Cane Industry to Set the Record Straight

John Pickering speaks with Tully cane growers about Project Cane Changer

John Pickering speaks with Tully cane growers about Project Cane Changer


This article was originally published in the Cassowary Coast Independent 6 April 2017.


My mother always told me it was rude not to introduce myself when I go to new places.

So here it goes.  

My name is John Pickering. I’m a behavioural scientist. I’m from Brisbane.

I have no background in agriculture. I know very little about farming.

I’m in Tully this week to attend the 2017 Cane Productivity Awards. I’m here because I’m helping launch Project Cane Changer.

Let me tell you a little bit about how this came about.

It was November 2015 and I was sitting in my office in Brisbane minding my own business.

I receive a phone call from a fellow called Matt Kealley, who tells me he is the environment and sustainability manager for the CANEGROWERS organisation.

I’d never heard of CANEGROWERS. And besides, I work in psychology and it wasn’t clear to me why someone from the cane industry would be calling me up.

Matt goes on to tell me that the annual Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Report Card had just been released. The Report Card is designed to give an indication of how cane farmers, graziers, banana farmers and other industries are progressing towards the water quality targets set out in the Reef 2050 Plan.

My curiosity deepens.

In large lettering, he tells me, the report summarised that the cane industry was rated a “D”.

The report makes it clear that the cane industry is making slow progress towards improving water quality. The response from the cane industry is mixed—some would say negative. 

Matt had one simple question for me, “how do we get a better understanding of the cane industry?”

His thinking was simple, if we can better understand the growers, and work out how to acknowledge them for what changes they have already made, we might be more likely to see more growers involved in change and want to continue to adopt new ideas into the future.

Matt was onto something. And the Queensland Government thought so too.

In February this year, Queensland Environment Minister Stephen Miles announced that he had decided to back a project called “Cane Changer”.

In his own words, he declared it was time to acknowledge, and I quote, “the fantastic work that many growers are already doing”.

It’s time to set the record straight.

Project Cane Changer wants to document the efforts growers of Tully are making to improve their farming practices. We want the recognition of the industry to measure up to what’s actually being done on farm.

To do this, we need all growers to help.

I have been to many cane paddocks in Tully. I have seen just how much change and innovation is taking place. But I also see that the industry can sometimes be its own worst enemy.

The levels of accreditation in programs like Smartcane BMP—the yardstick by which the whole industry is judged by the government in particular—is not what it could be. If it was higher, growers would be better off and the industry would be better off.

The story can be stronger.

To set the record straight, we need growers to be part of the project and commit to keeping better records and documenting their changes.

Cane Changer runs across all cane growing districts in the Wet Tropics, but it is being led locally by CANEGROWERS Tully. In the conversations I’ve had with CANEGROWERS Tully chairman, Tom Harney, I can see just how important it is to him, and to the industry, that the right story is told about the cane growers’ achievements in his district.

Tom isn’t alone. The Cane Changer project has received strong support already in Tully, with Tully Sugar, Sugar Research Australia, the Tully Cane Productivity Services board, and many individual cane growers coming forward to be part of the action.

So, I will finish where I began.

On Friday the 7th April 2017, we will launch Cane Changer at the Tully Productivity awards.

I invite all growers in the district to be part of the project and together, we will set the record straight.