Sugarcane farmers the ‘Game Changer’ for our reef

Shared learning to encourage wider adoption of on-farm practice change

Farmers are hoping radio transmitters can better protect the Great Barrier Reef whilst reducing their own costs.

The transmitters and moisture probes which turn irrigation off at precisely the right moment to reduce runoff, save water and potentially boost crop yield, are to be trialled on farm this year.

It’s just one innovation farmers learnt about at the annual Project Catalyst Forum in Cairns earlier this week, thanks to Terrain NRM. With more attention on the health of the Great Barrier Reef than ever, the forum is significant for sugar growers nationally.

Results and findings from innovation trials under Project Catalyst will be shared with the aim of improving water quality, limiting water use and reducing agricultural runoff. To date, Project Catalyst growers in Queensland have helped improve the quality of more than 150 billion litres of water flowing to the Great Barrier Reef.

Reef Catchments Manager Katrina Dent said, “This year’s forum comes at a significant time, as the sugar industry as a whole seeks to find ways to help meet ambitious reef targets to reduce sediment and chemical runoff from farms into river catchments that connect to the Reef.”

Project Catalyst** was established to help cane farmers develop innovative, economically viable and environmentally sustainable farming practices.

The program is a unique collaboration between cane farmers, The Coca-Cola Foundation, WWF, Bayer CropScience, NRM groups and the Australian Government. It currently involves more than 70 cane growers from the state’s major areas of sugar production – Mackay and the Whitsundays, Burdekin Dry Tropics, and the Wet Tropics.

Terrain NRM CEO Carole Sweatman said, “Project Catalyst is an agriculture program that is assisting over 70 innovative cane growers with developing, testing and validating new farming practices that are improving the quality of water running off into the Great Barrier Reef. These farmers are driving the adoption of cutting edge practices that will yield improved environmental outcomes.

“The Project Catalyst Forum is a fantastic opportunity to bring this network of farmers together to share knowledge and learn about new developments in the industry. Terrain is committed to fostering agricultural innovation so we are delighted to be hosting these innovative growers from the Burdekin, Mackay Whitsundays and the Wet Tropics.”

Tully Project Catalyst sugarcane grower, Ray Zamora said, “I look forward to the forums to catch up with our network of innovative growers and hear how their projects are going.”

WWF CEO, Dermot O’Gorman said, “Project Catalyst is making a valuable contribution to the effort to preserve the Reef. The lessons learnt are being passed on to the rest of the industry, with the aim that these become the best practice of tomorrow.

“These growers are taking responsibility and doing their part to safeguard and conserve one of the world’s natural wonders. Widespread adoption of best practice is a priority for the cane industry if we are to achieve the nutrient load reductions required to conserve the Reef. Best practices such as those trialled by Project Catalyst, if widely adopted, will deliver a more efficient, profitable and sustainable cane industry; WWF will continue its support for the industry to make this transition,” he said.

Roberto Mercadé, Coca-Cola South Pacific President said, “We are extremely proud of Project Catalyst, its achievements and the relationships developed between growers and program partners, including ourselves.

“By providing financial support to Project Catalyst growers, we can further develop and progress sustainable farming practices that will continue to improve the quality of water flowing into the Reef. Water replenishment is a key focus for The Coca-Cola Company, with the achievements of Project Catalyst to date directly resulting in the Coca-Cola Company accomplishing its 2020 water replenishment goal five years early. Our commitment to water demonstrates how investing in projects like Catalyst can positively impact the environment and local communities,” he said.

New developments and topics up for discussion at this year’s forum included automated irrigation, sub-surface (buried) soil ameliorants and soil health, improving nitrogen use, herbicide and pesticide resistance management and more.

John Markley, CEO Farmacist (on-ground agricultural extension officers for Project Catalyst) said, “A lot of people don’t realise that ordinary Queensland cane farmers are doing this kind of work.”

“Our sugarcane growers are really leading the charge in trialling cutting-edge concepts and ideas that are potential game changers, both for the health of our Reef and the long term viability of the sugar industry.”

He said outcomes were expected this year in several project areas, including automated irrigation trials.

Craig Davenport, Manager of Catchment Solutions (Project Catalyst coordinators) said Project Catalyst was about finding multi-pronged solutions to not only reduce the environmental footprint of cane, but also deliver economic efficiencies for farmers.

“If adopted more broadly, farming techniques tested under Project Catalyst will reduce runoff in sensitive catchments adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, while also decreasing the cost of cane farming operations,” Mr Davenport said.

NRM Groups in all three regions are now also currently working with the Australian Government to support farmers to distribute change more widely.

Ms Dent said, “The good work being done under Project Catalyst is now being extended across Queensland through the Game Changer program, which is funded through the Australian Government’s Reef Program.

“Game Changer supports farmers to adopt strategies where evidence has shown they can be applied across farms with sound economic outcomes while significantly increasing the cuts to sugarcane pollutant run.”

Ms Dent said, “We want to now see this figure built on and amplified by wider uptake of practice change by our cane farmers.”
Reef Catchments Project-Catalyst Forum

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