AGRICULTURE / A Future in the Douglas Shire?


Will the cane industry survive?

If so, what can be done to make it more sustainable, secure and prosperous?

If the cane industry will not survive, what other opportunities are there?

It’s no secret that cane is struggling and that land is going out of production into hobby farms or cattle grazing. For a variety of reasons, there are few options for crop diversification for agricultural land that could be implemented, or switched to, quickly at scale. But with each additional loss of cane production, overall viability becomes more threatened.

It is in nobody’s interest to see Douglas become a one industry Shire; 2020 has shown us that.

Douglas Shire Council has previously worked to support the cane industry, concerned that the Mill will close and take all the jobs, the cane farmers and the Shire’s income with it. Mossman Mill is unique – if the Mill closes ,it is too far to haul the cane to another Mill – Mulgrave or MSF on the Tablelands. So, closure of the Mill means closure of the entire cane industry.

Past Councils have done their best to protect farmland from urban development – Councils cannot say what is grown on the land, but they can zone it for agricultural purposes and regulate a minimum lot size. The Planning Scheme and the Regional Plan have both appreciated or acknowledged that the Mill needs minimum throughput to be economically viable, and have always aimed to ensure there is sufficient land, should it grow cane, to support a Mill.

It is critical for the survival of the cane industry, or indeed any agricultural enterprise, that Council maintains agricultural zoning into the future. This year, local cane production was 473,563 tonnes with an additional 174,000 tonnes from Mareeba. The total of toll-crushed cane through Tableland Mill was 110,580 tonnes (Toll-crushing is when one Mill is contracted to crush another Mill’s cane).

It used to be said Mossman Mill needed to crush a million tonnes of cane a year to stay viable. If Far Northern Milling’s Mareeba cane goes back to MSF, more land goes out of cane in Douglas (where it is close to the Mill) or the price stays below cost of production-it does not look good for the local cane industry.

Faced with a limited supply of suitable land, the Mill and growers have had lots of great ideas to value-add and diversify in the past – bagged sugar, low GI sugar, organic sugar, value-added by-products of sugar and cane, tourism, cogeneration and most recently, working to secure a value-adding project which diverts sugar cane juice from sugar crystals to a fermentation process which replaces coconut sugar in production of Kecap Manis, a sweetened aromatic soy sauce.

As well, the local cane growing industry reports that it has stepped up to the environmental challenges of being so close to the coast and the Great Barrier Reef.

“We believe that agriculture and tourism work well together for Douglas, but at times it is hard to be an environmental leader when you’re operating at cost of production or below,” says Canegrowers Mossman Chairman, Glen Fasano.

Glen continues “our local industry recognises that being so close to the World Heritage Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef, many eyes are upon us; but it is important not to lose sight of sustainability, productivity and profitable gains.”

“Local cane farmers have taken advantage of past reef funding measures, matching each $1 of funding with at least 150% co-investment to make sustained practice changes to improve their environmental footprint in Douglas. These measurable changes on the land reduce impacts on the land and water quality, but also align cane farmers with Smartcane Best Management Practices that lead to Accreditation and meeting Reef Regulation requirements”.

Glen Fasano, Canegrowers Mossman Chairman

Canegrowers Mossman believes there is a future for agriculture in the Douglas Shire. Of the 8,400ha of land assigned to cane in the coastal and Julatten areas, already 6,768 ha has been benchmarked and 3,291 has Accreditation.

“We would ultimately like to see the Douglas Shire be the first to have all their (it’s) cane land Smartcane BMP Accredited,” said Mr Fasano.

“This would mean our growers are investing in the Shire and their own future by leading the conversation about the cane industry becoming more sustainable, secure and prosperous. We all have to play a part (in the Shire’s sustainable future), be it the Council, industries, business, residents or tourists”.

Glen Fasano, Canegrowers Mossman Chairman

He added, “ there has been a sugarcane industry in the Douglas Shire for over a hundred years and we haven’t survived that long by standing still. We will continue to research, innovate and change, not only for the benefit of the environment but for our own businesses and future – in whatever form they may take.”

As the destination where ‘the rainforest meets the reef’, where the economy, employment and our lifestyle depend on its good health, this Shire should be a leader in environmental management.

Without an obvious alternative to cane, an agricultural industry that brings revenue, jobs and supports business, we should all support the cane industry, to help it continue on its journey to sustainability but above all, to avoid subdivision of quality agricultural land.

Allowing rural subdivision will not just kill the cane industry, it will be the beginning of urban sprawl, the end of the rural landscape, put more demands on the limited water supply and local infrastructure, push up rates and damage the tourism experience.

  • The Shire needs an agricultural industry – a one-industry town is neither healthy, nor resilient
  • Whatever form of agriculture it is, it should be clean, green and attract premium prices

Because every cane growing family has a vital story to tell, with valued opinions and ideas to share, our Editor extends an invitation to local farming families and businesses to share your stories for a series of future articles. Please share via email or give Jayne a call on 0421 207 303.

From shared ideas, new and big things can grow.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR / Mike Berwick BSc (Vet) was Mayor of Douglas Shire from 1991 to 2008. He was awarded an Order of Australia for his contribution to local government and the conservation of Daintree Rainforest. For his contribution to planning, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia. Since leaving local government, Mike works on sustainable agriculture in the reef catchments, and across Australia.

NEXT WEEK / What does “Clean, Green” agriculture look like?


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