BRIGHT yellow sunflower blooms are emerging in the Far North as cane growers begin to use the attractive plants as a fallow crop to improve soil health.
Ingham cane grower Michael Waring has planted tens of thousands of sunflowers across 16 hectares of is property on Wallaman Falls Road.
Sunflowers are a relatively new addition to the cane cycle in the Far North, with only a handful of farmers growing them as an alternative, or addition, to cowpeas and soya beans.
“They are a good plant for the soil,’’ Mr Waring said.
“Diversity is important when it comes to soil health and sunflowers bring in another element.”
Fallow crops of legumes and other plants between cane crops have proved beneficial for both productivity and the environment, building the soil's chemical and biological health and breaking weed and pest cycles. In some cases, they also provide another income stream.
Soya bean crops are an established break crop in a sugar cane fallow, with good waterlogging resilience, soil health benefits and high nitrogen fixation.
Mr Waring said sunflowers offered something extra in terms of balancing soil life.
“Sunflowers are not legumes so they don’t fix nitrogen but they do have soil benefits that soya beans don’t provide,” he said.
“Sunflowers encourage mycorrhizal fungi, which takes mineral phosphorus and converts it into plant available phosphorus.
“What we are learning from soil experts is that we need diversity in our fallows to gain the most from them.
“The challenge is finding beneficial plants that will grow together and survive the rigors of the Wet Tropics in summer.”
It is Mr Waring’s second sunflower planting and he said the crop had been going well.
He plants soya beans among the crop and said he needed to work on finding the correct ratios.
“The strike rate this year has been really good, in fact, it’s a bit too good,” Mr Waring said.
“I would recommend that you don’t plant them so thick so you give a bit more space to the soya beans.”
“It’s about trying new things, something a lot of farmers are continuing to do to improve soil health and, by doing so, improve water quality leaving their farms.”