15 Mar 2017


By Nigel Smith, Engagement Manager, Sustainable Food and Business, WWF-Australia

Recently, I was lucky enough to spend two days with an innovative group of sugar cane growers in Mackay.

WWF works with sugar cane growers mainly because run-off from their farms runs straight into the Great Barrier Reef. An excess of nitrogen fertiliser in this run-off can lead to algal blooms and feed crown of thorns starfish that can decimate coral populations.

One of the challenges is finding ways we can work with these growers to limit the environmental impacts of their farms, while also making sure the benefits are mutual. 

Sugar cane growers can be very traditional about how they farm – in the past the standard practice to get the biggest yields was to just add nitrogen-rich fertiliser.

But there are other ways, ways that can not only help the farmers bottom line, but also help the Reef. 

I heard a lot of high-tech ideas and solutions. The farmers talked about robots, drones, digital geo-mapping of yields, crop health and soil types, as well as GPS-controlled ‘precision agriculture’ (adjusting the amount of fertiliser so it’s used only where it’s needed, and not blanket-applied).

A few other stories that really stood out to me included:

  • A father who has been involved with Project Catalyst since it began eight years ago. He wants his son to inherit a farm that‘s not only well-managed and makes a good profit, but that doesn’t hurt the Reef. This was music to my ears!
  • A pair of brothers who took a group of us attending the event on a tour around their property, walking us through how they’re using naturally-brewed fertilisers to substantially reduce the volume of fertiliser they need to buy. (They literally walked us through their paddocks - it was a really distinctive smell, a bit like you might get if you brewed your own ginger beer!)
  • Another farmer told me he runs chickens on his fallow paddocks (paddocks rotated out of cane production). This not only provides an extra source of income, but crucially improves the health of the soil.

Overall, the most inspiring thing was the energy and openness of the group. 

Everyone there was eager to learn, and everyone, without exception, was working really hard to create healthier farms and a healthy Reef.

We have lots of work to do but with enthusiastic farmers and conservationists working side by side, the future looks bright.