ANGRY GROWERS: Cane growers across the region are saying enough is enough after power prices increased 130 per cent in just a few years.
ANGRY GROWERS: Cane growers across the region are saying enough is enough after power prices increased 130 per cent in just a few years. Mike Knott BUN020317IRRIGATION3

Farmers consider electricity alternatives

THERE is no doubt the snub of the agriculture industry in the Queensland Competition Authority's draft report about power price reductions has caused a lot of anger in the industry.

In the past few years, power prices have risen an unbelievable 130 per cent and farmers are expressing concern there is no sign of relief from high electricity costs.

Many farmers are considering switching to other sources of power, such as diesel motors, to cut the cost of their electricity bills so they can irrigate and keep their crops going.

Kon Flaherty, of Green Energy Technologies in Mackay, said he'd noticed farmers and agricultural businesses showing more interest in going solar.

"The benefits of solar is new technology and it is in line with a long-term goal for agricultural sites," he said.

"People can have direct savings on power or the ability to pump longer or use more power for increased productivity.

"This delivers a competitive advantage through lower operating costs and/or increased profits."

Mr Flaherty said some sites had even eliminated power bills by going solar.

"Most sites choose a staged approach, with the first stage delivering from 30-50 per cent and then monitoring for the next stage of savings," he said.

"Those that have made the decision and are now saving with solar have found it is a huge benefit and move to multiple sites."

Peter Hunt, of ThinkWater in Rockhampton, said he'd also noticed farmers looking at solar options.

"At this point in time we haven't noticed too many going towards solar irrigation but there are people that are definitely interested in getting solar units for stock water," he said.

This week, the Rural Weekly catches up with four cane farmers based in the Burdekin, Mackay and Bundaberg regions to talk about how power prices are impacting their business.

They discuss what they pay for power, how it is impacting their property, what they are doing to reduce their power bills and what will happen if a cut doesn't come to agriculture soon.

The farmers have their say

Nick Glass: Bundaberg


Bundaberg cane farmer Nick Glass
Bundaberg cane farmer Nick Glass Mike Knott BUN210217NICK5

NICK Glass is a 24-year-old seventh-generation cane farmer who purchased his 60ha cane farm from his grandfather two years ago.

"The cost of power is really killing us," he said.

He harvests an average of 4000 to 5000 tonnes of sugarcane a year and relies partly on irrigation for maintaining his crop.

"We mainly use power for irrigation but we need it for others things like maintenance done in our shed," he said.

Depending on the season, a Mr Glass can pay between $2000 and $10,000 or higher for power per quarter.

"Last year we had the driest February on record and the cost for the quarter was about $12,000, just before prices went up, because we had to irrigate so much," he said.

"Now they've gone up again, we get paid by the month and that could be about $4000, but then we can get a $12,000 or $13,000 quarterly power bill.

"Pay has to go towards other things like maintenance and fertilisers, and a lot of the time we have to call Ergon and ask for an extension so we can get another pay under our belt to pay the bill."

It's having such an effect on his farm he's considering using other ways to power his irrigation.

"I can tell you now I'm really close to either using a diesel generator to power my electric irrigation motor. Either that or changing my electric motor to a diesel motor," he said.

Mr Glass said if prices weren't reduced soon, it would have a big impact on the sugar industry.

"There will be less water going on the crop because of irrigation, it will be too expensive to run, or people will start changing over to diesel-powered irrigation," he said.

George Sammut: Sarina


Sarina cane farmer George Sammut.
Sarina cane farmer George Sammut.

GEORGE Sammut has a 70ha cane farm at Sarina. He's felt the pressure from power prices, so much so that his irrigation system is now 95 per cent flood irrigation.

"We use power for irrigation, winch irrigation and pumping," he said.

"We harvest between 4000 and 5000 tonnes of cane a year... we've managed to cut our power bill back a little bit by going to flood irrigation because we can limit it. We can open a hydrant and the water can just flow out of it... it's probably saved us about 60 or 70 per cent."

The decision to move to more flood irrigation came after the price of power was becoming too much.

"The cost of power was just getting too expensive," Mr Sammut said.

He said that the snub of agriculture by the QCA in their draft report is "ignorant".

"It's ignorant because people are doing it tough, a lot of farmers don't live past their means and they do sensible things," he said.

"When the costs get higher and higher there's just less for you to work with."

A price reduction for Mr Sammut would mean he could do things a little bit differently.

"We could probably move to a low pressure irrigation whether it's a centre pivot or a boom irrigator," he said.

"We'd also probably be able to water smaller amounts more regularly rather than flood irrigating large areas."

Before turning to flood irrigation Mr Sammut was reluctant to irrigate like other farmers.

"A lot of the time I would pre-water, then it got to a stage where the power prices were too high and I wouldn't pre-water any more," he said.

"I think it'll get to a stage where people simply can't afford what's in their budget and they'll just stop irrigating."

Brett Leach: Mackay


Mackay cane farmer Brett Leach.
Mackay cane farmer Brett Leach. contributed

BRETT Leach is another cane farmer who is fed up with power prices.

His 126ha cane farm is located in Mackay, where he harvests anywhere between 8000 and 9000 tonnes of cane a year.

"We have to use power not only for irrigation, but for domestic use and shed maintenance as well," he said.

"Our irrigation is all electronically powered, we flood irrigate."

Mr Leach said irrigation increased his power bill hugely.

"My house alone is about $1000 quarterly for power," he said.

"Then the house and the shed at the farm sits at about $500 or $600 quarterly, but when we have to irrigate that rises to a phenomenal amount.

"We've just done a massive irrigation so I'm still waiting to get the bill for that, but I'm not anticipating it."

He said he wasn't looking forward to it.

Subsequently, like other farmers throughout the state, Mr Leach is hesitant to irrigate his crops.

"We are all flood irrigation and can pump something like 8000 gallons an hour," he said.

"We have the ability to flood up to 40ha a week if I decide to really crank it up and get going.

"We used to enjoy growing our big crops of cane because the irrigation expense was minimal ... but now we aren't starting until we really have to."

Mr Leach said the government was making things frustrating for farmers.

"It's easy for them to say 'shop around for a better competitive price'," he said.

"Down south they have the option to shop around and find another energy provider.

"Us regional towns don't have that option, we only have the one provider, which is Ergon, the only other option we really have for power is to go solar."

John Di Bella: Burdekin


John Di Bella of Giru in the Burdekin
John Di Bella of Giru in the Burdekin

LOCATED in Giru, north of Ayr, John Di Bella who manages a cane farm is also feeling the pinch from power prices.

While he harvests close to 15,000 tonnes of cane a year, Mr Di Bella also grows beans.

"We mostly use power on irrigation and then we have the house to power as well.

"When there's no rain, my pumps have to go 24/7," he said.

"Because we have to irrigate our cane so much, we have had to look at other crops to grow that don't require as much water.

"We've also recently been looking at adding solar panels as well to cut costs."

Mr Di Bella said he could pay anywhere up to $15,000 a year on power, which added up to $3750 a quarter.

"The price of power now is very different to what it was about five or 10years ago. It just goes up and up and up," he said.

"Bringing in new crops like beans is helping cut costs because they don't need as much water as cane does.

"The price of sugar isn't the best these days and I've got to buy my water as well, so it's sort of like double dipping."

Because of the high power prices, MrDi Bella has also had to cut back on purchasing machinery by hiring contractors instead.

"Having machinery would let me get the ground ready quicker, instead of getting contractors in all the time I can have my own stuff," he said.

He said while the power price cuts for some smaller businesses and residential areas were good, it was disappointing agriculture had been left out.

"At the end of the day if the big guy up there says no, it's unfortunately the decision we have to live under," he said.

"That's why people are starting to go into solar."

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