SUGAR is about $2.5 billion to the Australian economy with demand expected to grow but its an industry made up of old men.
The average age of a cane grower is 59, according to figures from industry body Canegrowers, the Cairns Post reports.
And in the Far North there are growers as old as 85 still working their crops.
Most love it and are not keen to stop but some continue because there is no one else to do it.
El Arish grower Bruno Pietrobon’s father hand cut cane for 12 years while he saved to lease his first farm.
When he could afford it, he bought a property and Bruno, along with his brother, helped him every day after school until Bruno took over a farm himself.
Now 68, he says farming is in his blood and he can’t imagine not working the land.
But with four daughters and no one to take over, he doesn’t know what will happen to his 100ha block in the end.
"I have been trying to sell it recently but I want someone to take it over as a cane farm.
"That would be ideal, but at the moment there are no takers – you can’t get the young people into cane farming these days."
The world sugar price is high and demand is growing annually by
6 per cent, pointing to a strong future for the industry.
Australia is perfectly situated to supply the sugar deficient countries such as China and India and government clean future legislation could pave the way for renewable energy production, allowing farmers to diversify their crop.
Meanwhile, industry experts say the Far North, and other sugar regions with mills and infrastructure already in place, are seen as "cane ready" by multinational companies looking to expand their operations to meet future demand.
Ron Mullins is chief operating officer at Canegrowers, the sugar industry’s peak body.
He says going into the future the old age of its growers is one of its greatest concerns.
"The sugar industry is on the edge of a massive growth period," he said.
"The demand for our product will be greater than ever soon but the number of farmers is shrinking and our ability to meet that demand in the future could be an issue."
Canegrowers began a three year research project last year that will focus on how to attract young growers to the industry.
Farm leasing. mentoring and other succession planning is being looked at, according to Mr Mullins who says the high cost of starting a new farm often puts young farmers off.
Twenty years ago there were 6500 cane growers, now there are just 3500. And the amount of cane produced has dropped by 10 million tonnes in the past 15 years, down to 30 million from 40 million.
"Mills have closed and cane land has gone into other crops," Mr Mullins said.
"With the future growth expectations we are looking at how to change that, we want to go back to and surpass the original
figures and create a robust industry that can give these developing countries what they want.
"But we must have new people to step up and take over."
At 53, Garadunga grower Charlie Zappala is not quite one of the "old men" of the industry but his dad Con is – still working on the farm at the age of 85.
The pair, along with another of Con’s sons, are partners, looking after about 200ha of cane land in Bartle Frere, Garradunga and Woopen Creek.
Charlie says the lifestyle cane growing offers wins out over any other job.
What will happen to the farms when the three men give the land up is anyone’s guess, Charlie says.
"To be honest we haven’t really encouraged the kids into farming because things have been tough the last few years with the weather," he said.
"But if Mother Nature is kind and the industry keeps growing I see a good future for the industry."
He may be pushing 70, but Bruno agrees: "We gamble every year with Mother Nature – cyclones, rains and the sun," he said.
"You hope for the best and sometimes you get it.
"But I love it and for now I will keep working and hope that someone will buy the farm.
"Retire isn’t a word in many farmers’ vocabularies."
Read more at the Cairns Post.