Turning cane trash into treasure
IT'S a highly diversified product that's now in hot demand, but it wasn't that long ago farmers watched their cane mulch go up in smoke.
The leafy matter left behind after green cane was harvested was considered a waste product, so common practice was to burn it off in the paddocks.
But since 2001, the Keith family has been converting that cane 'trash' into a mulching treasure.
The bold move has generated a new revenue stream for other cane farmers who can sell their cane mulch to the Keith's business, Rocky Point Mulching.
Using the cane trash, and other recycled green waste from councils, the family also makes potting mixes, composts and soil enhances - they have even branched out into packaging woodchips from timbre waste to make garden covers.
The remarkable business venture has now seen Rocky Point Mulching general manager Matt Keith fly to a ritzy Canberra function to be named 2016 Farmer of the Year.
However, that's not a title he accepts freely.
"The award isn't for myself, it's for my family,” he said.
"The Farmer of the Year Award was won by the Keith family, I am just a representative.”
Talking to the Rural Weekly, Matt took some time to reflect on the challenges and rewards of diversifying their robust family business.
A FARM FULL OF ACTIVITY
The Keith family's head office at Rocky Point, which is a sugar producing region between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, is a thriving hub.
Newly built sheds are storing mulch, trucks are coming and going and the forklifts never seem to sit still for long.
Inside the noisy packing sheds there are fully automotive bailing machines that have been bought from the Netherlands and Italy to wrap their mulch and compost products - the whole place has the rich smell of a garden shop.
All up the Keiths employ about 60 full-time staff, which includes 13 family members.
While the facility is now a smooth-running industrial hub, the actual farm started from humble beginnings.
Alexander and Phyl Keith, Matt's grandparents, bought their first block of land in the Rocky Point area in 1949.
This was during the hard-slog days of planting and cutting cane by hand.
The Keiths are the second largest growers at Rocky Point, with about 600 hectares of land under cane.
On top of that, they also own cattle and grain properties at Dalby.
THE LIGHTBULB MOMENT
About 25 years ago, when southern Queensland was gripped in drought, the family started to bale up their cane trash to make cattle feed.
"There was a bad drought in this area,” Matt said.
"This was when we were green harvesting our cane, and we started bailing up the leaf for cattle.
"We sold it to feedlots, and farmers in the Boonah and Beaudesert areas.
"We did that for a whole season, and then it started raining. So then we were left with all of this ruined hay on the ground.
"We didn't know what to do with it, so we ended up putting a sign out the front that said 'garden mulch for sale'.”
The mulch struck a chord with buyers, particularly farmers growing avocados, and soon the family realised they had found a new market.
"At the time we were only selling it in the form of little square bales with strings wrapped around them, so we thought we should try to grind it up, process it a bit more and package it into white plastic bags - that way it can be sold into shops, hardware stores, anywhere,” he said.
In 2001 Rocky Point Mulching was formed and their business started to bubble along.
"We now sell about 1.5 million bags of sugarcane mulch each year along the east coast of Australia, so right up to Cairns and down to Tasmania,” he said.
"And we sell about two million bags a year of other bagged composts and potting mixes.”
Today, there is still a sign out the front of the farm selling mulch on the side of the road to locals.
CHALLENGES OF FARMING
For the Keith family, farming at Rocky Point has been good and bad.
For their mulching business, it means they have excellent access to the bustling transport industry at Yatala, and their close proximity to the Pacific Motorway means they have direct routes to the big markets in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
However, the urban sprawl encroaching from the state's capital and the Gold Coast has snapped up prime agricultural land - the Rocky Point Mill is now in jeopardy of closing.
"We have lost some land to development,” he said.
"There are not as many tonnes going through the sugar mill.
"So there are questions marks on the viability of the sugar mill itself.
"We need to plan for the future, and if there is going to be an exit date, or expiry date for the sugar mill, we need to know it - it would be great to know five or ten years in advance so we can plan for it.
"It's hard to invest back into your plans and equipment when you don't know what the future holds.
"But, no matter what happens with the sugarcane industry here, we are going to keep doing what we are doing here on site.”
The Keith's farm only provides enough cane trash for about 15% of Rocky Point Mulching's requirements.
About 70% of farmers in the Rocky Point region now supply them with mulch.
"Farmers in the Rocky Point area tell us they really appreciate us being here. They tell us they need us here,” he said.
"It can value add up to 50% to their cane by selling the mulch to us.”
Mulch is also bought from farmers in the sugar regions of Mooloolah, then down to Childers, Maryborough and Bundaberg.
Although Rocky Point Mulching has become big business, it's important to the Keiths the company remains family owned.
Matt is the third generation farmer, and he wants to ensure there is a viable business for the fourth and fifth generations.
"It's very rewarding to know that you are working towards something, or building something that is ours... and I will get the opportunity to see our kids grow up and work in the business as well,” he said.
Matt believes their family works well together because they all bring different strengths to the team.
He has a degree in mathematics, which no doubt has come in handy, and his brother, Chris, is a diesel mechanic.
"So he works in a completely different area of the business than what I do,” he said.
"We have got a couple of mechanics, a couple of tertiary educated people, and we have an accountant family member coming up through the ranks now too.
"So that will be good.”
However, with their business poised to continue its growth, Matt said they had taken steps to create a formal board.
"I think you get to a certain stage when your business is a certain size, you just have got to have all those systems in place,” he said.
"We have only just started doing it now, but we will have a fully functional board soon.
"Communication is the key when you have so many different family members, and emotions can play a big part in it when it's family as well.”
WHERE TO FROM NOW
Now that the family has started to unlock the potential of the humble sugarcane plant, the sky is the limit.
One day, Matt would love to see their products sold Australia wide and believes the mulch has exporting potential.
"We want to do more with compost,” he said.
"With council green waste, there is a lot at our disposal, so we can take that and mix it with sugarcane to make a beautiful rich compost.
"We have just sold quite a bit of compost up to Bundaberg for macadamia nut growers and avocado growers.”
On top of that, the family were also looking into selling the product commercially as a hydro-cane mulch.
"So they mix it with water and glue and can spray it on the sides of embankments, it's used as an erosion control measure - they can put seeds in it.
"I think there is a big market for that, with all the mine rehabilitation and with the reef rescue package they are talking about, all of that reduces sediment run off into the water ways.”
Matt joked that he became 'exhausted' just talking about the potential of the mulch.
For him, the highlight of the family's innovation was their focus on sustainability.
"The most rewarding thing is that we have built something out of a waste material - we used to burn it,” he said.
"And we have made it something that's valuable.”