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Turf war: 'Aggressive, offensive' - agriculture heavyweights square off


Queensland’s biggest sugar producing region and key territory of a foreign-owned processor is at the centre of a power struggle between two of the state’s largest farming groups.

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A crucial vote to be held in days is set to turn Queensland farmer politics on its axis and further strain relationships in an already fractured industry.

If the vote wins majority support it will see Queensland’s beef, grain and sheep producer body, AgForce, represent a group of cane growers from the Burdekin region called the Invicta Combined Growers’ Organisation (ICGO).

AgForce president Georgie Somerset said that if the proposal wins favour from the ICGO members it would strengthen Queensland agriculture’s voice to government.

In a statement, she also invited other cane growers to join AgForce should the proposal get the nod.

Canegrowers chairman Paul Schembri, whose organisation represents about 70 per cent of the state’s 4500 growers, has called the move “aggressive and offensive”, which will only serve to “promote division and distraction” at a time when the industry needs to be pulling together as one to combat coronavirus pressures on food supply chains.

“It is disappointing that rather than building on the historic collaboration and cooperation Canegrowers and AgForce have shared, the AgForce Board has decided to intentionally work as an alternative voice on sugarcane issues through an agreement with a small group based in the Burdekin,” Schembri said.

“To suggest, as AgForce has done, that setting up another sugarcane voice at the state level is somehow creating more unity within agriculture is an insult to our sensibilities, especially given their public statement outlining a plan to recruit for members from within our industry.”

Somerset said AgForce had responded to ICGO’s request to join her organisation, which was formed 21 years ago through the merger of the Cattlemen’s Union, Queensland Graingrowers Association and United Graziers Association.

If the vote gets up on Thursday the new commodity group, which has received wide support from AgForce members, will be known as AgForce Cane.

“This is a significant decision for AgForce, the first time since our establishment in 1999 that we have decided to introduce a new commodity,” Somerset said.

“The issue was considered very thoroughly, with benefit to our existing members at the forefront of our deliberations.”

Schembri’s concerns that AgForce is looking to weaken Canegrowers’ membership have been reinforced by another grower group in the Burdekin who have indicated they may follow the ICGO into AgForce depending on the outcome of Thursday’s vote.

Les Elphinstone, the manager of the Kalamia group, which represents about 150 growers in the Burdekin, has told InQueensland his organisation is taking a “wait and see” approach before making any further decisions, refusing to rule out a move to AgForce when asked if that was under consideration.

“At the end of the day we’ll wait for what our members might want us to do and we’ll find out more about it,” he said.

In terms of grower representation, the Burdekin region remains one of the most fragmented in the state, with no less than five organisations advocating on behalf of the district’s sugarcane producers.

These include the statewide organisations – Canegrowers via its local branch Canegrowers Burdekin and the smaller Australian Sugar Cane Farmers Association – and the three groups aligned to the local mills they supply: Invicta, Kalamia and Pioneer.

The three local groups are collectively known as Burdekin District Cane Growers, which is likely to be reviewed in the wake of the AgForce development and may cause more growers to join the new body should they feel their unity has been eroded.

Growers who have spoken to InQueensland have been unwilling to disclose the reasons why so many Burdekin producers have seen benefit in banding together in groups not aligned to the Canegrowers organisation, hinting that the schism goes back through several years of personality clashes and differences over approaches to water and energy security.

Senior management of the Pioneer group and Invicta, including its chairman Ricky Mio – a prominent district grower and businessman, who also has cattle interests, comprising a $5 million purchase of the now-defunct Burdekin Agricultural College in 2017, which was subsequently listed for sale two years later and remains on the market – have been unavailable for comment.

Schembri, a Mackay producer who has led Canegrowers since 2013, said he was disappointed the complex relationships in the Burdekin remained unresolved, a dynamic that has allowed AgForce an opening to gain a foothold in a region that produces nearly a third of the state’s cane crop.

According to Australian Sugar Milling Council data, the Burdekin and nearby Herbert region crushed almost 12 million tonnes of Queensland’s total 28 million tonne cane crop last year.

All four mills in the Burdekin are owned by Wilmar, the Australian subsidiary of the Singaporean-owned Wilmar International, the world’s biggest producer of palm oil.

In concert with its two other mills in the neighbouring Herbert district, and two other mills at Proserpine and Plane Creek, all purchased between 2010-11, Wilmar’s parcel of eight mills manufactures more than half of Australia’s raw sugar, and through its joint venture with Sugar Australia refines and markets the CSR brand.

Wilmar was also embroiled in a long-running dispute with Queensland Sugar Limited in the wake of industry deregulation in 2015 over its plans to establish its own trading arm separate to the traditional QSL bulk supplier, which had previously enjoyed sole trading rights in a fully regulated market.

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