Paul Gregory says he’s been a “reef guardian” since he was 12 years old. That was nearly 50 years ago, when Paul was enjoying an idyllic childhood on the family farm near Gordonvale, south of Cairns.

While his father was hard at work clearing scrub to make way for cane, Paul was exploring the creeks on the farm and going fishing after school with his mates.

Then Paul’s dad took him on his first trip to the Great Barrier Reef: “I think I’ve been a reef guardian ever since.”

“Those sorts of childhood experiences gave me a very strong attachment to where I live,” Paul says. “Like most farmers around here, if I have some spare time I still love to get out on the water and go fishing.

“Farmers don’t talk about it much, but many of us think of ourselves as custodians and make decisions accordingly, we just need to get better at promoting it.”

That’s why Paul decided to take up the opportunity to be involved in Reef Guardian Farmers, a voluntary program to promote best practices that benefit both the Reef and the farm.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority began working on a pilot program with farmers in 2011 as a natural extension to its existing networks of Reef Guardian schools and councils.

“I liked the fact that Reef Guardians belongs to us, it wasn’t something imposed by government,” Paul said.

“It was the farmers on the steering committee who designed the program and decided on the benchmarks.

“The Reef Guardians program publicly recognises the good things happening on farms. There’s also a focus on continuously improving what we do, and that appeals to me a lot.”

Paul has witnessed exponential changes in cane farming practices since 1982, when his brother-in-law became the first Gordonvale farmer to harvest green cane instead of burning it.

“One look over the fence at his paddocks convinced me it was the way to go,” Paul said. “The ground wasn’t bare after harvesting, so he didn’t lose soil and fertiliser when it rained.

“Everyone else followed suit. Within 10 years, about 95 per cent of Gordonvale farmers were cutting green. It was a quantum leap in best practice farming and led to a lot of other changes. I’m very proud of this area and the good practices of our farmers.”

Paul says one of Gordonvale’s great benefits has been a strong network of growers who are quick to take up new ideas and work cooperatively.

He “retired” last year after 12 years as a local councillor, and promptly bought and leased more land from his neighbours. He harvested 8000 tonnes of cane last year, and this year if everything goes to plan he will be cutting 17,000 tonnes.

“To be honest, I get just as much satisfaction from seeing the creeks on our property running crystal clear, as I do from producing a good cane crop,” Paul said.

“Our biggest issue is managing water. Our high tropical rainfall is the reason why the valley is so beautiful, but it’s also our biggest challenge.”

It rains a lot in Gordonvale. The average annual rainfall is more than two metres, with monthly rainfalls higher than 400mm during the wet season.

The narrow Mulgrave River flood plain typically experiences severe floods every year. The creeks join together and turn the cane fields into shallow lakes. Add the effects of cyclones and La Nina weather patterns to the mix, and it can lead to challenging times for growers in the Wet Tropics.

“It’s all about layout and drainage,” Paul said. “We aim to capture the water and keep any sediment and nutrients on farm as long as we can.”

Grassed headlands and gently sloping drills channel water around the property, eventually filtering through 12 acres of natural rainforest and wetland before entering the Great Barrier Reef.

“I want my grandchildren to experience the kind of childhood I had and be able to enjoy a ‘great’ Great Barrier Reef,” Paul said, “and I hope they will grow up to be Reef Guardians too.”

Cane farmer looking at his crop