ABC Report- Sweet methods: Queensland sugar cane growers reducing water run-off

North Queensland sugar cane growers are finding innovative ways to improve water quality on the Great Barrier Reef by minimising water run-off from their properties.

Vince and Rita Papale run a sugar cane farm at Home Hill in the Burdekin, south of Townsville – the engine room of the Australian sugar industry. 

But they have flown to Brisbane during harvesting season to have dinner with Premier Campbell Newman as finalists in the rural category of the Queensland Premier’s Sustainability Awards.

Mr and Mrs Papale and their neighbours grow 25 per cent of the total crop, or around 7.5 million tonnes.

They are involved in a range of research and development projects – not simply aimed at lifting productivity or cutting costs, but at minimising nutrient and chemical run-off from their farms.

Sometimes that involves doing more with less.

In the Papales’ case it meant moving away from the old paradigm of trying to grow as much cane on as much area as they could.

They sacrificed four hectares to create an artificial wetland in the middle of their farm that serves to trap run-off from their cane fields instead of it ending up out to sea.

The work was carried out under the first phase of the $200 million Reef Rescue Program – a collaborative deal between government and growers aimed at minimising nutrient and chemical farm run-off and improving water quality on the reef.

“For every dollar the Government put up, we spent $1.80 and multiply that by the other local growers who put their hand up and the total investment was huge,” Mr Papale said.

“We’ve had some really wet weather since we built it, and it’s helped the farm drain naturally – without pumping, which helps the hip pocket – and more importantly contains that runoff right here,” he said .

“And what’s more there’s been no negative impact on either our productivity or profitability.”

Mr Papale says he is proud of what he is doing.

“This piece of dirt has sustained my family for four generations, so we are obviously doing something right,” he said.

The Papale’s project is just one of a number of groundbreaking projects underway in the region.

Aaron Linton is another Burdekin cane grower aiming at the same sort of “triple-bottom line”.

His uncanny knack for picking wind-shifts made him a champion sailor and he is now bringing that intuition for change to the sugar industry.

The day 7.30 Queensland caught up with him he was in a trench connecting up the last of nearly 250 kilometres of trickle irrigation tape underneath his family’s cane fields.

Trickle irrigation tape allows crops to be given a more measured amount of water.

Once again it was an expensive and labour intensive undertaking, but Mr Linton is convinced it was the best sustainable option.

“Definitely a more scientific approach to delivering precisely what the crop needs in the way of water and fertiliser,” Mr Linton said.

“I am only putting on what the plant needs a day. So at the height of summer that works out around eight millilitres a day. So that’s what it gets.”

The underground irrigation tape can also deliver fertiliser at any point in the growing cycle – a flexibility that growers don’t have with conventional systems when the plant gets taller.

I’ve grown up sailing the Great Barrier Reef and when I get the chance I look forward to to going fishing, so I have an interest in keeping it in good nick.

Mr Linton can activate and monitor the entire system from his iPhone or iPad wherever he is.

And like the Papales, his farm is now designed to capture and reuse as much run-off as it can, which minimises nutrients and chemicals leaving the farm.

“I’ve grown up sailing the Great Barrier Reef and when I get the chance I look forward to going fishing, so I have an interest in keeping it in good nick,” Mr Linton said.

The changes he’s made to the farm are being closely monitored by a range of research projects including one funded by the WWF & Coca Cola which is measuring not only the volume of run-off from his cane fields but the quality of that water.

The Papales have also been happy to throw their farm gates open to hundreds of visitors – including fellow cane growers and many of the sugar industry’s biggest sceptics.

Mr Papale says scientists have been monitoring the wetland since it was established, taking regular water samples and conducting all sorts of other surveys and they’ve found it to be in pristine condition.

He says it is important the sugar industry demonstrate the changes it is making, to make itself more sustainable and advertise its wins.

“There’s a good story to be told here – and I’m happy to tell it,” he said.

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