Cane farmers swapped tractor seats for smooth sailing when they set off to Hamilton Island for the Project Catalyst Grower Forum 2014.
The annual event attracted more than 150 delegates from Australia and globally, including leading researchers, industry partners, economists and sustainability experts, as well as cane farmers from the Mackay Whitsunday, Burdekin and Wet Tropic regions.
Keynote speakers Dave McLaughlin, WWF Vice President of Agriculture (United States), and Dr David Cropley, University of South Australia Associate Professor (Engineering Innovation), addressed global food issues and solutions and the importance of innovation and creativity in problem solving.
Dave McLaughlin’s presentation on the global view of agriculture and the acknowledgement that yield is a key part of sustainability resonated with growers.
“The real issue is not about the commodity being produced but rather how it is being produced…crop yield (also) needs to be a key sustainability indicator,” Mr McLaughlin said.
“Although there are trade-offs between yield, inputs and agricultural practices, many opportunities exist to increase yield through improved varieties, reduced waste and improved fertilisation practices, harvesting and overall crop management.”
Reef Catchments sustainable agriculture project officer Belinda Billing said the forum was a critical part of inspiring growers to learn about and adopt improved and more sustainable methods for sugarcane production.
“Catalyst growers have been doing exceptional work on-farm for five years now. The forum is an important platform for them to get together with other innovative, motivated farmers and explore new ideas and concepts for the future,” she said.
“The forum this year helped growers to identify what they see as priorities for ongoing research, development and extension in the areas of herbicide management, nutrient and soil management and water quality.
“Since 2008, Project Catalyst farmers have reduced agricultural runoff to the Great Barrier Reef by more than 62 tonnes each year and brought more than 204,300 hectares of farmland under A-class management—a terrific outcome.”
The forum celebrated the good work of more than 70 Catalyst growers to date.
Project Catalyst farmer Lou Raiteri hosted the 2014 Field Day on his property north of Proserpine, and said Project Catalyst fitted with what growers were trying to do.
“I was one of the first 20 growers involved in Project Catalyst right from its inception. To me, it just fits in with what we’re trying to do, to improve our sustainability and productivity and be more conscious of the environment,” Mr Raiteri said.
“I’m a third-generation grower, my family has been on the same property for over 85 years, and my son is coming on to take care of the farm. This land is still taking care of us after all that time and I think it is our responsibility to look after what we have.
“What Project Catalyst does is bring together like-minded growers with enthusiasm who are all ready to try something new. It gives us the support we need to step out and raise the bar and challenge ourselves—we can look up and say ‘OK, there’s the benchmark’ and we find new ways to reach it. It’s absolutely remarkable what comes out of it.”
Reef Catchments CEO Robert Cocco said the forum helped recognise the significant efforts of sugar producers who were taking responsibility for their own environmental footprint.
“The actions to date of the farmers involved in Project Catalyst have directly improved water quality to the Great Barrier Reef, while also helping increase farm productivity and profitability,” Mr Cocco said.
“We are proud to be involved in this unique partnership that connects our sugar producers with a leading think-tank of organisations nationally and globally to break new ground in sustainable agriculture.”
Now in its milestone fifth year, Project Catalyst is a pioneering partnership between cane farmers, the Coca-Cola Foundation, WWF, the Australian Government, and natural resource management groups Reef Catchments, Terrain Natural Resource Management, and NQ Dry Tropics.
The 2014 forum was coordinated locally in Mackay and the Whitsundays by Reef Catchments with major sponsors including Syngenta, Wilmar and Bayer CropScience.
Michelle Allen from Coca-Cola South Pacific said the Coca-Cola Foundation funded Project Catalyst because it provided the holistic resources farmers needed to pioneer new and promising sustainable agriculture advances.
“We provide financial support to enable growers to speed the adoption of innovative sugarcane practices which can lead to tangible improvements in water quality. Integral to Project Catalyst’s success, it is the growers who are the ones generating the ideas, they are the ones leading Project Catalyst’s success,” she said.
WWF Sustainable Agriculture Program Manager Rob Cairns said Project Catalyst brought together a diverse group of people with the ability to affect real change.
“The challenges facing agriculture and the Great Barrier Reef are immense and all stakeholders need to work together like never before,” Mr Cairns said.
“Project Catalyst brings a diverse group of people and organisations together to trial and validate practices that are good for farmers, good for the community, and good for the reef. We can all be very proud of this collaboration, as well as the outcomes achieved so far.”