Meet Joe Marano, an innovative sugarcane farmer in north Queensland

Joe Marano.
© Queensland Government

Sugar producer Joe Marano, from Mourilyan, has adopted various innovation strategies to improve the sustainability on his farm, including increasing his cane row width to reduce fuel costs. Twenty centimetres might not seem like much on a household ruler, but it's made a substantial difference to Joe’s farming operation, as the wider row spaces have less environmental impact on the land, while also saving money.

Mr Marano has 380 hectares under cane. He farms the property with his wife Margaret and other family members. Since 2014, they have increased row spacings from 1.63m to 1.83m. The extra width has meant a reduction in compaction caused by harvesting equipment passing too close to the cane row.

The farm is made up of predominantly sandy soil and cane typically goes to fourth or fifth ratoon. Mr Marano has also trialled permanent beds and minimum tillage, using a bed renovator on paddocks after a full crop cycle that have been planted to legumes, dependent on the weather conditions. This replaces the standard practice of three passes with offset discs and a single pass with a ripper.

The business has also adopted GPS-guidance on some of its machinery in order to further minimise compaction and reduce operating costs as machines have to do less passes in order to cover the same area. The purchase of the bed renovator and a GPS system was partially funded with Reef Rescue grants.

DAF economists worked with Mr Marano to undertake an economic evaluation of these changes using the Farm Economic Analysis Tool (FEAT). They found the improved practices would increase farm gross margin by $10,500, or $27 per hectare, driven by savings in fuel, labour and repairs and maintenance resulting from the wider rows and reduced tillage.

Mr Marano said it was about taking action now, for the future.

"Hopefully we are making a difference. No farmer goes out thinking they'll destroy the reef," he said.

There is also a lot to be gained from being involved in trials, for the sake of the wider industry. Mr Marano said time was a factor when undertaking tests and trials. Unlike short-term crops which have a relatively quick lifecycle, sugarcane requires longer analysis.

"Cane is a 12-month crop, so if something doesn't work, you have to wait another 12 months to change it," he said.

Part of the drive to take part in trials is to help showcase his belief in the sugar industry's above and beyond approach to maintaining the health of the Great Barrier Reef. That includes working with the government for the wider benefit of all.

Recently, 25,000 tonnes of fully traceable, sustainable raw sugar, grown by Smartcane BMP accredited growers, was shipped from Townsville to South Korea. The proof-of-concept trial was the culmination of work by Canegrowers and KPMG Origins, working with a range of supply chain partners to create a platform using blockchain technology to trace the sugar from paddock to package.

Mr Marano is actively involved within the sugarcane industry, sitting as chair of Canegrowers Innisfail and director of Canegrowers Qld, among other roles. The family farming business is Smartcane BMP accredited and he has been an active participant in government programs to change practices for improved reef water quality.

The idea to increase the row size and go to controlled traffic came from "listening to others" according to Mr Marano.

Cane in areas south of Innisfail has had a rough trot in the past two decades with Cyclone Larry reducing many crops to 30pc production, only to be hit by Cyclone Yasi five years later which devastated crops down to 20pc production. But the area's strong cane heritage and ideal production environment has seen many growers take the rebuilding opportunity to embrace new, more sustainable techniques.

Mr Marano is quick to point out he isn't an early adopter, or one at the forefront of new technologies and techniques. However there are always a few people looking over his fence to see what's happening, with some asking questions and even getting onboard.

"Some have made changes. Some things cost you more, some things cost you less. You've just got to weigh it all up, but it's all positive," he said.

Mr Marano said if money were no object he'd like to investigate soil health more, exploring why some areas of a property produce healthier cane and others struggle. Using technology to conduct regular soil, leaf and water tests would also help in producing a better data picture of the farm.

"At the end of the season, you've got to prioritise what you're going to do. There is a lot we can try," he said.

Mr Marano said although it took time to get a clear picture of the extent of the impacts his farming adjustments were having, he had faith they were making for a healthier reef, even if it's just 20cm at a time.

"I hope so and I believe so," he said.

To find out more about the tools and services DAF offers to primary producers on best practice adoption, and events in your area, visit Farming in the Great Barrier Reef catchments.