Ingham cane grower Michael Waring has planted tens of thousands of sunflowers on his property as a fallow crop, and the result is a blaze of yellow across 16 hectares of land.
Sunflowers are a relatively new addition to the cane cycle in the Far North, with only a handful of farmers growing them as an alternative, or addition, to cowpeas and soya beans.
“They are a good plant for the soil,’’ Michael said. “Diversity is important when it comes to soil health and sunflowers bring in another element.”
Fallow crops of legumes and other plants between cane crops have proved beneficial for both productivity and the environment, building the soil's chemical and biological health and breaking weed and pest cycles. In some cases, they also provide another income stream.
Soya bean crops are an established break crop in a sugar cane fallow, with good waterlogging resilience, soil health benefits and high nitrogen fixation.
Michael said sunflowers offered something extra in terms of balancing soil life.
“Sunflowers are not legumes so they don’t fix nitrogen but they do have soil benefits that soya beans don’t provide. Sunflowers encourage mycorrhizal fungi, which takes mineral phosphorus and converts it into plant available phosphorus,” he said.
“What we are learning from soil experts is that we need diversity in our fallows to gain the most from them. The challenge is finding beneficial plants that will grow together and survive the rigors of the Wet Tropics in summer.”
This is Michael’s second sunflower planting. He plants soya beans in amongst the crop but says the sunflowers are dominating at the moment.
“The strike rate this year has been really good, in fact, it’s a bit too good. I would recommend that you don’t plant them so thick so you give a bit more space to the soya beans.”
“It’s about trying new things, something a lot of farmers are continuing to do to improve soil health and, by doing so, improve water quality leaving their farms.”