Nambour mill closure still being felt after 15 years

Former cane grower looks back at the end of a farming era


By Russell Phipps

Ross Boyle had to re-invent himself as a turf farmer after the sugar mill closed.

The 15th anniversary of the closure of the Nambour sugar mill brings back bittersweet memories for the man who was at the centre of the turbulence.

Moreton Central Sugar Mill ended crushing operations in late 2003 and Ross Boyle, then president of the Sunshine Coast Cane Growers Association, said he witnessed first-hand the widespread effects the last days had on growers and their families.

“I believed it contributed to marriage breakdowns, depression, mental and health issues,” he said.

“I also believe honestly that there are people that still haven’t gotten over it.”

He said a few years before the mill shut down the owners were making noises about lack of profitability.

“The magic figure they wanted was one million tonnes of sugar per year, but the growers could only produce 600,000 tonnes at their best,” he said.

“The problem was not the quality of the soil but that there wasn’t enough available land.”

He said the mill offered a ray of hope with the thought of changing the transporting of cane from rail to a road system.

“Some of us believed it was probably a good idea because it gave us the availability to expand into new areas and not be held back by the need for rail infrastructure,” he said.

“The mill wanted the cane to expand into Meridan Plains, the Mary Valley and elsewhere but they came up against stiff opposition from the dairy industry.”

Mr Boyle said the owners of the mill told the cane farmers in 2001 they would have only one more season.

“The excuse they gave us for the closure was lack of profitability as the expansion plans had fallen through and there was no chance of us ever reaching one million tonnes,” he said.

He said the Sunshine Coast Cane Growers association negotiated an extra year, but at a cost.

“We had to sacrifice a bit of our profits to keep the mill open,” he said.

The plan was to give the growers a little more time to work out what to do next.

“We had second and third generation cane farmers’ livelihoods suddenly disappearing,” Mr Boyle said.

“Many were angry, grief-stricken, depressed and disappointed.”

He said on the final day, he also became very emotional.

“When the load of cane was pulled out of the siding on our Rosemount farm, I realised that was it,” he said.

“No more sugar.”

Later that night, he went to the mill to watch the emptying of the last bin.

“Several of us growers were there and a few workers,” Mr Boyle said.

“The manager invited us into the boardroom for a couple of beers.

“There was no animosity. It was just like being at a funeral. “It was a very sad day,” he said.

Mr Boyle had already planned to become a turf farmer after the mill closed.

“As there was no white knight riding up on his charger to save us, I knew I had to do something,” he said.

Because his land was on a flood plain he was left with few options.

“Anything I grew had to be flood-proof as overnight I could lose everything,” he said.

He said that never happened with cane. There was always a little damage but the crop survived.

“I thought turf would be similar and it has proven me right,” he said.

His Rosemount Turf started with 1.6ha and now has 48ha. He said in the future he should have about 60-64ha growing turf.

“We are in a bit of a building boom at the moment so there is plenty of demand but that could change,” he said.

Mr Boyle still keeps in touch with a few of the former cane farmers.

“Some have had the opportunity to transfer their farms into other enterprises and some have been able to sell their land,” he said.

He had sympathy for others who were still having a little trouble coming to terms with the closure of the sugar mill.

“I was very fortunate, I was 44 years old, not 64, when it happened,” he said.

Mr Boyle said that at the time, some of the older farmers had a younger generation growing up knowing nothing else but cane farming.

“It was a great life change for them and a few just couldn’t cope,” he said.

“I was one of the lucky ones.”

Anyone suffering depression can contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

An earlier version of this story appeared in the Sunshine Coast Daily on February 2.