Tweed Canegrowers Association chairman Robert Quirk shows some healthy cane.
Tweed Canegrowers Association chairman Robert Quirk shows some healthy cane.

Frost, flood, now smut for cane

TWEED’S sugar industry, which has just completed one of its shortest annual harvests, faces more bad news after the first case of a damaging fungal disease was found just outside Murwillumbah.

Experts from the Condong Mill have confirmed the presence of smut disease, which is easily spread by airborne spores, on a crop at Kynnumboon north of the Murwillumbah showgrounds.

Tweed Canegrowers Association chairman Robert Quirk said the discovery of the disease was bad news for the Tweed region’s cane industry, but affected crops could be harvested and most growers had planted smut-resistant stock.

He said Tweed growers were in a good position to eliminate the disease, which was spread by fungal spores and only slowly in cooler cane-growing regions.

“It has only been found on one farm, that’s at Kynnumboon, to date,” he said.

“We’ve had spore traps out because it’s an airborne spore that spreads the disease.

“We’ve been picking up spores on the Tweed for 12 months now but the disease hasn’t been identified before now.

“It came from the Ord (in northern Western Australia) across to the Queensland sugar industry, then spread south.

“We’ve had three years to prepare and have brought some resistant varieties down to the Tweed.

“About 50 per cent of the crop is planted with resistant varieties.

“It’s not good but we were one of the last industries in the world to get it.”

Mr Quirk said growers would need to keep a close eye on their crops but affected cane could still be harvested then replaced with resistant varieties.

Unfortunately, he said, the most resistant variety available could not stand flooding, which periodically affected crops on the Tweed.

However most growers had already planted some resistant varieties and were “in a position to take control of their own destiny next year” by planting more of that stock.

He said he could not see the infection costing growers on the Tweed much money.

NSW Sugar Milling Cooperative agricultural services manager Rick Beattie said the industry was well prepared.

“We knew it was coming,” he said. “The spores are wind blown, so it was something that we were always going to get. But we reckon we’re on top of it.”

The past two years have been tough for cane growers on the Northern Rivers.

Farmers have struggled through frosts, floods, and ongoing problems with controversial cogeneration electricity plants at the Condong and Broadwater mills.

Mr Beattie said it was hoped the disease’s effects would be minimal.

“We’ve made pretty good preparations. We don’t anticipate any production losses at this stage,” he said.

“Smut will spread to the other two mills. It’s only a matter of time.

“So we’re going to have to make hard decisions about whether to keep growing certain varieties.”



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