We started our day by visiting a sugar cane farm and further discussing the production of sugar with James Cook University’s – Peter Griggs who is the Senior Lecturer for the School of Tropical Environment Studies & Geography at the Cairns Campus. Dr. Griggs personal research profile can be found at: http://www.tesag.jcu.edu.au/staff/pgriggs/peter.htm which includes his research interests and publications, contact information, along with a brief biography of his work. During our lecture from Dr. Griggs, the students were able to learn som history about the sustainability of the Australian Sugar Industry. We learned first that the sugar production in Australia commenced in the 1860’s here in Australia and they were not self-sufficient in this production until 1924. After 1924, Australia began to export raw sugar to markets in the UK, Canada and New Zealand, more recently they have been exporting to East Asian countries. By the 1980’s Australia had become one of the world’s top exporters of sugar. There have been policies put in place in order to restrict the opening of any new areas past 1920 that could produce sugar. Dr. Griggs also went on to describe some of the exploitive land management practices which early sugar cane producers in Australia had exhibited. Some of these practices included growing sugar cane, native forest had been responsible for clearing ~60% of local forests for production land. This widespread deforestation of coastal lowlands in QLD was mainly associated with growing sugar cane. 1 ton of sugar produced required 1 ton of wood to produce it when these practices first came about. On average a sugar mill was producing anywhere from 500 to 5,000 tons of sugar per year. An issue with the deforestation for farming was that the forested areas were being cleared right up to the edge of the rivers, this loss of riparian vegetation was done to maximize area that could be cultivated and in an effort to reduce flooding, however this practice directly led to increasing riverbank erosion. The Herbet and Burdekin rivers were especially affected by the 1930’s and in 1940/1946 major flooding on the Burdekin river caused extensive damage to riverbanks and farms. After this flooding there was a group formed called the river improvement trusts which was funded by government grants and also the levied funds from local growers which put in place rocks along the river and enforced a 20 m buffer zone between the edge of the plantation and the riverbanks. Australian cane growers were also trouble by cane grub beetles who’s larvae feed on the roots of growing cane plants which in-turn reduce yields and caused some cane plants to fall over in windy conditions. Initial efforts to combat these beetles was to hire local individuals to attempt to hand collect the beetles. After a lack of success through the hand collection method, the Australian Government decided to introduce 2 species to control these cane grubs: (1) Indian Minah Birds (2) Cane Toads. Ironically, neither of these species controlled the insect pests and today both of these species are major ecological problems in the area from Brisbane to the north in QLD. In 1946, the BSES scientists began testing benzene hexachloride (BHC) an organchlorine insecticide developed in 1825 which was found to be very effective in killing cane grubs and easy to apply while the residues did not taint the sugar. This BHC was widely used from 1950 and marketed as Gammexene. The product however began to wash off the paddocks where the sugar was being farmed and was polluting waterways and was also persistent in the inshore streams and reefs in the form of sediments (this product did not easily break down and remained in these systems for extended periods of time). BHC was later banned in 1987 after resides were found in exported Australian food products (beef to the U.S.) The use of other insecticides such as deildrin / aldrin/ and lindane were also all banned by 1995. Soil erosion in sugar-producing areas becomes noticeable during the 1960’s and 1970’s. By 1983, DPI estimated that at least 1/3 of QLD’s assigned sugar land suffered from some form of erosion. studies showed that erosion due to cultivating in inappropriate locations on land with slopes greater than 10 degrees were areas of risk for this erosion and many of the locations had slopes of 15-20 degrees. Also, incorrect farming techniques was at fault such as leaving land fallow during summer months when high rainfall had occurred. Cane growers had an assignment system which required them to produce a crop of sugar cane each year or lose their entitlement to produce the cane; so they could not restore eroding land easily because the farmers were required to re-plant and continue the cycle of erosion, this legislation remained in place from 1915 – 1995. After 1920, the Australian cane growers began to modify their drainage networks in an attempt to increase yields and from 1960 forward, the QLD government created a system of drainage networks to promote more proper drainage. 2 new channels totaling 14.6 km in length involved the removal of 91,000 cubic meters of earth were built as part of the Ripple Creek Drainage Scheme in 1966 to promote possible sugar cane production along the Ripple Creek. Also drainage realignment during the late 1960’s was initiated in order to promote mechanical harvesting of the sugar cane. These practices damaged significant amounts of wetlands as a result of these environmental changes in the Babinda Swamp Area. By the mid 1980s Hydrilla, major aquatic weed had taken over the drains in the Foresthome Drainage Scheme and by the mid 1990’s the drains were affected by Singapore Daisy invasions. By the late 1980’s the cane growers were heavily criticized and blamed for decline of inshore reefs and declining quality of water on the Great Barrier Reef, even though not all of the sediments and chemicals found in the coastal QLD streams were from sugar farmers (more from banana farmers and prawn farmers, etc.).During 1975 – green cane harvesting was introduced where the growers no longer need to burn the plants before and after harvest, the rats were controlled by rodenticides and weevil borer controlled by insecticides, also workers no longer were at threat from weil’s disease. By 1979, some cane growers used green cane harvesting and mechanical harvesters began to turn crop-trash into composted mulch to lay down over the fields in an attempt to increase the yields of the paddocks. The Environmental Protection Act of 1994 (QLD) allowed individual industries to develop codes of practice and the sugar industry’s code brought on an environmental audit in 1995 which inevitably revealed poor practices. This later led to the development of the code of sustainable cane growth techniques and the industry began to re-establish riparian vegetation. Between the years of 1997-1999 over 1 million trees planted on cane farms and around local areas. The Great Barrier Reef amendment act of 2009 was a piece of legislation aimed at reducing the nutrient and chemical run-off to the Great Barrier Reef and was responsible for reducing the run-off by 50% within 4 years after being brought into effect. Cane growers were no longer allowed to apply more than the ‘optimum’ amount of fertilizer to their crops and this legislation was backed up by extensive soil testing programs to make sure that the growers were abiding to these new standards of practices. I thought that this lecture from Dr. Griggs was an excellent way for our students to get some insight into the practice of sugar cane farming and how the process has continued to strive for more sustainable methods over the past 20-30 years.
Next, we will be touring Gallo’s dairy, chocolate and cheese factory located an hour from Cairns on the Atherton Tablelands which will showcase a fully operation dairy farm; gourmet cheese factory; cafe/restaurant; and handcrafted chocolate. Further information about the dairy facility can be found online at: http://www.gallodairyland.com.au/where extensive listings of products and information about the family owned and operated business is located. The Gallo Dairyland was originally operated as a dairy co-op but 10 years ago the dairy market was de-regulated and they were no longer able to produce dairy as a co-op. Along with the new type of business came a drastic reduction in the amount of dairy cows that Gallo was able to use down from about 500 cows 2-3 years ago to just 250 and cows currently. Gallo Dairyland was opened for agritourism in 2007 and has successfully extended the tourism north into the tablelands from what was previously normal operation in this area. There is no housing necessary for the cows at this dairy farm due to the sub-tropical climate which helps reduce on the costs for housing etc. There is currently around 1,000 acres of land utilized as pastures and corn or potato farming areas which are used to make feed for the cattle to reduce costs of inputs to the process. Gallo Dairyland specializes in the production of dairy, cheese and chocolate, they currently contribute about 1,000 L per day of milk to the cheese portion of their operation.
After our tour of the dairy facility, we will be heading to visit the Nerada Tea plantation (largest tea plantation in Australia) where we will participate in a guided walk-through of the tea factory which will allow the group to visualize the entire process from picking to final product of their tea. Students will also be given a chance to purchase some of their various products. A brief history of tea, The Nerada Story, and a description of product range from this facility is listed online at: http://www.neradatea.com.au/for further reference. The Nerada Tea plantation is located on the eastern edge of the Atherton Tablelands about 3,000 feet about sea level. The plantation thrives from nutrient rich soil which can be attributed to sediments deposited from lava and ash flows from Lynch’s Crater nearby. Nerada Tea focuses primarily on black tea production but also has the ability to produce red, white, and green tea as well. For every 80 tons of green tea leaf mass that is brought into the process about 16 tons of black tea is produced. Nerada Tea commenced planting in 1985 on post dairy pasture land. There are approximately 10,000 tea plants per hectare (4,048 tea plants per acre) and the estates comprise 320 hectares (746 acres) of planted tea which demanded the planting of over 3,020,000 tea plants. Nerada Tea is now the largest selling brand of Australian tea. Each field is harvested 13 times per year, the harvester has a cutting span of 4.87 meters, which is the largest and most efficient tea harvesting machine in the world. The harvester has the ability to work at 7 km per hour and can cover about 4 hectares of land per hour. The factory on site has a capacity of around 80 tons per day or around 8.4 million cups of tea per day. The Harvester dumps hoppers of tea leaves into a 4 ton bin which is then transported by tractor and trailer to the factory. These bins are stacked under cover int he factory where they are connected to an air supply which percolates through the leaves to keep them cool during storage. The leaves are each stored here for 12-18 hours before being manufactured in order to allow natural enhancement of the flavor of the tea leaves. The tea is then process through an automatic feed belt and weigher which controls the inflow of leaves to the factory’s assembly line. Tea is then moved through a classifier where the leaf is blown upwards and then through a shredder to create smaller pieces where the tea leaf is after moved to the Rotovane which commences the rupturing of the tea leaf cells in order to liberate juices and are prepared for the leaf pre drier. The tea leaves then enter the pre drier which Nerada Tea has custom developed to reduce the level of moisture of the tea in the process line before it enters fermentation (oxidization) which has been created using Computational Fluid Dynamics. This process drastically reduces the power required to drive the fans used in the drying process through fermentation. Tea leaves are then fed through the Crush-Tear-Curl (CTC) machine made up of rotating stainless steel rollers with intermeshing grooves set to very close tolerances. The CTC’s macerate the leaf, rupture the cells, liberate juices, and tears the leaf into required particle sizes and desnities for tea bags and tea leaves for use in tea pots. The macerated tea (Dhool) then enters the fermenter where turning blades wind the dhool towards the exit end. As the dhool is tubling, the tea leaf particles are exposed to atmosphere which allows them to further oxidize. The tea then moves to the drier which provides heat that impares the oxidation process and stops it and will then drie the tea down to the final moisture level. The dhool passes through two stages of drying to reduce its moisture content from about 72% down to 3% when the tea is finally finished drying. Steam passed through heat exchangers is used to provide hot air at 160 degrees celsius. The drying process takes only 15 minutes. The drier output can reach 1000 kg of ‘made tea’ per hour. Up to 6 million kilos of tea leaves are harvested and processed each year which produces 1.5 million kilos of dried tea and the equivalent to 750,000,000 cups of tea (tea is the cheapest beverage in the world after water). The entire process takes about 20 hours from harvest to final product and the tea is then packed into bulk bags (1 ton each) and shipped to Brisbane where it is then packaged into various types of Nerada Tea products. Tea plants can live for about 80-100 years and most of the tea plants on the Nerada Tea plantation are only currently 30 years of age which means that they will have a significant amount of time before they must be replaced, also each plant must be pruned every 3 years in order to promote proper growth and enhance the yields of the plants.