Martin Walsh, of Woodburn, surveys the ready-to-harvest sugar cane crop with the family's dog, Jordan.
Martin Walsh, of Woodburn, surveys the ready-to-harvest sugar cane crop with the family's dog, Jordan.

Tough times ahead for cane producers

FIFTH generation cane farmer Martin Walsh reaps one of the biggest annual harvests in the Richmond Valley, but even he will be struggling to pay all his bills this year after a disastrous season marred by severe frosts and flooding.

This week marks the start of the NSW sugar cane harvest, with Broadwater Mill starting its crush on Wednesday.

A total of about two million tonnes of cane will be crushed across the area, for Condong Mill on the Tweed, Broadwater Mill and Harwood Mill on the Clarence.

Bill Walker, operations manager of Sunshine Sugar, which operates the three mills, said the harvest would be down on last year, when 2.22 million tonnes of cane were crushed.

Mr Walsh said farmers in the upper reaches of the Richmond had been among the most severely affected by adverse weather.

His family works four farms in the Woodburn, Wardell and Rileys Hill areas, normally harvesting 25,000 tonne of cane from almost 405ha. This year they will harvest only half that amount.

"We will be tightening our belts," Mr Walsh said.

"All our costs are going up, including fuel and fertiliser, but this year our income has halved."

He said the tough times would continue into next season, as the Richmond Valley cane crops were planted in two-year cycles.

Across the region the season's harvest will be marked by an absence of cane fires, as farmers gather their trash for processing at the Broadwater and Condong cogeneration plants.

In the past, fire has been used before and after a sugar cane harvest, to reduce the amount of leaf matter taken to the mills and left in the paddocks.

Although Mr Walsh is only expecting to break even with the cogeneration deal this year, he expects it may reap rewards in the future if better methods are developed to gather the cane waste.

He said the mill currently paid farmers about $8 a tonne for their cane waste

All the same, he said he was happy to be supplying a material that would be used to create renewable energy for the national electricity grid.

Once running non-stop at its 30-megawatt capacity, the Broadwater cogeneration plant will make enough electricity to supply a region covering Lismore and Ballina.

Mr Walsh said that despite the hardships of the current season he wouldn't trade cane farming for anything.

"I get satisfaction seeing a nice crop, I like working with my dad and, when the harvest is not on, the hours are pretty relaxed."

Sunshine Sugar reminded motorists to be aware that cane harvesting equipment and trucks would be on our roads from this week until the end of the season, in late November or early December.


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