GREEN

How Your Sugar And The Great Barrier Reef Are Inextricably Connected

Walk the creaking sugarcane with farmers changing age-old tradition to save the reef.

04/02/2017 10:34 AM AEDT | Updated 06/02/2017 5:42 PM AEDT
Video by Cayla Dengate

A sweet char hangs in the air in Tully, Queensland, like roasting marshmallows carried in billowing vapour from Tully Sugar Mill. Nearby, sticky molasses is sewn directly into the soil while towering sugarcane creaks and hisses, creating sun-baked corridors of swaying, groaning grass.

Sugar is in every fibre of Far North Queensland.

Nearby, the cane train snakes its load of dried sugarcane billets between green and brown fields towards the mill to be processed into the sugar that ends up in Coca-Cola, your nanna's cakes and confectionery.

Follow the region's lazy tributaries (mind the crocodiles) and you'll be led to the nearby Coral Sea and just offshore, the Great Barrier Reef.

A major farming industry beside a threatened natural wonder may seem incongruous, but a group of 80-strong farmers are changing long-inherited sugarcane practices to embrace new, green ways of farming -- and they involve fermented cow stomachs, croc-attracting lagoons and far less of the historic practice of burning canefields.

They call it Project Catalyst, set up in 2008 between Queensland cane growers, National Resource Management groups, WWF and The Coca-Cola Foundation.

Jorgen Udvang
Sugarcane has been traditionally burned before harvest.

Give this one a try, says grandpa and farmer Orazio Marino, holding up a freshly cut sugarcane stalk while his grandchildren run around the solitary shade of a mango tree.

He's cut a piece from the base of the cane and stripped back the hard, bamboo-like skin to reveal a moist, fibrous sponge.

The kids bite in and his eyes gleam.

"Good, isn't it?".

In this relentless midday heat that robs moisture from the black peat soil, the hardy cane holds a deliciously sweet, syrupy core.

His wife Angelina Marino (his very own childhood girl next door) watches the kids playing, cognizant of the fact that if they choose cane farming, they'll become the fifth generation of sugarcane farmer, but times have changed.

Matthew Fallon
Angelina and Orazio Marino on their farm in Herbert.

"I remember the horses working the field. I remember the women would come out with lunch or smoko as we called it in those days. The women would be out there cutting and planting as well.

"Today, we try to discourage them or at least encourage them to get a trade before becoming a farmer," she said.

"I worry, what's the future for them? The weather is the one that tells you what to do next."

Sugarcane prices may have reached historically high levels late last year, but mills have closed in the face of changing land use and the future is dependent on working the land in smarter ways. Atypical seasons are also wreaking havoc on standard growing times, but it's what unseasonably hot weather is doing to the reef that hurts.

James Morgan via Getty Images
You always know when the neighbours are burning an old crop.

The reef is not thriving.

Unprecedented hot temperatures in 2015-16 led to the largest coral bleaching event ever observed, affecting the vast majority of reefs.

This year, a small proportion has bounced back but two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef's northern section have been wiped out, and will start a painfully slow regrowing process.

The sugarcane farmers that fringe the reef are aware that runoff from nutrient-rich crops can weaken reef systems and encouraged predators like the coral-eating crown-of-thorns sea stars.

Farmer Brian Dore takes the long view on life. While sugar commodity prices rise and fall through the season, and coral threats on the reef he loves surge and subside, he thinks ahead in terms of generations.

"About 10 years ago we started hearing that run-off from cane farming was affecting the Great Barrier Reef and I thought, well I'm in this for a very long time, I might as well be on the front foot and be proactive about our business to limit our exposure onto the reef," Dore said.

"I don't think any cane farmer goes out there to actively wreck the reef. The science is getting better at measuring the impact we're having on the reef and as that grows, people will be more open to change."

Dore started experimenting with zonal tilling where crops are planted precisely and only the strip of soil where the crop goes is treated, with 100 percent financial support from Project Catalyst.

The result is less need for products, water and effort but the same output.

"I can't say how important it is for Project Catalyst to provide support for projects like this," Dore said.

"Often it requires new technology or machinery which can be very expensive, but then as well as that, if it doesn't work and you're left with less, otherwise that's on your back."

Cayla Dengate
Brian Dore uses zonal tilling to plant less, but produce the same amount.

Closer to the foothills of the Atherton Tablelands, farmer Ray Zamora wades between lotus flowers and reeds in the waterway he built by his cane fields.

"There's two crocs in here," he says proudly, and the rest of the group scurries up the mud bank a little faster than necessary.

"How I see it, crocs are the apex predator around here, and if they're happy in my waterway, then it's a good sign the water is clean".

Zamora's farm butts up against the upper reaches of the Murray River, and the happily croc-infested waterway acts as a silt trap, as well as a litmus test for the water leaving his property, which eventually meets the sea just north of Hinchinbrook Island.

Back at his homestead, he lifts the lid off a big, industrial container to reveal a bubbling mass of deliciously alive -- but undeniably putrid -- biofertiliser that fills the midday air.

He's one of many Project Catalyst farmers experimenting with the home-made fertiliser and this one has a recipe involving sugar byproduct molasses, cow's guts, fish frames, milk and more.

"It doesn't smell the best," Zamora says with a laugh.

"To me, it's all about soil health. If we have root channels and can get the worms going and get the water soaking in when it gets wet, it's better for the crops, and the waterways.

"I've got three kids, one boy, and if they love farming, my hope is that I leave it to them in a better condition than when I received it from my father, and then they continue that on."

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