Any kid who grew up in Mackay in the 1980s will remember the cane fires. They were in the late afternoon, usually. Spectacular roaring infernos, sometimes right next to suburban blocks where the streets filled with children trying to catch slivers of ash that fell from the sky like black snow. Mothers raced into backyards to strip clean washing off the clothesline. The rhythm of local life was set to the sugar season, planned around busy harvest months or "the slack".
Things have changed a bit since then. Farmers don’t routinely burn the crop, for a start -- harvesting green is more common. The town itself has become more of a high-vis hub for the booming coal mines in the Galilee Basin to the west. And the canefields that used to grow right at its doorstep have been replaced with “Cuttersfield Estate” -- a residential development, full of four-bed-two-bath-two-car kit-homes forming a patchwork of Colorbond fences and fluffy turf lawns.
The land squeeze is just one of a number of challenges facing the Australian sugar industry. Growers are also unhappy about the recent introduction of "reef regulations", which they say unfairly target and burden farmers with rules designed to protect the Great Barrier Reef. (The scientific community, by and large, disagrees. A Scientific Consensus Statement issued in 2017 stated “the main source of the primary pollutants (nutrients, fine sediments and pesticides) from Great Barrier Reef catchments is diffuse source pollution from agriculture”.) On the PR front, the "war on sugar" -- and periodic calls for a sugar tax -- has left many farmers feeling defensive about their crop, which has been grown here since before federation.