Brian Cautice - pictured with grandsons Flynn, 4, Connor, 3, and Thomas, 7 -  has just got out of canegrowing and turned to sweet potatoes as the poor price of sugar made it uneconomical to produce. Picture: Lachie Millard
Brian Cautice - pictured with grandsons Flynn, 4, Connor, 3, and Thomas, 7 - has just got out of canegrowing and turned to sweet potatoes as the poor price of sugar made it uneconomical to produce. Picture: Lachie Millard

Our farmers are tough, but times might be tougher

LAST month out near Longreach grazier Dominic Burden and his wife Vicki were watching their financial stars aligning in a beautiful constellation as Chinese demand for Australian wool helped tip prices over $21 a kilogram.

After taking over their 11,000ha sheep property from Vicki's parents in 2013, the couple have been backing in the chance of another wool boom.

The State Government backed dog fence is helping keep their modest herd safe from attack, off-farm employment keeps cash-flow problems at bay and a 30 per cent increase in the price of wool over the past year means their hard work should be about to pay off.

But Burden, educated, articulate and a rising star in agri-politics, only has to walk into his front yard to see his dreams dissolving as that relentlessly blue sky over far western Queensland steadfastly refuses to send rain.

"Everything is perfect, except for the weather,'' Burden says.

At Farleigh, north of Mackay, Paul Schembri ploughs the land his immigrant ancestors began farming a century ago.

Just two years ago that soil promised to reap more riches for Schembri and his colleagues in the cane growing community as sugar went beyond US20c a pound - a rough benchmark beyond which serious money can be made.

Today, with sugar hovering between US10c and US11c a pound, Schembri, chairman of CANEGROWERS Queensland, will struggle to break even as a global sugar surplus, much of it provided by subsidised Indian growers, destroys hopes and dreams.

 

Brian Cautice - pictured with grandsons Flynn, 4, Connor, 3, and Thomas, 7 -  has just got out of canegrowing and turned to sweet potatoes as the poor price of sugar made it uneconomical to produce. Picture: Lachie Millard
Brian Cautice - pictured with grandsons Flynn, 4, Connor, 3, and Thomas, 7 - has just got out of canegrowing and turned to sweet potatoes as the poor price of sugar made it uneconomical to produce. Picture: Lachie Millard

At the start of this year Queensland's grain producers were reaping extraordinary profits from the Indian appetite for our chickpeas as demand for the humble pulse reached such a frenzied level chickpeas eclipsed wheat as our chief grain export.

Then, in March, India whacked a 60 per cent import tax on chickpeas, snatching away yet another pot of gold at the end of the farming rainbow.

In this climate, the plight of strawberry growers dealing with a psychotic act of sabotage seems to fit in with a deeply disturbing trend.

Queensland primary producers appear to have offended Demeter, the ancient Greek God of agriculture _ they simply cannot get a break.

The farming community has been back in economic vogue in recent years as a stand-out contributor to our national accounts.

An update from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics released this week shows that, even as drought tightens its grip, our farmers can still produce the goods.

ABARE predicts the 2018-19 value of Australian farm production will remain relatively unchanged at $60 billion.

Queensland Agricultural Industry Development Minister Mark Furner is struck by the resilience of the Queensland farmer.

"Despite external factors such as drought, international trade dramas or human sabotage, Queensland farmers continue to not only provide us with high quality food and fibre products, they also contribute nearly $20 billion to our state's economy,'' Furner notes.

The State Government, knowing the drought will break, has big hopes primary industry will increase its contribution to economic growth.

The Labor Government is not only continuing with the $36 million wild dog exclusion fencing scheme but pouring $10 million into Rural Economic Development Grants to kickstart agricultural businesses as well as shovelling $10 million into a Rural Export Distribution Centre to fast track our produce to overseas markets.

Longreach grazier Dominic Burden on drought-declared property Macsland. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Longreach grazier Dominic Burden on drought-declared property Macsland. Picture: Nigel Hallett

But for the moment, that's of little comfort to farmers, especially those in one of the state's iconic industries _ sugar.

Schembri says cane growers simply cannot grow and harvest cane at a profit at the present price, and the global commentary suggests there is little room for optimism about a price increase in the year ahead.

He's increasingly angry and frustrated at an international economic landscape where free trade is loudly preached but where countries like India, which has increased production by up to 50 per cent in the past decade, heavily subsidise their growers.

"If this was a case of supply and demand we would be OK, but this current global surplus we are up against is being underwritten by subsidies,'' Schembri said.

Outside Bundaberg Brian Courtice, whose family have farmed sugar in the district since 1913, has seen many industry up and downs since he cut cane by hand with the gangs which began fading away in the 60s with the arrival of mechanised harvesting.

But Courtice wonders if the recent price slump might mean something far more serious for the sugar industry.

Gazing with his his grandkids at some of the most fertile volcanic soil in the nation, now given over to sweet potatoes rather than sugar, Courtice, a former Federal Labor MP for the Bundaberg-based seat of Hinkler, notes the family farm "Sunnyside'' last produced a crop of cane in 2005.

Many Bundaberg farmers have also left sugar behind and pursued other horticultural endeavours.

Electricity costs cripple irrigators, other overheads including expensive machinery continue to rise and many of the old sugar mills which were mainstays of local economies are gone.

"Sugar has been a crucial industry to the development of this state but there is no question it faces serious problems unless the price improves in the year ahead,'' Courtice says.

Brian Courtice with grandson Thomas Courtice, 5, on the family farm just outside Bundaberg.
Brian Courtice with grandson Thomas Courtice, 5, on the family farm just outside Bundaberg.


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