What would entice a potato and maize farmer to plant sugar cane?

You might be forgiven for thinking it's something to do with the generous incentives being thrown around by giant sugar companies looking to shore up extra supply.

But according to John Dalgety, it's not about the money.

After a run of tough years, the third generation farmer says it's more to do with the security of markets and the knowledge he won't be left with a product he can't sell.

"With dairying reducing, deregulation and how they've killed the dairy industry, well, the fact of selling maize is not as great as it could be, and therefore we just needed to look for something more saleable and I mean sugar, they seem to be chasing it.

"You can contract for four or five years and the products, produce the crop and you don't have to do the marketing.

"Whether the sums add up for us, you're never going to prove it until you have a go.

"We've done it all on paper and it's not grand by any means, but neither's corn if you don't get a decent return for it.

"Cane, the inputs are possibly not as high, especially on the ratoon years, as what a crop of maize is and the risk factor of planting that crop of maize and relying on the weather (to determine) whether you get a crop or you don't, that's why we looked at sugar."

And while there are many crops that do well in the high altitude and rich, red soils around Ravenshoe on the Atherton Tableland, the question remains whether sugar cane one of them.

Mr Dalgety's first crop has been in the ground for 10 months and he says the proof will come when it's harvested any day now.

At 930 metres above sea level, Queensland's highest altitude farming district comes with some unique challenges, including frost and distance from the sugar mills at Mareeba and Mossman, up to 170 kilometres away.

"Well, they say icing sugar's worth more money," he laughs. "Look, we don't know. With potatoes we've been hit hard by frost a number of years and I've had different opinions talking to different guys.

"Some of them say that frost will be good for the sugar content; others say if you've got a heavy frost, it'll kill it, it'll wreck it; others say that it's just a grass, hard to kill.

"So look, if we don't have a go ourselves, we'll never know.

"The agriculture industry, as a whole, isn't great so you've got to look outside.

"Whether this is the right thing for us at Kaban, I don't know, but we were willing to have a look. It gets to the stage where we've got to look at something else."

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