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Wild weather and poor prices means tricky start to Queensland's sugarcane crushing season

Tom Major and Kallee Buchanan, Thursday June 6, 2019 - 06:25 EST
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Paul Turnbull and Peter Luke at Inkerman Mill in Home Hill, one of the district's four sugar mills. - ABC

A summer of flooding in some regions and drought in others, along with a sustained low global sugar price has tempered industry expectations as the 2019 sugarcane crush begins in Queensland.



Tableland Mill, near Mareeba west of Cairns, was the first to begin crushing on May 29, while mills in the Burdekin and Mackay districts and Mossman opened on Tuesday.

This year's cane crop is estimated at 31.5 million tonnes, as much as three per cent down on 2018, with well under last year's 4.7 million tonnes of raw sugar to be produced.

Australian Sugar Milling Council CEO David Pietsch said the crop is also below the long-term average, .

"That's a combination of short-term seasonal conditions through the growing season, a little wet in some places up north and a a little dry perhaps in some places down south," he said.

Mr Pietsch said confidence in the sector was dropping with poor international prices for the majority export crop, .

"We estimate the impact of [Indian subsidies] over the last three years to be about $A470 million in terms of impact on Australian industry," he said.

"The next step is to launch a formal World Trade Organisation dispute. We would expect when we present our case that we'll have a successful outcome on that.

"We look to the future years with optimism, but certainly there's some forces external to the industry that are perhaps dampening that enthusiasm."



Growers struggle

Meanwhile, growers say looming regulation is playing on farmers' minds and could be adding to lack of investment confidence.

Vice-chairman of the Queensland Cane Growers Organisation Owen Menkens, who farms at Home Hill in the state's north, said the threat of looming regulations on farm fertiliser and chemical use for Great Barrier Reef catchments was concerning producers.

"The world sugar price isn't great, and with regard to the reef regulations and increasing price of electricity certainly sentiment isn't all rosy at the moment," he said.

"We're inviting the Premier to come on farm and talk to us about the reef regs. She went and supported the resources industry but as yet we haven't heard anything about the reef regs from the Government.

"We're willing to talk to the Government at any time to have a look at making some changes."

Mr Menkens said heavy tropical monsoon rain was beneficial for irrigation areas like the Burdekin and Tableland, while water-logging was a problem in others.

"Some areas copped a lot of damage, other areas didn't get as much. And it probably helped with less pressure to irrigate," he said.



Local fluctuations

General manager of cane supply for MSF Sugar on the Tablelands, Hal Cook, said the crop was average in tonnes per hectare.

"We're expecting to process 708,000 tonnes of cane, which is pretty good," he said.

"It's been a wetter than normal year up on the Tablelands which has allowed our farmers to use less irrigation water."

The Herbert River district, centred on the town of Ingham, is down 500,000 tonnes after prolonged wet weather from December 2018 in parts of the district, with lower sunshine hours contributing to the slump.

The start date for the Herbert has been pushed back by a week to June 25 as a result of wet field conditions, with more rain predicted.

Officials at Wilmar Australia, which produces half of Australia's sugar, said bigger crops were expected in the Burdekin, Proserpine and Plane Creek districts, offsetting most losses from the Herbert mills.

Cane supply and grower relations manager Paul Giordani said Wilmar expected to process about 15.41 million tonnes of sugarcane this year, to manufacture about 2.1 million tonnes of raw sugar.

"As a group, we're expecting a similar throughput for 2019 as last year, when we processed 15.44 million tonnes of sugarcane," Mr Giordani said.

Further south, Mackay Sugar farmers had a strong wet growing season as they prepare to harvest .





In the southern region, a tough growing season means the crush is likely to be short this year, starting in July.

MSF Sugar's Maryborough Mill manager Stewart Norton said dry conditions have pushed the forecast down to 625,000 tonnes.

"Last year we had very good rain through October, November and December and the crop got off to a really, really good start. We were thinking it was going to be 800,000 plus," he said.

"Then we had a really, really dry period through January, February with pretty much no rain at all, and that's put the brakes on the dryland crop. Now we think we're looking at the low 600,000s."

In Bundaberg, what could have been a disastrous season has been somewhat mitigated by an expensive and exhausting irrigation program.

Bundaberg Sugar operations manager David Pickering said the forecast was a healthy 1.2 million tonnes.

"That's testament to the efforts of our farmers to put the water on where it's available and paying for the electricity to get that water on," he said.

"It won't be a cheap crop, but at least that stopped it from being a disastrous sized crop."

The Isis Central Sugar will finalise its start date and crop estimate next week.


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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