Innovations commonplace for veteran Innisfail grower
This article was originally published in the Innisfail Advocate on 2 March 2019
If you spend any time with Innisfail sugarcane growers, you’ll learn a thing or two.
You’ll quickly realise how much the industry has changed in a lifetime and how willing they are to share their stories.
Innisfail grower Denis Gattera is no exception.
With a wealth of knowledge, he is always up for a yarn about some of the changes he’s seen in 60 years working on cane farms.
“I used to help milk the cows every morning before school,” he says. “When I got a bit older, I helped out on my parents’ sugarcane farm.”
“Tractors weren’t around when I first started out and back then we had two Clydesdales that would help us plant the cane.”
“We had no machinery and had to do everything else by hand.”
Mr Gattera bought his first 32ha sugarcane farm in 1979 and now has an additional 80ha on the banks of the Johnstone River that he works with his son, Graeme.
Walking around the property, he points out the many changes he has made over the years to help improve the quality of water leaving his farm.
He was an early adopter of green cane trash blanketing, which when combined with drainage channels, grassed headlands and an intricate system of sub-surface drainage pipes, filters any run-off before it enters local waterways.
“There’s very little soil movement now because of the trash blanket,” he said. “Even with high rainfall, any run-off still has to go through the drainage system or grassed headland before entering the waterways.”
In another effort to improve his productivity and protect the environment, Mr Gattera rotates fallow crops and mill mud through 5ha of his property.
“This year I’ve only used half the amount of fertiliser that I normally do because of the fallow and mill mud,” he said. “It costs a bit more upfront, but it pays off because I save through applying less fertiliser and it benefits the environment as well.”
He prides himself on staying ahead of the curve, quickly jumping on board with new initiatives.
He has been placing his fertiliser below the soil surface using a stool-splitter for more than 10 years, a practice that’s continuing to increase in popularity in the district.
In 2016, he was one of the first in the area to become accredited in Smartcane BMP, the sugarcane industry’s best management practice program.
The program involves growers working with a local facilitator to demonstrate their use of farming practices that benefit both the environment and their productivity.
In the Innisfail region, it’s not just Mr Gattera doing his bit to protect the environment and in just two years, Smartcane BMP accreditations have increased by more than 400 per cent.
“It’s important that you’re doing the right thing and I think everyone’s realised that we’ve got to do BMP now,” Mr Gattera said. “Facilitators like Deb Telford have been great for getting people on-board with the program and helping them work through their record keeping.”
“She’s always willing to go the extra mile and help you out to make sure you understand the process,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed working with her.”
While the record keeping component of Smartcane BMP can be an initial challenge, Mr Gattera said he was surprised at how little he had to change when going through the process.
“I had no problem at all getting accredited,” Mr Gattera said. “I keep all my records anyway and didn’t have to change anything when Deb came to see me.”
“Every time I spray, all I have to do is put in the date, time, weather, chemical and mix - easy as pie.”
He said keeping records has also helped him to better monitor his inputs and farming practices.
“If you don’t keep records you can’t properly keep track of what you’re doing,” he said.
Looking towards the future, he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
“I’ve always been into conservation since I was young and believe it’s important to continue to change our practices to improve our productivity and protect the environment,” he said.
“I’d be out of business if we grew cane like they did when I first started out,” he says. “These days you don’t have to look very hard to see how much the industry has progressed and catch a glimpse of where it’s all headed.”