Grower Story – The Muscat Family

Joe, Christine and Stephen Muscat | Oakenden

“We’re not about to do anything to jeopardise this piece of dirt, it’s our bread and butter. We’ve been farming the same block of land for 50 years and the proof is in the pudding, the environment definitely matters to me…”

Joe Muscat is a second-generation sugarcane farmer in the Oakenden region (Mackay), with passion to spare.

A cutting-edge grower with a head for innovation and a genuine commitment to a more viable future for the sugar industry, Joe takes a truly long term view to his farming operations.

“Growers generally don’t just do things for the sake of doing them. You take on change because there is potential to improve and you see things that need to be addressed. The whole basis of our business is our block of land and environmental benefits really do matter to us at a personal level,” Joe says.

“We’re not about to do anything to jeopardise this piece of dirt, it’s our bread and butter. I do not believe there is any grower who would deliberately set out to harm the environment, but the first stage of change is understanding and that is what this program (Project Catalyst) helps promote.”

Joe farms 265 ha of cane on a 415 ha property alongside his wife Christine and in partnership with his son Stephen, a third-generation grower.

“I work closely together with my son every day – this is a family operation, which is a real pleasure,” Joe says.

His farm was originally purchased by his father, who like many cane farmers in the region, worked hard to secure land after emigrating from Malta in the 1950s.

Joe’s involvement with Project Catalyst has seen him trial a wide range of innovative practices, some of which would have seemed the stuff of dreams in his father’s era.

Proof of his dedication to ‘doing it better’, over time Joe has implemented everything from centre pivot irrigation, to zonal tillage, EC mapping for soil and nutrient management, use of a recycling dam, rotational cropping and controlled release of inputs like urea and nitrogen.

But it was a trip to South America after receiving a Nuffield Farming Scholarship that now really has him excited.

While touring the sugar growing regions of Brazil, Joe came across a system known as Amuza. Relatively new to South America under that name, the Amuza method of farming has come to be almost common practice in parts of Brazil after being introduced just 10 years ago, round 2005.

The system has never been trialled in Australia cane before, making Joe’s work in this area truly pioneering.

The planting system is centred on investing time and effort into the block early (at pre-preparation stage) to deliver future benefit.

“Amuza incorporates underground application of compost, mill mud and tissue cultures, using this pre-treatment and preparation as a plant source for the entire block, with a legume crop then incorporated into the soil,” Joe says.

“There’s a whole range of things happening.

“There’s soil biology being activated with the compost and the associated anticipated increase in carbon. The clean plant sources also attribute to a pure line, so there’s no disease. And it operates in essence like skip row, which allows the crop more access to sunlight and in a better position to effectively utilise water.”

Joe says in areas where Amuza has been taken up in earnest, productivity has increased by 10 % – 15 %, with the big Brazil mills now on board supporting their growers to adapt.

“Amuza is about finding a method that delivers multi-pronged benefits and to me, that is what needs to happen in Australia for us to move forward,” Joe says.

“I really believe in the changes we are making and the potential to see real improvements – both in terms of water quality and farm runoff to the reef (the Great Barrier Reef), and economically.

“I do see a triple bottom line outcome as a big reason behind my decision to be a grower in the Project Catalyst program.”

Joe says Project Catalyst has given him the opportunity to make a difference where it really needs to happen – from the ground up.

“There’s two components to Project Catalyst that I believe aren’t duplicated elsewhere in our industry. The first is that if there’s a concept or an idea a farmer wants to trial, Catalyst allows us to do that. The Project Catalyst program becomes the vehicle that will provide solutions to specific issues within the farming enterprise. As a resource, that is invaluable to the sustainability and profitability of our industry.

“The sugar industry has a research arm, but typically, one farmer’s idea wouldn’t make the grade because growers aren’t all that involved at the research level. Through Catalyst, we have access to the support and resources we need to design trials and monitor and record information.”

Joe says key to Catalyst’s success is the collection of real operational data.

“It’s robust data that allows us to make decisions for change. On-farm adoption doesn’t become an issue if you’ve shown it works – if it delivers confirmed value, farmers will do it.”

The second major benefit Joe has seen from being involved in Project Catalyst is access to a wide network of involved partners, including WWF and the Coca-Cola Foundation.

“One thing that this program has done that no other program has considered is that as growers, we now have an open line of communication with one of the strongest environmental groups in the country, and one of the world’s biggest multinational corporations.

“And we’re all in a room, talking change together. That’s unique, and it’s very important.”

Joe is one of many cane farmers committed to change, flagging a turn in an industry now facing global competition and considerable pressure to improve its environmental footprint.

“I believe it’s very important that we’re not losing soil, we’re not losing nutrition and we’re not losing herbicides down the catchment. So we put everything in place to try to minimise that as much as possible. It is a win-win situation,” he says.

“There’s always ways to improve what we do – you just have to think about it and be ready to find them. It’s the change of mindset first that is most important.”

Joe, Christine and Stephen Muscat will be among more than 70 innovative farmers taking part in the Project Catalyst Forum at the Cairns Pullman International Hotel on 22/23 February. 

For further information about Project Catalyst and Game Changer in Mackay and the Whitsundays go to www.reefcatchments.com or contact Reef Catchments on 07 4968 4200.

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