Isis Sugar Mill decision ‘breath of fresh air’

Isis Central Sugar Mill
Chairman of the Isis Central Sugar Mill board, Peter Russo, says the decision by shareholders “represents a breath of fresh air for the community, our shareholders and the district”.

The decision voiced by a majority of Isis Central Sugar Mill shareholders on Wednesday effectively ended the ownership structure of the last cooperative sugar mill in Queensland.

With almost 125 years of history behind it, the Isis Central Sugar Mill holds sway as the major employer in an industry that has always been the economic backbone of the Childers district.

The mill, founded in 1896, had remained an entity wholly owned by its shareholders, the farmers who supplied cane to the mill.

Wednesday’s 84 per cent shareholder support approved a partnership merger with the Almoiz Group, a Pakistan based industrial group that produces a wide range of products including sugar from it five Pakistan mills.

The group utilises the latest in technology to produce sugar from cane and sugarbeet.

Chairman of the Isis Central Mill Board, Peter Russo, said the decision by shareholders “represents a breath of fresh air for the community, our shareholders and the district”.

He said the decision had galvanised the future for the district farmers who were going through tough times with world sugar prices at an all-time low coupled with the worst drought in 50 years.

“The injection of capital from Almoiz will see us placed as the strongest mill in the region going forward,” he said.

“This partnership will provide an injection of up to $25 million into this district over the next few years rising to around $35 million as the group acquires a stake of 54.03 per cent in the Isis Central Sugar Mill.”

Mr Russo said he understood the reluctance of some shareholders to support the proposal. He acknowledged that the local sugar industry was built on the back of the districts pioneers.

“My own family has been farming in the district for more than 100 years, however I believe those same pioneers would be proud of the decision reached at the meeting as it kept the company and the industry going forward,” he said.

“Yes, it may have different part-owners, but I would rather have a mill going forward than a mill stopped. Our mill will still have the same name.”

Local grower Joe Russo said the decision was one that provided a future for the industry but more importantly for those whose livelihoods were tied to it.

“I have sons that are going to come into farming, and it gives them a future, knowing that there will be a mill in this district,” he said.

“The landscape has changed across the sugar industry. There were around 13 mills across Queensland that were cooperatively owned and ours was the last one standing.”

Mr Russo said the local mill and local growers were not immune to change. “If we do nothing and just sit there, we will sink.”

He said that even with the new partnership growers will continue to be impacted by world markets and weather and other uncertainties including Paradise Dam.

One veteran farmer who asked to be anonymous said he didn’t agree with the decision but had been afforded every opportunity to speak at the meeting. “I think maybe I won a battle but lost the war,” he laughed.

“Look, the mill and its growers have experienced tough times in the past and will do so again in the future. There will also be good years.

“We have a good mill. It is in a good financial position, the banks are still backing us and the government still has confidence in us,” he said.

He said that some parts of the current mill constitution did not encourage growers to supply cane to the mill. “There are shareholders who do not produce any cane but are taking from the mill profits.”

While the partnership with the Almoiz Group was the main order of business at the meeting attended by 150 shareholders, the meeting was also required to elect new directors to the Mill Board to cover two vacancies.

Returning board members Don Halpin and Shaun Tobin were re-elected.

With the crushing now completed, the attention of Mill management will now turn to the construction of a $16 million tramline extension from Booyal to Wallaville.

This work and normal mill maintenance is expected to occupy the majority of the mill’s 150 workers.