Innovations benefit Bellenden Ker grower

Take a second to think back to when you were just 14. If you’re like me, I’m sure the last thing that comes to mind is running a successful business. Yet for Bellenden Ker grower Tilly Spertino, that’s exactly what he’s done.

At just 14 he stepped up to run his father’s sugarcane farm - not only managing the fieldwork but also the accounting, paperwork and finances that go along with any farming operation.  

 “It was just me back then and because I was still quite young, I didn’t know a whole lot about growing cane, let alone running a successful business,” Tilly said.

“I picked up a lot as I went along, and I had plenty of help from some of the local growers.”

Fast-forward more than 40 years and Tilly is still going strong. A third-generation grower, he’s more passionate than ever about the industry and has made a number of changes across his 41-hectare property over the years to improve his productivity, water quality and the surrounding environment.

Walking around his property, you quickly notice Tilly’s use of grassed headlands, revegetated creek banks, trash blanket and drainage channels – all practices that improve his productivity and the quality of water leaving his farm.

Tilly Spertino’s drainage system.

Tilly Spertino’s drainage system.

These practices are now commonplace throughout the industry as growers look for natural ways of improving their farming operation. However, Tilly was among the first in the district to trial them when he was just a youngster.

“I started green cane trash blanketing back in 1984 and sub-surface fertiliser application shortly after that,” he said. “I started pretty early with some other growers in the district. I guess we were some of the first to trial them locally.”

Tilly recently finished laser-levelling the last paddock of his property, ending a 6-year project across his whole farm to improve his water drainage.

When asked if he’s seen any benefits to the many changes he’s made on-farm, Tilly was quick to respond.

“Sub-surface application has really helped to reduce runoff, particularly in high rainfall periods,” he said.  “It’s also been really beneficial to my productivity as well.”

“I’ve noticed big improvements to my cane and productivity after moving to trash blanketing,” he said. “And the laser-levelling I’ve recently finished means the water no longer pools in the paddock during the wet season and is evenly spread through the dry periods.”

Tilly’s farm is in close proximity to the Russell River and can receive heavy tidal flows – particularly in the wet season.

“This bottom area is tidal and can overflow pretty quickly in a flood or high rainfall event,” he said. “It’s also pretty salty, and while the cane can handle the water for short periods of time, it’s the salt that does most of the damage.”

Like most growers, Tilly was quick to come up with a solution and improve his productivity. To combat the salt damage, he’s recently installed a water gate at to control the amount of water entering his property.  

“I’ve already seen huge benefits, particularly with the high rainfall events we’ve had this year,” he said. “In the past, the bottom end of this block would have been lodged or covered in salt, however the water barely reaches the cane now.”

Tilly Spertino has recently installed a water gate to control the amount of water entering his property.

Tilly Spertino has recently installed a water gate to control the amount of water entering his property.

If this wasn’t enough, Tilly was one of the many Cairns Region growers to recently achieve accreditation in Smartcane BMP - a testament to his many years of hard work to improve his productivity and protect his environment.

Smartcane BMP is the sugarcane industry’s best management practice program. It involves a grower working with a local facilitator to demonstrate their use of sustainable practices that can improve their productivity.

“With BMP I was pretty much there in terms of my on-farm practices,” he said. “It really wasn’t much work at all.”

While the record-keeping component of the program can be viewed by some as an initial challenge, Tilly had no problems working through the process.

“All you have to do is make sure you take the time to work it into your routine,” he said. “Like any new skill I found it an initial challenge, however very quickly it became automatic and I now barely have to think about it.”

“The record-keeping templates and advice form the local CANEGROWERS office has also been a big help.”

There’s no doubting that Tilly has come a long way in the more than 40 years he’s spent running the farm. However, he is not alone.

Throughout the Wet Tropics, growers have been making significant changes over the years to improve their productivity and set the record straight about their impact on the environment.

In just three years, accreditations in Smartcane BMP have increased by well-over 400% throughout the Wet Tropics as growers demonstrate their use of farming practices that can improve their productivity and protect the environment.

Statistics like these are a testament to the hard work growers like Tilly have been doing over the years and highlight the sugarcane industry’s commitment to a bright and sustainable future.

Behaviour Innovation