AT a time when skyrocketing power prices are crippling farming businesses across Queensland, one Childers cane grower has managed to slash his quarterly bill through a shift to solar-powered low pressure irrigation.
John Russo knows a thing or two about the financial pressures facing farmers. A third-generation cane grower, John has been farming in the Isis region for more than half a century.
Today he operates a 280 hectare cane farm at Farnsfield, 10 minutes north of Childers, with his son Matt.
“I left school at a young age to help my father and my older brother Joe on the farm,” John said.
“I’m one of six boys in the family – five ended up on the farm and one is a teacher. I’ve also got three sisters.”
The Russo boys farmed together for decades, keeping the family business going following the death of their father Harry in 2003.
But when their mum Rose died in 2012, the brothers, all of whom had adult children of their own by then, decided it was time to go their separate ways for the sake of the next generation.
“We’d done very well as a partnership, but we accepted the challenge of moving forward on our own. This year marks the three-year anniversary of going our separate ways,” John said.
“The thing about a partnership is you don’t always get your own way. Now we're the masters of our own destiny.
The down side to that is you have to take all the responsibility — the buck stops here.
“I wouldn’t change it, though. It’s great to be working together with Matt.”
One of the first major decisions that John and Matt made after striking out on their own was to tackle the problem of the farm’s crippling power bills.
As is the case for countless growers, the cost of running high-pressure traveling irrigators was rapidly cutting into their operating budget. With no end to the soaring electricity prices in sight, John decided on the financially risky move of purchasing two new centre pivots and installing a 30KVA solar array to power one of them.
“We realised that we just weren’t going to be able to keep going with the high pressure irrigators,” John said. “We had something like 11 irrigators on the farm and the power bills were enormous and getting bigger all the time.
"We’d got to a stage where we were paying $9500–$10,000 a quarter for power on a single irrigator. "Then there was the price of water and the cost of labour to operate the traveling irrigators, it was just unsustainable.
“In the first year we bought a centre pivot and then last year we bought another one. "We’re now in the process of putting a lateral irrigator over two other farms. Once that’s complete, half of the whole farm (140ha) will be under low pressure irrigation.
“We'll still have to use high pressure in certain areas, but with these two centre pivots and the new lateral we’ve probably saved in excess of five traveling irrigators."
John and Matt control the whole system through a mobile phone app, which allows them to direct the pivot irrigation and see how much power is feeding in from the array.
"It's saved us a massive amount of time and labour. You just switch the pivots on and let them do the work. "You don’t have to spend hours every day dragging winch irrigators around, which frees up time for other jobs,” John said.
And it’s not just time that John and Matt are saving. They’re also saving money and increasing productivity.
They were able to exchange a power hungry 60hp motor required to run the high pressure irrigator for a much more efficient 37hp motor needed to power the centre pivot. With their 30kVA solar system providing more than enough energy to power one pivot, they are now outputting energy back into the grid.
“Since we’ve put the solar plant in we’ve brought our power bill for that motor down from over $9000 a quarter to under $4000,” John said.
"To be honest, I’m hoping to get to a stage where, with what we’re putting back into the grid, we may not have to pay for power at all on that irrigator. We hope it will be cost neutral."
John credits the system with getting them through some tough dry spells over the past two years. While it was expensive to install, he's confident the solar will quickly pay for itself in savings.
"The payback time is only four or five years and then power bills beyond that should show significant savings hopefully.”
John also believes that government needs to step up, at state and federal level, and take significant action to reduce out-of-control power prices - instead of waiting until hundreds of farmers have gone out of business.
“The power prices we have now are unsustainable and are going to send a lot of farmers broke, but from what I can see, the government has no real plan to fix the problem,” John said.
“Planning a $50 or $100 cut to household bills is all well and good, but when you’re an irrigator paying over $50,000 or $60,000 per quarter for electricity, saving $100 won’t make a bit of difference.
“Most people in the cities probably don’t understand the true cost of power for farmers. The government knows but doesn’t really care, because there aren’t too many votes in the regions. They’re only focused on cutting residential bills and winning votes.”
While the solar irrigation system is proving to be a good investment, it is only one of the innovations that have contributed to the success of the Russo Family farms.
John, who has been around long enough to remember the days when "you’d be planting 4ft 8in rows and burning,” believes the adoption of controlled traffic has played a huge part in improving the farm's productivity and yield.
"We’ve put a massive outlay into machinery. We’ve had to buy new tractors and fit them all out with GPS, but it’s been worth it," John said.
"We’ve found with a 1.8m row system, on controlled traffic, your stool formation stays intact, especially with the wider machinery there is today.
"Our production figures have gone way up and we're seeing big advantages in our ratoons. We used to only get third and fourth ratoons, but now we’re successfully getting seventh and eight ratoons, just through control traffic and managing the grubs."
Last year was a good one for John and Matt, with the farm averaging over 120 tonnes of cane per ha, despite the dry. "We were pretty happy with that. The mill target is 100 tonnes/ha but they were only managing 85-90. "We also averaged about 5-6t of peanuts per ha over about 50ha. That's not ideal, we'd like to be getting 7t, but we're still learning with the peanuts."
The Russos plant peanuts not only as a cash crop, but also as part of their fallow management plan, which together with irrigation, pest and weed, and nutrient management plans, forms the basis of their Smartcane BMP accreditation.
"We’re in the process of getting ourselves BMP accredited," John said. "Farming life is hard enough as it is without governments and other agencies putting restrictions on you and trying to tell you what to do.
"If getting accredited in BMP helps show that farmers are doing the right thing and helps avoid more restrictions and regulations, well that can only be a good thing.
"We’re only here a short time and we like to think we leave the soil to the next generation in a good state. No one is so stupid that they want to vandalise their soil or they want to leave it in a worse state than they found it.
"That’s why growers are taking on a lot of these practice changes like break crops, trash blanketing and controlled traffic.
"Personally, we’ve noticed huge improvements since taking on these practices and, to be honest, I don’t know if we’d still be farming if we weren’t making changes.”
- This article first appeared in Australian Canegrower magazine.