Herbert grower proves a point with BMP
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Herbert grower proves a point with BMP

Herbert River district grower Frank Russo believes he’s defied industry critics who labelled cane farmers ‘dinosaurs’ by gaining best practice accreditation in the three core modules of Smartcane BMP.

As Frank recalls, it all began with a visiting public servant from a government department once telling “dinosaur” cane farmers in the Ingham region to change or, “get out of the industry”.

That comment motivated him to prove he was not only up for the challenge of achieving best practice but also that a lot of what he’d been doing for a long time was already hitting the mark.

“I had to do it just to prove that I was not a dinosaur and even the old dinosaurs can comply with all the new rules and regulations,” Frank said.

“We have been laser levelling for years, we already make spoon drains. We already trash blanket, we already zero till. We are already doing it.”

He says the progressive shift to green cane harvesting in the Ingham district, which started 30 years ago, is an example of how the industry has worked to deliver improved environmental outcomes.

“Because of the mulching, conserving moisture and all the benefits that go with green cane, you don’t cultivate so you don’t get erosion, you don’t get soil runoff plus the trash rots and breaks down and becomes a nutrient,” he said.

There’s an obvious parallel with the current emphasis on keeping agricultural inputs on farm. As Frank sees things, a steady, progressive shift to improved practices in nutrient, chemical and sediment management will benefit both the environment and the farmer’s bottom line.

“Our two biggest expenses outside of harvesting on our farms is chemical and fertiliser,” he said. “We want to use the minimum amount that we need to grow our crop and we want it to stay on our farm.” The Smartcane BMP program has been crafted so as not to be prescriptive, which suits Frank. He tried controlled traffic farming on a dual row 1.8 metre spacing 20 years ago but didn’t achieve productivity gains over a full growing cycle.

Frank uses a minimal till system, most machinery wheel tracks are set to match the row spacing and equipment is operated under GPS guidance. It ticks the Smartcane BMP boxes for minimising compaction and tillage management.

Frank was thankful for the assistance of Herbert River Smartcane BMP facilitator Maria Battoraro in helping collect the information and records he needed to secure accreditation.

Frank would rather live without any form of regulation, be it industry driven or enforced regulation but in the absence of a choice, his message to fellow growers is that if a ‘dinosaur’ can become Smartcane BMP accredited, so can they.

“The only thing that a lot of my fellow growers have got to start to understand is that the rules are there whether we like it or not and I don’t like it as much as the next bloke,” Frank said. “But at the end of the day I don’t think they’re going to change them in a hurry.

“We haven’t got a choice to say whether we comply or not because the gun’s been put at our head with a live round in it and it’s been cocked.

“To stay Smartcane BMP accredited, the way we are now, is the best.”
BMP: pathway to a prosperous future
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BMP: pathway to a prosperous future

Damien and Jodie Borg are relatively new to the lifestyle and business of cane farming as independent adults and as such, they are planning to do everything right on their Plane Creek district farm. That’s why they’ve gained accreditation for their business, Borg Family Farming, in the three core modules of Smartcane BMP.

While Damien grew up on a cane farm with parents Kevin and Anna-Maria, he chose as a young adult to pursue a trade and work as a diesel fitter in the mining industry. He decided to move back to agriculture for family and lifestyle.

“We got tired of the mining lifestyle and being away from home – I wanted to spend more time with my family,” Damien said. He and Jodie have two small children.

Once the decision was made, Damien leased a 180 hectare dryland property in 2010.

“We designed the layout right from the start to suit farming, keeping harvesting practices and drainage in mind,” he said. “We are now into our fourth season and this foresight has well and truly paid off in terms of the farm’s efficiencies.”

As a part of a growing younger set taking up cane growing or returning to it, Damien is typical in that he is keen to be proactive in his pursuit of the business’s future profitability and sustainability.

“I’ve received a lot of guidance from neighbouring farmers, and of course my father who is a third generation cane grower,” he says.

Deciding to sign up for the Smartcane BMP (Best Management Practice) program was easy.

“BMP today is just a part of being a farmer,” Damien says. “The mining industry is steeped in regulations to balance the protection of workers and the viability of the business while maintaining and protecting the environment – I see no difference with being a cane farmer as these ends are the same we want to achieve.

“With BMP it’s not just about what you are doing today. A lot of it is about where we want to be in the future – if there is a premium to be paid on accredited sugar, I want to be a part of that.”

Damien admits to being a bit daunted at first by the Smartcane BMP program.

“It has become a lot easier and the program has been even further streamlined. It’s also really comforting to know that there is a lot of support along the way.

“One of the things I do appreciate now is the amount of thought the program stimulates – for instance, the program has really validated the Six Easy Steps for me.”

Damien has 1.85m rows across his farm, which he says is critical for controlled traffic to minimise compaction, lower costs including fuel, and for savings in time by spending much less of it in the paddock.

Cutting down on nitrogen losses and battling cane grubs is achieved with the use of granular fertiliser and Confidor, both of which are put under the ground at the same time using a double disc opener stool splitter and covered with a press wheel.

“We also have GPS guidance in all of our tractors and this increases our efficiency and accuracy including in record keeping,” Damien says.

“Our harvester operator loves it – we’re cutting harvesting losses, reducing fuel costs and saving time. He’s really impressed with the significant difference it makes.”

Damien said he had heard a few growers say they were worried about the amount of time that the Smartcane BMP program would mean spending on a computer.

“I tell them they really don’t have to be concerned because that’s not the case at all,” he says. An added bonus is that BMP doesn’t mean everyone has to farm the same way. You can still farm the way you want to within the BMP guidelines.

“Dad and I quite often have different ideas and opinions about how to do some things, but both ways are always still within BMP practices and we are both Smartcane BMP accredited,” Damien says.

“The Smartcane BMP program isn’t hard, and it may sound harsh, but the reality is that it’s our future.” As a younger farmer, Damien has his sights firmly set on that future. His goal is to expand and grow more cane.

“We’ll be hoping to expand as soon as we can,” he says. “We intend to keep on farming because we like it, and it is great lifestyle and environment in which to bring up our kids.”
BMP drives greater farm efficiency
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BMP drives greater farm efficiency

Efficiency gains for improved productivity have come hand in hand with environmental sustainability for Innisfail farmers Morrie and Jeanette Spina. They’ve recently been accredited in the three core modules of Smartcane BMP, the industry’s best management practice program.

Morrie and Jeanette have 150 hectares of cane across three farms including one tucked behind houses within stone’s throw of the Innisfail central business district. In the 2015 season they cut 12,800 tonnes of cane for an average CCS of 12 across the three farms.

Jeanette says the Smartcane BMP accreditation process made them look at their farming operation differently and identify efficiencies. With a plant nursery business to run as well, there’s not a lot spare time to be had in Morrie and Jeanette’s working schedule.

“We looked at everything,” Jeanette says. “Fuel and time especially – how many times Morrie would pass up and down a row was a big thing to try to cut down.”

“We were trying to be as efficient as we could as farmers because we’re not getting big money for our cane and I was probably already doing half of the record-keeping we needed for accreditation,” Morrie says.

In many cases they’ve found changes which have given them cost or time efficiencies have also had environmental gains. For example, fewer passes through the paddocks of Q200, Q250, Q251 and Q247 mean less soil disturbance affecting soil and crop health.

Guinea grass is a constant problem but moving from broad-scale spraying to spot spraying means less chemical is being used for a better result.

“We do the spot-spraying with a quad bike which uses a lot less fuel than the tractor and just a little bit of poison rather than spraying a lot out up high,” Jeanette says.

“We no longer wait for the guinea grass to get high,” Morrie adds. “I can jump on the quad bike when it’s small and it takes less time.”

With two of the farms on the banks of Bamboo Creek and the North Johnstone River they are very aware of the off-farm impacts of their farming practices. Subsurface application of fertilisers ensures that expensive input stays where it needs to – in the crop.

“Morrie re-built our fertiliser box to make it bigger and higher to hold more fertiliser so he doesn’t have to come back to the shed as often which saves fuel,” Jeanette says.

Smartcane BMP accreditation has been the latest step in their drive for production efficiency and environmental best practice which has already seen them work with Terrain NRM and the Australian Government Reef Programme (formerly Reef Rescue) to install GPS equipment for controlled traffic farming, acquire a bed renovator and high rise sprayer. “We did Smartcane BMP to be as cost efficient per unit of production as we can while at the same time looking after the environment,” Morrie said. “In our area, farmers are the best conservationists there are because of what we get for our cane, we can’t afford to be wasting time or money.”
Accreditation secures a farming future
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Accreditation secures a farming future

More than half of Queensland’s sugarcane production area is now benchmarked in the Smartcane BMP program with hundreds of farms moving towards accreditation to join the 77 which already have their certificates.

CANEGROWERS Innisfail Chairman Joe Marano is urging growers to push through to accreditation just as he has.

“Firstly, if you’re going to stand up in front of growers and tell them they should do it, you should do it yourself,” he says.

The other reasons are personal with his son Daniel now working with him across 417 hectares of owned and leased land, Joe says Smartcane BMP will be a licence to farm in the future.

“I have family that wants to continue farming so it’s not about me anymore,” he says. “It’s about letting them have the right to farm by proving we meet all the environmental and sustainability requirements.”
With two of them doing the work, Joe says BMP is helping keep track of what’s going on to make sure nothing is being forgotten or missed in a busy work schedule.

“You also don’t want to be doubling up so the record keeping means you can make effective use of everyone’s time,” he says. “Having my son on the farm has certainly helped us expand and try to become better growers.”

Joe says his own list of farming challenges shows that growers don’t have to have everything worked out, implemented and finalised to be accredited in the three core modules.

“Take controlled traffic,” he says. “It takes six years to implement fully but the important thing is that most of your machinery matches your row widths.”

The other thing he’s worried about is growers shying away because they self-assess themselves out of it.

“My key message is don’t audit yourself!” he says. “You might find you are already doing something similar to Smartcane BMP so talk to your local facilitator.” Joe firmly believes Smartcane BMP will help sugarcane farming be around for a long time.

“We need to be ahead of the game so that governments and environmentalists can’t accuse us of doing harm to the reef – we need to prove we are not,” he says.

“Smartcane BMP does take time and money and some of us are unaccustomed to this but it is a small price to pay for living in the best part of the world along the east coast of Queensland – we need to set this up for future generations.”
BMP helps grower track inputs
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BMP helps grower track inputs

In October 2015 Neil Kingston took up the challenge to gain Smartcane BMP accreditation for his farming operation at Cordalba and over several months worked with his wife Gaylene to complete all of the core modules. In March 2016, their business became the first to be accredited in the Isis Mill area. It was quickly followed by accreditations for Tim Baldwin of South Kolan and Noel Johnson from the Alloway district.

Neil sees the BMP process as a useful way to reassure governments and the community that farmers take their environmental responsibilities seriously. “Most growers work hard to look after their land and to avoid causing any problems downstream,” he said. “Most of us already have in place many of the records and practices that are required for BMP accreditation.” It took him two days to enter the necessary information about sprays, fertiliser and cultivation from his notebooks into a spreadsheet that local BMP Facilitator Bruce Quinn had developed.

“It is a simple and practical tool that helps growers meet the requirements for accreditation but is also a great way to keep records into the future,” Neil said. He has found the spray recording sheets particularly useful as a way of keeping track of the products applied to different blocks and monitoring the effectiveness of each.

“Other than improving our farm record system to meet the auditor’s requirements, the only other thing that was identified as needing immediate action was to upgrade our chemical storage facility,” he said.

“For growers who also grow horticultural crops, the process should be fairly straight forward as the records kept for programs like FreshCare can be used to meet the requirements of Smartcane BMP,” he said.
Changing the public perception of cane farming
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Changing the public perception of cane farming

Having completed the three core modules of Smartcane BMP, Cairns Region grower Stephen Calcagno wants the public to get a new understanding of the respect farmers have for Queensland’s unique World Heritage assets. He believes the best way for that to happen is through farmers supporting the industry-driven best management practice program to accreditation.

“I’ve been here all my life,” Stephen says. “I’ve seen no deterioration in creeks, I’ve seen them actually thriving. We’ve changed a lot over the years and farmers have got really proactive.”

Stephen believes Smartcane BMP is the best tool farmers have at their disposal to prove that they are minimising the loss of nutrient, pesticide and sediment into the Great Barrier Reef catchment. “The more who do it, the more it puts our industry in a favourable light with the community. We’ve got to prove to everyone that we’re doing the right thing by the reef.”

Good drainage management is crucial for Stephen in his high rainfall environment and riparian zones, silt traps and grassed headlands slow water flow keeping nutrient, herbicide and sediment on his farms. Stephen keeps accurate records of activities such as nutrient applications and cultivation with the GPS on his farm machinery downloading events onto a computer program and he’s two years into a process of switching his farms over to a single-row 1.8 metre controlled traffic farming system which is reducing soil compaction and the potential for erosion.

“If you can fix up the soil health then you’ll have the optimum take-up of nutrients, a healthy root system and healthy plant that’ll utilise the nutrients that you’ve put in and will minimise any loss running off,” Stephen says.

Nutrients are applied using the Six Easy Steps principles and placed sub-surface with a stool-splitting fertiliser box.

As Stephen sees it, there’s much at stake for growers given the importance of a productive, profitable and environmentally sustainable sugar industry to the Queensland’s regional economy. “Everyone makes an impact, it’s just trying to minimise the impact that you do make,” he said. “At the end I’ve still got to run a productive business for the sake of me, for the sake of the towns because financially, even if I’m not making money the farmers are keeping a lot of the towns up and down the state going, keeping people in jobs and money turning over.”