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Production is sweet, and sustainable on the Bugeja family’s cane farm

Posted by Rabobank Australia on

Quartermaine Family

Farming with antiquated infrastructure and ‘up to the eyeballs’ in debt, Mackay cane grower Tony Bugeja admits that 20 years ago his family’s options were limited – sell out, or take a risk and spend up on increasing his efficiencies.

Investing $47,000 into the then largely unknown technology known as GPS was a big ask – but evidently it was money well spent, with the Bugejas one of the most respected and progressive cane producing families in Queensland.

And in the ultimate win/win, as the operation he runs together with brother John, wife Margaret and son Mark, becomes more and more efficient, sophisticated and economically sustainable – so too does its environmental sustainability.

The Bugejas, whose operation is Best Management Program accredited (BMP), were the first cane farmers to embark on commercial electromagnetic (EM) soil mapping in 2001, and to this day remains on the forefront of innovation and technology.

Over the past decade the family has made enormous water and monetary savings replacing traditional furrow and soft hose irrigation systems with five centre pivots.

“It’s been a game changer – our former high water pressure system required a huge amount of power – but our low pressure overhead centre pivots have saved us significantly in terms of both labour and power costs.”

Specifically, a case study in 2015 suggested that the centre pivots resulted in a $33 per hectare saving in electricity and labour costs compared to a soft pressure high hose.

“Today that would equate to about $60 per hectare – and at those figures the infrastructure pays for itself in a relatively short amount of time.”

Coupled with precision mapping, the Bugejas are able to identify specifically the various soil types across paddock, and adjust water rates to their precise needs for maximum water-use efficiency and crop production.

“It’s very tricky to find the balance when you’re flood or high pressure irrigating, and the time constraints were a noose around our neck – you just couldn’t get across the farm fast enough,” Tony said.

Now, irrigation is as simple as swiping a phone, the days of hauling hoses and trudging through weather to turn on pumps, a distant memory, this precious time now dedicated to other aspects of the business.

Variable rate technology has also enabled more cost efficient nutrient application – a USB stick with sophisticated soil mapping capabilities from their agronomy firm of choice, Farmacist, coupled with GPS-controlled application ensures that the correct nutrient value is applied exactly where necessary for crop needs and soil types.

The family’s environmental quest comes full-circle thanks to the use of a unique plant-based liquid fertiliser, Bio Dunder – a by-product of the nearby Sarina BioEthanol distillery.

This locally driven innovation exemplifies how every element in a whole-system approach can be used to reduce wastage and increase productivity.

In a uniquely renewable cycle, molasses produced in the sugar milling process is fermented at the distillery, with the Bio Dunder a co-product of this fermentation process.

Further facilitating environmental gains across the Bugejas’ farms and the greater region is Project Catalyst – a collaborative network of innovative farmers, of which Tony was one of just 19 pioneer members in 2012.

Today this partnership, which is managed by Catchment Solutions and jointly supported by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, The Coca-Cola Foundation, and WWF Australia includes more than 150 Queensland cane growers all aiming to improve farming performance and environmental outcomes.

With the Bugejas, and so many local growers neighbouring one of the world’s most significant natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef, Project Catalyst supports ground-breaking farming practices through case studies and trial work to help cane growers adopt beneficial and sustainable farming practice changes, and improve the quality of waters impacting the reef.

“It’s been a fantastic project and there’s something very rewarding about being able to think outside the box on futuristic innovation backed by some significant players,” Tony said.

“I’ve always said there’s no point being green if you’re in the red, you can’t be environmentally friendly if you’re broke, and this project has been really successful in implementing real progression with both environmental and business sustainability outcomes.”

“Originally I didn’t realise the connection between environmental outcomes and economic outcomes, but the more we go down this path the more we realise that correlation is strong – none of us can financially afford to lose nutrients or chemicals through inefficient application, and the less we use is a win for the environment also so I’m always looking for opportunities to learn and change my methods.”

In addition to precision agriculture, Tony categorically credits two other business decisions that turned his business success around all those years ago – a new bank and a new accountant.

“With our previous bank we had a bank manager throwing money at me like a drunken sailor, and then he’d leave and the next manager would want it all back – at 20 per cent interest it was not fun.”

Being in the agricultural game, Rabobank’s long term investment outlook was a reassurance, and Tony said the bank had strongly supported his farming operation’s growth.

“So many other banks take a short-term view and use the past as a baseline – past results, past seasons – but that doesn’t work in ag. Rabobank takes a long term outlook and looks to the future, and that’s the kind of bank our family wants to partner with.”

“I would class my bank manager, Wade Sanders, as a friend. We chat every couple of weeks and Wade genuinely wants to help us better our operation, and has been extremely supportive of everything we’ve wanted to do on-farm. He looks to the future with us, and his keen interest in our vision is always really encouraging,” Tony said.

From the original property his father developed in 1953, with an output of 800 tonnes of sugarcane, the Bugeja family has bought, sold and consolidated his operation into a highly efficient powerhouse that now outputs 34,000 tonnes annually.

And with son Mark, 33, now with three young children of his own, Tony believed that with each new generation comes renewed energy and inspiration.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to achieve here, and my aim has always been to leave the property in better shape than I found it, and I’m proud to say that I believe we’ve done just that.”