There is no denying that entire communities in Far North Queensland have been built on the back of the sugarcane industry. Particularly prominent in greater Cairns and surrounds, the wide expanses of sugarcane fields have become iconic in their own right.
In April 2021 it was announced that Australia had eclipsed Thailand to become the second largest raw sugar exporter in the world, offering a sharp wake-up call to the country that futureproofing the sugarcane industry was an investment worth making.
“This achievement highlights the fact that this industry ought not be taken for granted and that it is highly competitive and world-class,” Canegrowers Chairman Paul Schembri said.
“I do concede that over time we have contracted as an industry; however, what this achievement does demonstrate is that we are remarkably resilient.”
Currently, Australia exports around 3.4–3.6 million tonnes of raw sugar annually, second only to Brazil, which results in almost $2 billion in export earnings.
Such facts and figures starkly place into focus the importance of the industry not just in today’s market, but well into the future.
A 2019 report commissioned by Sugar Research Australia identified the primary opportunities for industry diversification as electricity cogeneration, ethanol, food products and densified biomass, and a secondary list of opportunities as specialty chemicals including sugar and animal feed.
However, when speaking with local sugarcane farmers, they feel there is much work to be done to alleviate the current ‘balancing act’ taking place in a bid to allow the needs of today to coexist with the plans for the future.
Freshwater sugarcane farmer Mark Savina agrees that, as with any other industry, diversification is necessary to survival, but highlights the unique problem facing today’s operators.
“The biggest thing for us farmers is to keep our mills operational,” Mr Savina said. “Our mills need every stick of cane possible to keep them viable, and so if we attempt to diversify, we suddenly limit the amount of cane we send into our mill.”
Australia exports around 3.4–3.6 million tonnes of raw sugar annually.
Mr Savina pointed to the Tableland Green Energy Power Plant as a good example of marrying the viability of today’s industry with the industry of the future, stating that “working in with the mills” is the only way the industry can seriously and comfortably focus on long-term diversification.
Next Gen Officer and Australian Cane Farmers Association (ACFA) Director Gerard Puglisi has been outspoken on the issue of diversification, stating that the time for succession planning and futureproofing has arrived across all levels of the industry.
“Ethanol is a big factor in Brazil for fuel, so their new mills can make ethanol or sugar depending on what the higher price is,” Mr Puglisi said. “We need to move away from being 100 per cent reliant on raw sugar.
“There are about 101 things you can do with the sugarcane plant, so if we can diversify into some of those different revenue streams, it should be a win-win for everyone.”
And while the long-term outlook for sugarcane farming in Australia is intricate and complex, Mr Savina feels on an individual level there are still plenty of ways your everyday operation can maximise opportunities for ongoing success into the future.
“Adopting technologies like the GPS auto steer system has been game changing for us,” he said. “Bringing technology onto the farm increases efficiencies and is, in our own way, adapting to the future of the sugarcane industry.”