About the industry


On this page you can read about the Australian sugarcane industry, the players making up the industry and take in a short history of sugarcane in Australia. 



$2 billion
value of production

30-35 Mt

4-4.5 Mt
raw sugar
cane farm businesses

sugar mills

bulk storage ports

largest raw sugar
supplier in world

largest agricultural
exporter in Australia







The Australian sugarcane industry one of the world’s most efficient and innovative producers and exporters of sugar, recognised world-wide for cutting edge technology & sustainable cane growing.

Australia’s sugarcane is grown in high-rainfall and irrigated districts areas along coastal plains and river valleys on 2100 km of Australia’s eastern coastline - between Mossman in far north Queensland and Grafton in New South Wales. Queensland accounts for about 95% of Australia’s raw sugar production, and New South Wales around 5%.

More than 4000 sugar growing farms operate along Australia’s eastern seaboard.  While the average size of a cane farm is 100 hectares, some are in excess of 1000 hectares.  While there are still a number of smaller farms, average farm size is increasing each year, as the number of growers contracts and area farmed by their cane farming business expands.  This consolidation is made possible by advances in technology, and while some corporate companies have established large cane farming operations, there are still some 6000 cane growers in Australia.  The Australian cane industry produces 30-35 million tonnes of cane per year, which when processed, equates to around 4-4.5 million tonnes of sugar.


The industry's focus is squarely on its international competitiveness because most sugar is exported and there is no domestic support price or subsidies. 

At the farm gate, Australia has maintained competitiveness by adopting innovative practices -particularly through mechanisation, new farming practices and diversification.

Cane growing and sugar production underpins the economic stability of many coastal communities. It is the social fabric that has woven itself through the development of coastal townships up and down the coast.


Sugarcane growers have some of Australia’s most unique vegetation, animal life, waterways and the Great Barrier Reef in their backyard. Things have really moved on from the hype some twenty years ago and growers have taken upon themselves the mantle of farming responsibly - to protect the natural resources, their children’s heritage, and of course, the value of their property.

With advances in research and technology, sustainability does not necessarily mean reduced productivity and efficiency. Growers are proud of their environmental performance and adoption of more sustainable farming practices. All sugarcane in Australia has been harvested mechanically since 1979 and all sugar handled in bulk since 1964.

An industry, once characterised by brilliant cane fires, has largely turned away from the iconic blazes. The Queensland coastline, which is subject to seasonal inundation, has now virtually eliminated movement of soil once associated with the heavy rains. Over 80% of growers now cut the cane green and spread the trash cuttings over the harvested paddock. The cuttings act as a protective blanket for the soil, preventing soil erosion, assisting in weed control, improving soil structure and conserving moisture in the soil. It also reduces the need for soil cultivation and contributes to a reduction in nitrogen requirements. Harvesting green reduces the need for cane firing.

In fact cane growers are managing their soils in a whole new way now that research and development has shown substantial profitability and environmental gains can be made.   There has been a big swing towards conservation tillage systems - like no and minimum till - which cuts down the number of times a farmer disturbs the soil. Leaving more plant residue undisturbed on the surface reduces surface water runoff and soil erosion. Less frequent tillage also reduces the amount of energy farmers need to run tractors, reducing costs and saving resources.
As new technology becomes more affordable, increasing numbers of growers are looking into more automated precision farming systems such as Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to assist them to target application of inputs – from fertiliser to water.

Use of chemicals has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Cane growers complete voluntary training in the use of farm chemicals, which has resulted in a reduction in application rates and frequency.  This is not only important for the environment, but also for our growers’ bottom line. Ag-chemicals are expensive and subject to frequent price hikes. Applying fertiliser more precisely ensures more efficient yields, cuts down on wasted fertiliser and protects water quality.

Water and associated pumping costs account for one third of all costs for around 60% of Australia’s cane growers who rely on costly irrigation. Water is an increasingly precious commodity and saving water is good business for cane growers. Irrigation water is monitored closely on all farms, with soil moisture readings an essential component of irrigation timing. Measurement of nutrient movement in irrigation run-off and ground water is widely practiced to ensure hard-won dollars are not wasted.

The environmental and economic importance of riparian zones (vegetation adjacent to watercourses) has changed practices enormously. Trees are left adjacent to water ways on all new developments and trees are being replanted in established areas, even though that replanting may reduce available area for cultivation.  Riparian zones have a major role in filtration of nutrient run-off, stabilisation and prevention of bank erosion and siltation of waterways, and acts as a wildlife corridor. Planting trees on river banks eliminates undergrowth, weeds and grasses, greatly reducing rat populations around cane fields. In turn, this dramatically reduces the need for costly chemical controls.

Grower representative group, CANEGROWERS, has taken an active role in the promotion of good farming practices which result in increased sustainability, productivity and profitability.

Smut management is another sign of how far the industry has come in managing pests and diseases from the days of cane toad. When Australia found the first signs of this productivity stunting disease a few years ago, the industry was able to react immediately, enforcing quarantine zones and setting up access to more resistant varieties of sugarcane to replace those which were high yielding but extremely susceptible to the disease. Research continues into higher yielding resistant varieties.

As a direct result of the industry’s aggressive research and development program, advances have been made in areas such as pest control, where many of our programs are world class and an example to other Australian industries. Many of the pest control programs now being developed are based on integrated pest management strategies involving biological control agents, transgenic canes, the use of chemicals and changed cultural practices.

World sugar production has undergone massive changes since 1970, particularly the emergence of Brazil as a dominant force, the growth of the European Union as a subsidised producer, the growth of Thailand and the decline of Cuba.  Although the Australian industry developed under a regulated system which sought to match production with assured markets, it is now one of the least protected sugar producers in the world.

Where does Australian sugar go?

  • Export (80%)
    Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of raw sugar. Depending on seasonal production variability, Australia normally ranks as the second or third largest exporter of raw sugar, after Brazil.  We sell mainly to East Asia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, the USA and New Zealand.  Australia’s capacity to store over two million tonnes of sugar in a network of bulk port terminals, allows it to supply customers throughout the year.  Success has been built on world's best practice in growing, production, handling and marketing.  Many of the world’s major raw sugar importers prefer the Australian product because of its reputation for quality, innovation and service.  The industry’s high market share and long-standing customer relationships reflect its efficiency, reliability and cost competitiveness.  Virtually all of Australia’s exports come from Queensland, which exports around 80% of its output. Queensland sugarcane is primarily processed into raw sugar which is sold directly to refineries (not through trade houses) on a cost, insurance and freight (cif) basis. Pricing and managing risk is now increasingly being taken on by growers and millers with specialist advice so they can take on a level of risk and manage that risk at a level which suits them.
  • Domestic use (20%) 
    The 20% of the raw sugar produced in Australia for domestic consumption is refined locally and processed into white sugar, liquid sugar products and other speciality products such as golden syrup, treacle, coffee sugar, cubed sugar and rum.  NSW production is sold mainly on the domestic market.


Australian sugarcane growers have realised that a better, more productive, more sustainable future is in their hands. They have adopted a proactive approach, addressing issues before community and conservationist concern generates restrictive and overbearing government intervention.

Cane growers regard sustainability not as a cost but as a potential means of improving their productivity and efficiency. Most importantly, they see sustainability as a basis for ensuring long term viability and the guarantee that future generations will continue to produce sugar - at a profit.


Sugar growers

Around 80% of Queensland sugarcane growers are members of the highly successful lobby, representation and services group, CANEGROWERS. There are 14 offices based in major cane growing  regions up and down the coast of Queensland and northern New South Wales, with the State and National office located in Brisbane.  To read more about CANEGROWERS, click on the logo.

http://www.asmc.com.auSugar milling

Australia has 24 sugar mills which crush an average 10,000 tonnes of cane daily and employ around 150 people during the season. Cane is transported to the mills by cane railway and road. Millers, growers and harvesters determine harvesting and transport schedules that ensure cane is crushed as fresh as possible. Average cut to crush time is less than 12 hours.  Most sugar mills have been established for more than 100 years. The juice mill that began operating near Mareeba in 1998 was Queensland’s first new mill in 73 years. To visit ASMC, click on the logo.


Sugar marketing

Sugar marketer, Queensland Sugar Limited (QSL) coordinates a group marketing service taken up by most of the Australian industry, which uses the bulk marketing power to leverage better deals for Australian sugar on the international market.  Up until 2006, Australia enjoyed a ‘single desk’ arrangement where all sugar was compulsorily acquired by QSL. This was deregulated on 1 January 2006, however the majority of growers retain group marketing arrangements with QSL, which uses the bulk marketing power to leverage better deals for Australian sugar on the international market. QSL administers pool price arrangements, manages the industry’s seven bulk sugar terminals, and manages sugar price and foreign exchange exposure to optimise returns to growers and millers. To visit QSL, click on the logo.


Sugar research

Today's best practice is unlikely to be tomorrows. In order to stay leaders in the adoption of sustainable cane farming practices we support ongoing relevant research and development. Thorough research, creative development and effective extension of new knowledge and technology are vital to every agricultural industry. 

Sugar Research Australia (SRA) is the principal provider of research, development and extension to the Australian sugar industry. SRA employs scientists, engineers and administrative staff who work together to ensure that Australian sugarcane remains a valuable, viable commodity. SRA has several major programs of work and conducts these through its stations, centres and laboratories that are located in cane growing hubs throughout Queensland and northern New South Wales. To visit SRA, click on the logo.


Sugar logistics

The conversion from transporting raw sugar in bags, to receival, storage and shipping in bulk, commenced in Australia in the late 1950s.

There are now six bulk sugar terminals in Queensland located at the ports of Cairns, Mourilyan, Lucinda, Townsville, Mackay, and Bundaberg. These terminals are able to store two and a half million tonnes of bulk raw sugar. To visit STL, click on the logo.



  • 1788   First Fleet brings sugarcane to Australia.
  • 1821   Unsuccessful attempts begin to grow sugarcane commercially at Port Macquarie, NSW.
  • 1828   Cane plants grown in Brisbane Botanical Gardens.
  • 1842   First sugar refinery built in Sydney to refine imported sugar.
  • 1862   Capt. Louis Hope and John Buhot establish sugarcane plantation at Ormiston near Brisbane and makes first granulated sugar from cane.
  • 1864   Hope operates Australia’s first commercial sugar mill. The following year he introduces island labourers (Kanakas) to his Ormiston Plantation. Cane growing spreads along the coast of Queensland and northern New South Wales.
  • 1870   Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR which is now Wilmar) introduces system of large central sugar mills, supplied with cane by independent farmers, in northern New South Wales.
  • 1885   Many small sugar mills close due to depressed state of sugar industry.
  • 1888   First cooperative central mill opens in at North Eton in Queensland; first mechanical cane harvester patented in Brisbane.
  • 1890   World’s first mechanical cane harvester built in Bundaberg.
  • 1893  Sugar Works Guarantee Act authorises funding of central sugar mills with financial backing by the Queensland Government.
  • 1895   700 tonnes of Australian raw sugar exported to Canada.
  • 1901   Protective import duties placed on sugar; Federal Government bans arrivals of Kanakas after 1904 and requires deportation by end of 1906, ending 40 years of indentured labour in the cane fields.
  • 1906   Federal legislation exempts some islanders from deportation; Australian Sugar Producers Association formed in Townsville.
  • 1907  The Australian Sugar Producers Association (ASPA) is formed at a conference in Townsville.
  • 1909  The Australian Sugar Producers Association (ASPA) starts printing the Australian Sugar Journal.
  • 1912   Report of the Royal Commission on the sugar industry (1911-1912)
  • 1914   United Cane Growers Association formed in Mackay.
  • 1915   Queensland Government passes Sugar Acquisition Act and Regulation of Sugar Cane Prices Act legislating establishment of regulatory controls over production levels, marketing and pricing. Limited regulatory controls are also imposed on wages and working conditions; First sugar agreement negotiated between Commonwealth and Queensland Governments; embargo placed on sugar imports.
  • 1923   Federal Government gives control of Queensland sugar industry to the State Government; the Sugar Board established under Sugar Acquisition Act 1915, giving Queensland the authority to acquire and market all raw sugar produced in Queensland; Australia raw sugar first exported to UK and New Zealand.
  • 1924   First large shipments of raw sugar from Australia - 74 000 tons.
  • 1925   Queensland legislation establishes basis for CANEGROWERS organisation.
  • 1926   New Act establishes farmer bodies on a commodity basis, a format which in still going strong 88 years later.
  • 1926   CANEGROWERS (QCGO) formed 19 April 1926
  • 1929   Mill Peak scheme introduced.
  • 1937   First International Sugar Agreement (ISA) negotiated but does not begin due to World War II.
  • 1941  Australian raw sugar first exported to the US.
  • 1945  Australian raw sugar first exported to Malaysia.
  • 1951   Commonwealth Sugar Agreement signed with UK; Homebush Mill (Mackay) closed.
  • 1953   First post-war ISA negotiated, with quotas for exporters.
  • 1954   Bulk handling of raw sugar introduced; Australian raw sugar first exported to Japan.
  • 1960   Mt Bauple Mill closes.
  • 1961   First sugar exported to USA
  • 1962   Australia exports 1 Mt for the first time; first exports to Korea.
  • 1963   Queensland Government committee recommends industry expansion.
  • 1967   First sugar exported to Singapore
  • 1968   Australia exports 2 Mt of sugar.
  • 1969   ISA begins operation for 5-year term.
  • 1972   First long-term contract negotiated; first raw sugar exports to China, Morocco and Russia.
  • 1974   Commonwealth Sugar Agreement and US Sugar Act terminated; record high world free market price of US 66 c/lb (recorded on the raw sugar futures contract in New York on 21 November).
  • 1975   Gin Gin Mill (Wallavile) closes.
  • 1978   New Industries Assistance Commission (ISA) begins operation; Industries Assistance Commission inquiry into sugar industry.
  • 1982   Ceremony at Mackay marks 25 years of bulk handling.
  • 1983   Second Industries Assistance Commission (IAC) enquiry into sugar industry. New South Wales Sugar Milling Co-operative Limited was formed to purchase the three New South Wales Mills from CSR (now Wilmar).
  • 1984   ISA expires.
  • 1985   Record low world price of US 2.5 c/lb.
  • 1986   Queensland, New South Wales and Federal Governments agree on 3-year sugar industry assistance/restructure package; Qunaba Mill (Bundaberg) closes.
  • 1987   Goondi Mill (Innisfail) closes, Mackay Sugar Co-operative formed; NSW Sugar Milling Cooperative formed to buy CSR’s three NSW mills.
  • 1988   North Eton Mill closes. Australian raw sugar production reaches a record 3.68 million tonnes.The Australian Sugar Producers Association (ASPA) is renamed the Australian Cane Farmers Association (ACFA) and the milling division of ASPA leave to form the Australian Sugar Milling Council (ASMC).
  • 1989   Commonwealth Government Sugar Agreement lapses 1 July 1989; embargo on sugar imports lifted and a tariff put in place; The Senate Standing Committee inquired into tariff levels on future sugar imports. Harwood Refinery (NSW) was built. Australian raw sugar first exported to Egypt.
  • 1990   Cattle Creek (Mackay) Mill closes; grower numbers fall to lowest level since pioneering days; The Queensland State Sugar Industry Working Party was formed and recommendations were handed down in June. The Sugar Research and Development Corporation was formed to co-ordinate research within the sugar industry.
  • 1991   Glanville refinery (Adelaide) closes; import tariff reduced from $115 to $76 per tonne by the Commonwealth Government; An Industry Commission inquiry into Queensland’s production, institutional and regulatory arrangements was established; The Queensland Sugar Corporation was established on 15 July under the Sugar Industry Act 1991 (replaces the Sugar Board and Central Sugar Cane Prices Board; and the Sugar Acquisition Act and Regulation of Sugarcane Prices Act are repealed); The Sugar Industry Tribunal and Sugar Industry Policy Council held inaugural meetings. Severe drought reduced Queensland sugar cane crops to the lowest level in 15 years; CANEGROWERS adopted as common name for growers’ organisation; and holds Australia's first Sugar Convention; Tate & Lyle acquires Bundaberg Sugar; AWU and Queensland cane sector negotiate Australia’s first collective enterprise bargaining arrangements for an entire industry.
  • 1992   Hambledon Mill (Cairns) closes; Mackay Sugar announces new refinery; Industry Commission final report released; Sugar Industry Taskforce established.
  • 1993  Sugar Industry Taskforce reports; joint Commonwealth/State Sugar Industry Package includes deferral of further tariff cuts until at least 1977, a $40m government infrastructure commitment, retention of acquisition and assignments, and phased reduction of pooling premium; raw sugar production exceeds 4 Mt for first time; Tate & Lyle’s bid for Tully and South Johnstone Mills rejected; Trade Practices Commission blocks amalgamation of refining activities of CSR Ltd (now Wilmar) and Mackay Refined Sugars; Sugar Industry Act revised; availability of additional cane assignment exceeds demand for the first time; Australian raw sugar first exported to South Africa.
  • 1994  Queensland becomes world’s No 1 raw sugar exporter; $117m Sugar Industry Infrastructure Package begins; first change in cane price formula in 40 years; BSES (now SRA) plants world’s first genetically engineered sugarcane; Mackay refinery commences; CSR announces plan for mill in Ord River area; record prices for cane land in Burdekin Irrigation Area with 100th farm sold at auction; record No 1 Pool price of $392.42 per tonne 94 nt.
  • 1995  ASMC and CANEGROWERS develop Vision 2000 to guide industry development; review begins of Sugar Industry Act and import tariff in the context of National Competition Policy; world’s largest shipment of raw sugar (61 300 t) shipped from Townsville to Dubai; CANEGROWERS commissions independent environmental audit of Queensland industry; Cooperative Research Centre into Sustainable Sugar Production commences; sugar surpasses beef production as Queensland’s largest rural industry; sugar revenue exceeds $2 billion for first time. Australian raw sugar first exported to Dubai, Philippines, Slovenia and Vietnam.
  • 1996  Shipments through bulk terminals exceed 100 million tonnes; highest grower numbers since 1980s; all cane in Australia insured under CANEGROWERS Crop Fire Insurance Scheme for first time; Sugar Industry Review Working Party recommends removal of tariff from 1 July 1997; Australian raw sugar first exported to Indonesia, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
  • 1997  Sugar tariff ends from 1 July (as recommended by Sugar Industry Review Working Party); record Queensland cane production for 6th consecutive year and record sugar production of 5.4 Mt; over 60% of Queensland crop harvested green; Tableland Mill commenced construction.
  • 1998  CANEGROWERS holds first Sugar Environment Forum in Mackay; Code of Practice for Sustainable Cane Growing adopted; CSR and Mackay Refined Sugars establish joint refining venture; negotiations begin for transfer of ownership of bulk terminals to industry; sugarcane smut discovered in Ord, Tableland Mill begins crushing; Sugar Terminals Ltd established (begins full commercial operations August 2000) as a special purpose vehicle to transfer the beneficial interests in Queensland’s bulk sugar terminals and long-term leases to the growers and millers, who actually pay for them through deductions from sugar pool prices.
  • 1999  World prices collapse and growers seek Exceptional Circumstances funding. New Sugar Industry Act (effective 1 Jan 2000) revises framework for management of Queensland industry including individual and collective agreements, Cane Production Area and Cane Production Boards but compulsory acquisition and Single Desk arrangements unchanged. Primary Producers’ Organisation and Marketing Act 1927 replaced by Primary Industry Bodies Reform Act resulting in CANEGROWERS losing its compulsory levy capacity. CANEGROWERS forms a replacement corporation Qld Cane Growers Organisation (QCGO) and transfers “Brisbane” assets to it.
  • 2000  Commonwealth Sugar Assistance Package provides short-term assistance for cane growers (eventually $60m paid in income support, interest subsidies on planting and general interest subsidy); Queensland Cane Growers Organisation Ltd formed and 96% of growers sign up; Australia initiates Global Alliance for Sugar Trade Reform and Liberalisation; orange rust forces industry to begin replacing its main cane variety; BSES celebrates its centenary; Sugar Industry Amendment Act 2000 establishes Queensland Sugar Limited to replace the Queensland Sugar Corporation;
  • 2001  Federal Government extends income support; title to bulk sugar terminals transferred to the industry; growers move towards full voluntary membership; revival in ethanol interest.
  • 2002  Federal Government commissions an independent assessment of the sugar industry (the Hildebrand enquiry); CANEGROWERS and ASMC make joint proposal; the Federal and Queensland Governments, under a Memorandum of Understanding, agree to fund $150m Sugar Industry Reform Program over four years while industry undertakes reform.
  • 2003  CRC for Sugar Innovation through Biotechnology established; continuing dry weather and low prices force growers to seek further emergency financial assistance; State Government commissions CIE to undertake impact assessment analysis of legislative change; Sugar Industry Guidance Group is established to prepare an overarching Industry Reform Plan; CANEGROWERS commissions separate report by Boston Consulting Group; growers hold public rallies.
  • 2003  Closure of Moreton Mill.
  • 2004  Joint CANEGROWERS/ASMC submission on structural adjustment presented to Federal Government; the two peak bodies also commit to a Heads of Agreement with the Queensland Government and a Statement of Intent to the Federal Government; Prime Minister announces revised $444.4 million Sugar Industry Reform Program. The Queensland Sugar Industry Reform Act 2004 partially deregulates the industry to dismantle statutory cane production areas and permits sugarcane growers to enter supply contracts with the mill of their choice. It also provides for exemption of the compulsory vesting powers when raw sugar is used for specified alternatives, such as ethanol and direct consumption. The Sugar Industry Guidance Group draft industry report is released.
  • 2005  Closure of Fairymead Mill.
  • 2006  Deregulation of sugar marketing. The Queensland Government repeals the vesting powers of Queensland Sugar Limited (effective from 1 January 2006)  deregulating the marketing of Queensland’s raw sugar exports.
  • 2006  Closure of Mourilyan Mill (due to damage from Cyclone Larry).
  • 2007  CANEGROWERS, NRM groups, AgForce and Growcom rallies Australian Government for best practice improvement funding. The Australian Government subsequently launches the Reef Rescue program.
  • 2009  Closure of Pleystowe Mill.
  • 2010  QLD Government introduces new legislation impacting on cane growers. CSR Ltd sell Sucrogen Ltd to Wilmar International for a cost of $1.75 billion.
    Maryborough Sugar Factory purchases Mulgrave Mill and Bundaberg Sugar’s FNQ mills.
  • 2011  COFCO purchases Tully Sugar Ltd; Wilmar purchases Proserpine Mill; Closure of Babinda Mill.
  • 2012  Mackay Sugar purchases Mossman Mill. Cane growers and sugar millers vote on the formation of Sugar Research Australia (SRA) in Sugar Poll to bed down the formation of SRA in the coming year.
  • 2013  Formation of research body, Sugar Research Australia, which modernises and streamlines three former bodies, BSES Limited, Sugar Research and Development Corporation (SRDC) and SRI.
  • 2015  Queensland Government passes legislation to protect grower choice.


The Australian sugarcane industry has an international reputation for cutting edge technology & sustainable cane growing