Three years of farming changes made by Wet Tropics cane growers have collectively led to a 10 per cent reduction in dissolved inorganic nitrogen thanks to more than 320 growers making a confirmed practice change over 67,000 hectares, as part of the Australian Government’s Reef Trust III program delivered by WTSIP.
WTSIP Chair Joe Marano said the farmers’ actions were estimated to have reduced dissolved inorganic nitrogen flowing to the Reef by more than 260 tonnes, a great achievement by the industry.
He said growers are continuing to rise to the challenge and lessons learned over the three-year period could help the cane industry in the future.
“When the $10 million funding was first announced we decided to take a different approach in the Wet Tropics region,” Mr Marano said.
“Seventeen organisations were brought to the table from industry bodies, mills and productivity services to sugar research and natural resource management organisations. We worked together to coordinate the best way to invest the funding so that it achieved its water quality goals and was also a benefit to growers.”
A team of 10 extension officers was employed across the region’s six districts from Mossman to the Herbert with the partnership deciding to focus its extension program on substantially improving nutrient management planning across the region, using a consistent science-based approach.
Mr Marano said the 17-organisation alliance was a milestone for the industry.
“We had our challenges, but the concept of a cross-industry and cross-regional approach was an important step forward for the industry, and ultimately good for the growers too,” he said.
“As part of the program, over 400 cane growers signed up to work with an extension officer on a whole-of-farm nutrient management plan. The plans have been popular because they’re not just another document, they’re useful to growers.
“They help with productivity and they’ve also been a starting point for extension officers getting to know growers and their businesses, and how best to help each individual in their particular part of the landscape.
“We’ve learned that even though we’ve benefitted from a consistent approach, there is still no such thing as a ‘blanket approach’. It all comes down to skilled extension officers on the ground who are flexible and can adapt the tools we’ve developed to make them useful to each grower.”
While the main focus of the Reef Trust III program was on extension services, WTSIP also delivered soil health workshops for over 120 growers as well as targeted grants to help 62 growers overcome financial barriers preventing them from changing to practices with lower water quality risk.
Mr Marano said the Reef Trust III program finished in 2019 but WTSIP’s extension team is still supporting growers until the end of 2020 with funding from a partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.
“Making practice changes takes time and providing grower-focused guidance and support on the ground is a critical part of the process,’’ he said. “We are lobbying the government and other funding sources to continue to fund on-ground extension services.”