'Perfect Storm' causes trouble for Far North sugar farmers


Howard Salkow

Senior Journalist

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Mossman sugar cane farmer Drew Watson is anticipating negative results from the current harvesting season. Image: Facebook.

Mossman cane farmer Drew Watson is labelling it the ‘perfect storm’ which has delivered an imperfect outcome.

In what some are saying is the worst harvest in 40 years, Mr Watson does not mince his words when he says it has been a poor season, which has generated a negative result.

“The price and tonnage have dipped compared to previous years and the Commercial Cane Sugar (CCS), which represents the sugar content of cane as it is purchased by sugar mills, has also suffered,” he says.

In confirming it had been a poor yielding year from Tully north, including the Atherton Tablelands, MSF Sugar cane supply general manager Hywel Cook told the Cairns Post “it’s a poor yield and prices are poor too, so we have a double negative impact which is very challenging for both the grower and the miller.”

In one significant example, MSF Sugar has estimated a crop 250,000 tonnes lower than the original crop predictions at their Mulgrave Mill in Gordonvale.

Responding to this year's harvest being described as one of the worst in 40 years, Mr Cook told Newsport the sugar cane yield and CCS in 2019 has been poorer than normal across FNQ.  

“This has been caused by a drier than normal dry season in the second half of 2018 and a wetter than normal start to the wet season in late 2018 followed by a cloudier than normal wet season.

“It meant that the cane stool did not develop as normal during the dry season and the cane did not grow as much in the wet season,” he said.

Mr Cook said the CCS will be affected. “The drier than normal dry season in 2018 helped increase the CCS to above average in 2018, but the CCS in 2019 is slightly below to around average,” he said.

He said they have reduced their tonnes of cane per hectare for all the MSF Sugar Mills. “It is around seven per cent lower than our pre-season estimate.”

Mr Watson says as a cane farmer you understand each year will be different. “But this one has been tough. The rain started in December and did not stop until a month ago which has impacted us.

“It’s just not me complaining about the season, it’s across Queensland. I guess it’s the joys of farming. You have no control of the weather or the price,” he said.

In 2017, Mr Watson enjoyed a record crop, but is now preparing for a different result this year. He is still in the throes of cutting and resigned to the fact that it won’t be a good harvest.

Meanwhile, the head of the International Sugar Organization, Jose Orive says the world sugar market, which has been battered by low prices, may soon get a reprieve. 

In an AG Journal report, Mr Orive, the group’s Executive Director, said that world sugar prices may have hit bottom, but signs are pointing to a recovery.

Farmers worldwide have been struggling with prices as low as 12 cents per pound — well below the average cost of producing sugar. The current price is 0.11.

To survive falling prices, many foreign governments have increased subsidies, which have only increased overproduction.

“The world is still suffering from high accumulated stocks that will need to be absorbed by the market before we can see any improvement in price,” Mr Orive told AG Journal.

But he is optimistic because production from big sugar suppliers appears to be declining, which will let stocks fall.

In a reference which is appropriate to the Douglas Shire, Mr Orive said the weather could provoke production variations, while consumption growth is declining as the war against sugar continues. He adds government policies are also having an impact.

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