Bumper sugar crop predictions giving industry hope
ONE of the most powerful economic forces on the Fraser Coast is on the verge of turning in its best performance for almost a decade.
Maryborough's sugar industry has struggled through nine years of flood, disease and drought, pinning its faith on a long-term strategy for sustainability.
Last year, more spirits than cane was crushed, with a scanty 470,000 tonnes put through the mill, but the crop is close to double that this year. In three weeks, harvesters are due to rumble into fields estimated to hold 850,000 tonnes of cane.
Maryborough Sugar Factory general manager Stewart Norton said harvesting was due to start on June 22, depending on the weather.
"It's our best crop since 2006," he said. "Despite the bad years, the company has managed to expand, although we still need a bit more land under cane to be sustainable."
Mr Norton said the region was fortunate that the Thai owners of Maryborough Sugar had taken a long-term view of the industry and had confidence in the future.
"We've had a $15-million investment in large-scale irrigation and a $1.5-million investment in the mill laboratory. I think we can say we are now here to stay."
Forty centre pivot irrigators are being installed to nurse mill cane fields through dry times, although the challenge of sourcing sufficient water creases brows.
Maryborough's sugar industry looked shaky a decade ago. When chief executive Mike Barry was appointed in 2007 the company had capitalisation of $18 million. That has now risen to $500 million with the acquisition of the South Johnstone, Mulgrave and Tablelands mills in North Queensland.
Mr Norton said the more reliable rainfall in the north had given the company more diversity to withstand the variable seasons on the Fraser Coast.
"The previous board recognised the need to expand to become more viable and that made the company more attractive for a takeover bid."
New Thai owners Mitr Phol are widely credited with saving the Maryborough sugar industry, bringing enough depth to withstand the challenging seasons and small crops. The company is Thailand's largest sugar producer, the second largest in China and fourth on the world scale.
Maryborough Sugar now has more than a thousand employees on its books when crushing at its four mills.
More land is needed to expand sugar cane in Maryborough: the million-tonne crop set as a sustainability target decades ago remains elusive. Negotiations to free up State Government land have been protracted and frustrating.
While the weather, lower fuel prices and the lower Australian dollar are hoisting mill and grower revenues this year, the world market price for sugar is stubbornly low.
Mr Norton said the low price was not entirely countered by the positives but overall the Maryborough industry was back in a strong position.