the election and there will be another election. I do think that there is a possibility that it might turn into a bio-dry thing and it might set up with a number of growers in it - 30, 40 or 50 - but that won’t be the Canegrowers organisation. It will be completely another body. I think we are on our ‘Last Hurrah’.
GM: Have you had much interface, Canegrowers, statewide?
RB: Yes, Brisbane mainly. Oh they are helpful, but you know I suppose Moreton has always suffered a little bit from being a very small area and also we are an area that if the sugar goes, the whole area is not going to roll over and die, and there are many towns in Queensland that if the sugar dies they are dead. And that is not going to happen here, so I don’t believe we are getting quite the attention that we would get from both our own Canegrowers organisation and the Government at all levels because this is such a rich and dynamic area. And they all have sat down quietly to themselves and said to each other, ‘Look we are not really going to miss the sugar industry. So we will make a bit of a noise and we will do a little bit of this and a little bit of that but it is not going to be a panic. So just forget about them’. I liken that to there being a plane crash and only 20 people die as to there being a 747 and 400 people die. The 20 people that die are still dead, that is how I liken it. It won’t be as big news and it won’t be as big a tragedy, but for the people that actually whose farms close, they will still be closed. So it is a shame.
GM: What do you think will be the main impacts for the Mill closing for the Maroochy area?
RB: I think we will lose something that started the area, something that has been around here now for about 106 years, the Mill has. I think we will lose a bit of charm of the area and it will become much more like the Gold Coast where there is no big rural base. There are still some big rural things here that generate more money than cane you know. I think strawberries would be bigger than cane and dairy and the others are probably just as big. We are just more visible. So I think we will lose a bit of that rural charm, we will certainly lose the cane trains, we will lose the lovely waving fields of cane, which I have never heard anybody complain about. Some people do not like the cane fires and some people love them - I know the tourists love them - so we will lose that and we will lose a lot of very skilled canegrowers. This area is not closing because the canegrowers are not good, they are very good and it is very rich cane country; it is just that there is not enough of it and the Mill is in the wrong place. So and Nambour of course will lose a lot of character, it won’t be a sugar town any more. You know there are probably people who have moved into Nambour and don’t even know that there is a sugar mill there and don’t care. But there is a lot of people who have lived there a long time and if I go down the street now – if I am in town for any more than a few minutes, I would have several people ask me what is going to happen. ‘What have they done to our Sugar Mill?’ It is difficult and they don’t understand why it is going. I don’t think any of us do.
GM: Okay I am going to stop there and call our interview to an end and thank you Ross for your help.
RB: That’s fine, thanks.