Since Ayr’s Gerard Tuffin hopped on his first cane harvester at age 17 he has continually strived to increase his cane-related knowledge base to keep his production costs to a minimum.
Gerard has worked as a contract harvester for close to 40 years and got into the growing side of the industry six years ago when he leased his first 70 acre farm in the town, which was followed by him going in on second lease arrangement on a 45 acre block 12 months ago.
He said setting up a farm in the current economic climate has been tough due to the cost of production.
More recently the amount of water he’s having to pump to irrigate his crop due to the lack of rain is really pushing that cost up.
“Based on the figures from December, the cost of production is eclipsing the premium by $1.30/tonne,” Gerard said.
“We’re looking at a slight improvement in January based on the sugar price lift but it’ll still be a negative situation,” he said.
“What I want as a grower are the highest premiums and the lowest charges.”
He said that need is why marketing is such a hot topic at present.
“Wilmar’s currently proposing that they should have full control over forward pricing.
In my opinion it’s healthy to have competition, it doesn’t matter if that competition comes from QSL or another sugar marketing entity, but one marketer shouldn’t be able to monopolise the market, as it’s the growers that benefit from the marketers keeping each other in check regarding pricing.
To try and attempt to increase his profit margin Gerard does as much work as he can in-house.
“I’m a jack-of-all-trades, I’m a harvester, grower, boilermaker and diesel fitter; if I can find a way to do something myself to lower my costs I’ll learn how.
The harvester that is the lifeblood of Gerard’s income was purchased in 1993 and in his estimation is on its second million tonne of cane.
“I do all my repairs in-house, my son Jesse is a diesel fitter by trade so together if we have any problems with any of our machinery we fix it. It’s just one way we keep our costs down.”
In an average year Gerard will harvest 45,000t of cane for the eight growers in his group (including himself) which amounts to him having to get through 500t per day.
“Of that total pool I get paid to harvest by the other members in my group I also have to cut 4000t of my own cane to contribute towards that the total.”
A standard day for Gerard during the harvest season begins at 3.30am and won’t see him return to bed until 11.00pm after a full day of working involving cultivating his own crop and harvesting the cane for the other growers.
At present Gerard is enjoying the relatively sedate pace that the off-harvest season affords.
“This is the time of year when I do maintenance on the harvester and focus on the farm, and I get to sleep in until about 7am.”
Gerard said one of the big harvesting issues at present is that about 15pc of the material being processed through the mill is non-cane matter like dirt and trash.
“It’s a problem for the mill because the foreign matter is wearing the boiler tubes out and wears out the milling train, so they want us to cut more effectively to avoid the non-cane build up. But that causes a bit of a catch-22 situation for the harvesters as we have to cut as quickly as possible to reach our quotas.”
Gerard’s varied skillset has allowed him to save money in other ways such as the Massey-Ferguson 188 tractor he purchased and is in the process of restoring which will end up being used as a workhorse in his operation for light work.
“By the time it’s fully restored and ready to work in a fortnight I still will have ended up spending a fraction of what I would have to pay for a new tractor of its class.”
On the growing side of the coin this year Gerard is trialing a soy bean rotation crop in a 20 acre block of fallow land.
“It’s a 90 day crop so it fits in nicely during the non-harvest period between November and April.”
Aside from hopefully making some money off the soy crop, Gerard said the main reason he put the crop in was to inject a healthy dose of nitrogen back into the soil.
“I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t rape your soil, you should allow your it to rest after three ratoons, which is when I normally ash the ground; tear up the soil and let it lie.
“Where I have the soy crop in this year I’d normally be spreading about 1000t of ash on the 20 hectare paddock to rejuvenate the nitrogen level in the soil.
He said even if I miss out on that fourth or fifth ratoon, by putting all that goodness back in the soil and spelling the paddock I’ll at least double my return with the first ratoon I put back in because I get a much better yield and I’ll have no production costs during the spelling period.
The youngest of six children, Gerard has never left his beloved Ayr, where he purchased his parents house that he’s lived in his entire life.
He married fellow Ayr-local Donna in 1984 and the couple have had four children Kristen; Amy; Joel and Jesse who have gone on to enjoy fulfilling careers.
The enthusiasm with which Gerard talks about his work speaks volumes about why he has no regrets about never having taken a holiday in close to four decades.
“I love what I do, it’s keeps me active. And our children all received a private school education and have gone on to pursue career paths they love.
“That’s what I’m proudest of, we raised them up on the back of that harvester.”