Bitter sweet for farmers

TOMORROW marks the beginning of Clarence Valley's sugar cane harvest and growers are bracing themselves for the worst season in 40 years.

Hit hard by three years of abnormally high rainfall as well as two major floods in January 2011, and again in January 2012, farmers have struggled to recover, many having crops all but wiped out during these events.

Many will be facing massive losses.

Harwood Sugar Mill senior operations manager Peter Dibella said this year would be "disastrous" and forecasts a drop in production of more than 50%.

"It's been a very tough year and we just have to manage it the best way we can," Mr Dibella said.

"We're not talking about any stand-downs (at the mill) and we'll be maintaining normal employment, but when people leave they won't be replaced. It will be a case of natural attrition.".

Harwood Mill expects to process 288,000 tonnes of cane this season, down from a seasonal average of 680,000 tonnes over the past 12 years, a drop of more than 58%.

Clearly mill workers will not be the only ones impacted by the forecast low yields.

Farmers will be among the hardest hit and the effects will be felt throughout the Clarence Valley.

Clarence Cane Growers Association Inc manager Pat Battersby said farmers will have high costs to re-establish lost crops and suffer from a lack of income, while many industry employees including mill workers, harvest workers and transport workers were likely to be financially impacted.

"The usual cane season goes for seven days per week over 26 weeks; this year it will operate five days per week over 15 weeks," Mr Battersby said.

"Reduced income for farmers and employees will impact on the local economy as there will be less disposable income to be spent in the local business sectors."

"It could be argued that what we now face is our biggest challenge ever.

"Some farmers may drop out and choose to move on."

The Clarence Valley is not alone, with growing regions throughout Northern NSW and Queensland facing a similar situation.

Fourth-generation canegrower from Palmers Channel and former president of the Clarence Valley Cane Growers Association Vince Castle said he believes crop yields will increase in 2013 and be back to average by 2014.

"With two-year cropping here in the Clarence Valley, we've got a fairly good idea a year or so ahead and expect things to be picking up to around 550,000 tonnes in the following year," he said.

Meanwhile, the NSW sugar cane industry is undergoing a restructure with possible changes ahead to the way in which research and development is managed.

Newly appointed president of the Clarence River Cane Growers Association Ross Farlow said ongoing talks over the past 6-12 months are now coming to a head.

Topics:  battle clarence valley farmers

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