Burdekin farmer Michael Morano said power costs had doubled in the past 10 years. Photo: John Andersen
Burdekin farmer Michael Morano said power costs had doubled in the past 10 years. Photo: John Andersen

The true cost hurting NQ cane growers

MICHAEL Morano, shovel in hand, watches as water drawn from deep underground inches down the drills of his parched Burdekin sugarcane paddocks.

It is a $260,000 nightmare. That is how much he and his brother Robert will spend on electricity to pump water this year. He says that figure could be conservative. Ten years ago the cost would have been $130,000.

"Power costs have doubled in 10 years," he says as he watches the water creep along the rows of cane.

It will take 24 hours for the water to reach the end of the drill. When that run is finished he will close off these rows and direct the life-giving water to another section of the paddock.

The pump keeps pumping and the electricity meter keeps spinning. It's all about the money down there now on the Burdekin where the sun blazes and the sky is ocean blue.

Stop pumping and the young cane in now that is due to be harvested in 2019 will wither. It could stress and die in the ground. At best it might recover if there are early storms, but even still the damage might be done and the sugar level in the cane could drop and the crop's monetary value nosedive.

It's lose-lose. Keep the pumps going and the crop alive and the dollars still fly out the window with every turn of the electricity meter.

Right now with India dumping sugar on the world market, the price of sugar pegging production costs and all overheads including electricity galloping skywards, farmers are in tough spot.

 

Burdekin farmer Michael Morano has not stopped irrigating this year. Photo: John Andersen
Burdekin farmer Michael Morano has not stopped irrigating this year. Photo: John Andersen

 

Down in the Burdekin farmers are in territory that is becoming all too familiar. It's called rock and a hard place.

"There's no sign of rain. It was good for the harvest, but we haven't stopped irrigating all year. It's costing us a fortune," Mr Morano said.

The 60-year-old farmer knows there is no alternative but to pump even though the financial cost is high.

"If you haven't got water you haven't got anything," he says.

Another concern is the price for next year's crop.

If India ignores the Australian government's campaign to stop it dumping heavily subsidised sugar on the world market, 2019 could follow the misfortunes of 2018 and be another annus horribilis for growers.

The Morano brothers are not connected to the Burdekin's irrigation channels.

They rely on water pumped 28m underground from two bores to keep the crop healthy. And now, after such a long, dry run, the aquifer is low. It needs rain and a lot of it to top up the underground reserves.

"We got a good dollop of rain in 2017 that lifted the aquifer, but it is low again. The weather reports are not looking good so now we are doing what we can to conserve what water we have," he said.

Mr Morano said he and his brother are not alone and that plenty of other farmers are in the same boat. They are paying off debt and coping with low prices while costs for fertiliser, electricity and fuel rise.

He is bewildered by the fact the Australian government continues to turn its back on ethanol. He says mandatory ethanol levels in fuel would underpin the future of the Australian sugarcane industry.

Mr Morano says he has "had enough".

"I've been farming since I was 15. The government is against us. Electricity prices are sending us broke. You can see farmers are getting older. They younger ones don't want to take over any more."



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