Farmer profile - Vince Papale

Burdekin canefarmers Vince and Rita Papale love the Great Barrier Reef — and the Reef loves them.

Since converting four low-lying hectares of their Home Hill canefarm into wetland, the area has become a home to ducks, pelicans, sea eagles, kites, seagulls, fish and even a crocodile. Most importantly, it has improved the quality of water flowing from their farm to the Reef. 

The area was once prone to flooding and waterlogging, and consequently difficult to grow cane on, but by rethinking the once problematic site the Papales have a created a wetland that traps and filters water before it eventually runs out to sea. It not only minimises nutrient and chemical run-off, but also makes their farm more productive and profitable.

The Papales recently joined the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Reef Guardian farmers program to help change public perceptions that farmers don’t care for the environment.  

The wetland is the jewel in the crown of clever projects on the property which has been in the Papale family for four generations.

The transformation of their land using best management practices is also a source of great pride.

“We had a drainage problem that we needed to fix and this is how we fixed it. The work has taught us so much along the way and the end result speaks for itself. It now underpins our operational thinking,’’ Vince said.

“In all areas of our farming practice we ask ourselves: Why are we doing this? How are we doing this and are we doing the right thing?”

After spending thousands of dollars on pumps, diesel and electricity — and still losing crops to flooding —  the Papales knew they needed to deviate from past practices. 

Using a Reef Rescue grant, which they more than matched with their own funds, they reconfigured cane blocks and their drainage. To create the wetland in the lowest area, they moved tonnes of soil, built up nearby blocks and reconfigured slopes to ensure water leaving this part of the farm was filtered by the wetland.

In the process they came to better understand the substrate of their land, including the acidity and depth of the soils. The abundance of wildlife, along with water sampling by the Burdekin–Bowen Integrated Floodplain Management Advisory Committee, have confirmed the high quality of water in the wetland.

“When did we start being more conscious of the environmental impacts of our farming practices and making more informed decisions? Five years ago. When does it end? Never,” Vince said.

When asked how they measured their success, Rita has a clear-cut answer: “By managing to grow cane where it never grew before.

“It’s mitigated a lot of risk and now when it rains we don’t care. In the past in the wet, we couldn’t leave the farm. Now we can because it’s self-draining.”

Rita was the driving force behind the planting of 1000 trees around the banks of the wetland, ensuring her three children lent a hand.  Walking around the site, Vince sheepishly claimed credit for the two trees he had planted and pointed out numerous melaleucas that had sprung up naturally as a result of their efforts.

Better drainage along with a range of management practices to improve water use efficiency and quality and adoption of GPS-controlled traffic technology have also improved soil health.  

“The bottom line for us is being able to tell a good story about the industry to help it remain sustainable. Farming is no longer about just working harder to get by or survive — farming should be prosperous and rewarding. What the public thinks matters and there are a lot of farmers doing a lot of good things,” Vince said.

Visitors of all description flock to the farm, from school students, other growers, passing grey nomads who by word-of-mouth have heard about their achievements, and even conservationists curious about the reality of their farming practices. And yet despite their busy schedule, the Papales make time for all of them. 

As they stood admiring what has become the family’s favourite part of the farm, Vince gazed across the wetland full of wildlife with a crop of sugar cane thriving beside it.

“How good is this? A healthy wetland with a productive paddock of cane next to it,” he smiled.

As a result of their example and with their help and advice, an immediate neighbour is also beginning to create a wetland on his farm.

It’s all part of the good story the Papales have a passion to tell. 

Vince Papale, Reef Guardian farmer