Chairman’s 2023 AGM Report

Thank you all for taking the time to be here today. I understand it’s a busy time of year and we’re all working hard to get the crop off and complete those other important jobs around the farm before the Christmas break, so taking a few days out to travel to Brisbane is a big ask. I appreciate your time.

Thankfully, this season – while not without its challenges – has gone smoother than the previous one, in most districts.

This time last year we were staring down the barrel of the longest crush in memory, with two months still to go before harvesters would finally fall silent. And when they did, more than a million tonnes of standover cane was left in the paddock.  

Several factors contributed to the crush running into January, most of them beyond the control of growers.
Rain was probably the biggest factor, with unusually wet weather early in the season delaying the crush for weeks across much of the industry. 

This rain was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it gave the crop a late drink and boosted tonnes. On the other, it left us with more cane to cut in a shortened crushing window.

When the rain eventually subsided and paddocks dried out, harvesting crews were left scrambling to catch up.
Their challenge was compounded by the problem of workforce shortages, with many districts struggling to find workers to drive harvesters, haulouts and trucks – even mill workers were in short supply. 

Of course, the shortage of mill workers did little to ease the perpetual problem facing our industry – poor mill performance – which was the other major contributing factor to the late crush of 2022 / 23. 

Under-performing mills is one of the greatest structural challenges facing our industry. It’s something that millers must address with urgency if the sugarcane industry is to grow and thrive as we hope over the coming decade and beyond. Growers will not plant more cane if we cannot be guaranteed our mills can crush it. Despite record prices.

The late end to the crush and the large amount of standover cane had knock on effects that will be felt for seasons to come. 

It pushed back planting in many regions, resulting in a shorter growing period for this year’s crop and, in turn, reduced tonnage.

The standover also contributed to an explosion in rat numbers, which looks set to cost the industry millions in lost revenue and eradication costs.

No sooner had the crush ended than Sugar Terminals Limited (STL) announced it would sever its longstanding commercial agreement with Queensland Sugar Limited (QSL) for the operation of the industry’s bulk sugar terminals.

The ramifications of this decision are yet to fully play out, but CANEGROWERS has consistently called on STL to be upfront with grower shareholders about their intentions and plans for the future and has urged both parties to come together to resolve the issue in the best interests of the industry.

Further CANEGROWERS has stepped in, offered to facilitate mediation, invest in a third-party assessment of the much lauded business case that has been used to justify the decision and has urged both parties to come together to resolve the issue in the best interests of the industry.  None of these suggestions have been accepted.  The decision continues to lack the transparency without which the risks cannot be justified.
There’s is no doubting it was a tough year for the industry.

But the 2022-23 season wasn’t all doom and gloom.

In fact, in some respects it was a fantastic year, with the industry enjoying some spectacular highs and achieving some impressive milestones.

For a start, 2022 marked the beginning of the greatest surge we’ve witnessed in the world sugar price for half a century. A surge that is continuing to this day.

I realise even this can be a touchy subject with some of us, who, after years of barely breaking even, decided to lock-in early, not realising the historic prices that would come down the track.

But even those of us who did so, still received some of the amazing gains achieved on the world market through the harvest pool.

2022 also saw the continued expansion of the industry-led best management practice program, Smartcane BMP, with over 40% of Queensland’s cane-growing area accredited in the program.

This is simply astounding when compared to the uptake of similar programs in other agricultural sectors. Programs that have been running much longer are still in single digits and see little meaningful growth.

The success of Smartcane BMP is down to the dedication of facilitators on the ground and the determination of growers to ensure they are recognised for their sustainable practices.

The program, which started out a decade ago as a means of avoiding ever-harsher reef regulations, has grown to become a cornerstone of the industry’s plans for strategic growth and diversification.

We saw the evidence of this last November when the first-ever shipment of certified sustainable sugar left the port of Townsville for a customer in South Korea.

This shipment, which was traced from grower to end user in a trial of the CANEGROWERS-KPMG Origins platform, was only made possible by the Smartcane BMP program.

The end-user sought certified sustainably produced sugar, and thanks to the accreditation of growers in the program, QSL was able to meet that need.

The importance of Smartcane BMP will only continue to grow, as buyers overseas and biomanufacturing projects at home, demand sustainable sugar to meet the ever-increasing sustainability expectations of customers.

As the year ended, QSL was preparing to send another shipment of Smartcane BMP accredited sustainable Queensland sugar overseas.

The planned shipment, to UK refiner Tate & Lyle Sugars, was to be historic for two reasons. Firstly, as the first shipment under the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement. Secondly, as the first tariff-free shipment of Australian sugar to the UK in 50 years.

This shipment, like the earlier one to South Korea, was only possible because the sugar was certified as sustainably grown through Smartcane BMP.

On a personal note, I’d like to thank you all for your support and guidance through what was an extremely busy year in the role of CANEGROWERS Chairman.

I spent a lot of time away from home throughout the year, visiting districts to meet with elected grower representatives and local members.

It was a very informative and educational experience in my first year as chairman. Over the year, I came to realise that while many of the problems we face are shared across the industry, there are also unique challenges facing each district.

CANEGROWERS representatives and staff have continued to work tirelessly throughout the year to tackle the issues, both current and long-term, facing growers at international, national, state, and local levels.

We will continue to do so, with the goal of ensuring our growers, our industry and our regional communities are productive, profitable, and feel secure, now and into the future.

Thank you!
Owen Menkens
9 November 2023