WORDS BY LARINE STATHAM-BLAIR
It’s no secret the local sugar industry is shrinking. There are endless media reports about growers turning to other crops or selling up. But why is it that sugar mills like Isis Central are standing tall at a time when countless others are collapsing? It’s the people and the culture.
Isis Central Sugar Mill (ICSM) remains owned by the growers themselves. It’s the dedicated men and women who work there. It’s the community that supports it, and the strong, decisive leaders who continue to plan ahead for its future.
The simple truth is, collectively, they’re a tenacious lot; committed to making a go of it for their forebears, themselves and future generations.
In the late 1800s there were as many as six mills in the Childers district. A small group of canefarmers formed a co-operative company and mortgaged their farms to finance a central mill. In 1894, ICSM issued its first company share certificates for a total of 25,000 shares, valued at £1 each and crushed its first cane in 1897. It would be 25 years of self sacrifice before those farmers would have their title deeds returned. As the other small mills in the district closed, ICSM absorbed their cane supply.
In more recent years, long-running mills like Bingera and Maryborough have closed. ICSM stepped in to help their neighbouring growers, investing millions-of-dollars in infrastructure to ensure they still have a mill to crush their cane. Effective lobbyists, ICSM’s successful applications for government funding over the years have been vindicated time and time again.
ICSM has continued to grow in throughput, footprint, size, efficiency and capability. ICSM crushed more than one million tonnes of sugarcane in 1995 – a milestone that would have been unimaginable when the Mill was built. In 2012 they crushed a record 1.5 million tonne. Last year, they managed 1.423 million tonnes in very trying conditions.
Always looking for ways to evolve and innovate, the Mill generates its own electricity and the excess energy is sent back to the grid. Mill mud, a bi-product of sugarcane, is sold to local farmers to fertilise their crops. The IT team has custom coded a system to monitor more than 300 kilometres of rail line and they’re using artificial intelligence to automatically recognise and record cane bin numbers. ICSM regularly win industry safety awards. They host community events that showcase bygone sugar industry practices and contribute to local fundraising efforts, like donating $15,000 towards a bus for the Forest View residential care facility in Childers.
But it’s their commitment to future generations that sets them apart from other industrial businesses and makes them an employer of choice. ICSM employs about 170 people in the off season; of which about 40 are women, who are supported to challenge the norm in a male dominated sector. The workforce increases to 230 people during the crush. Every year, ICSM takes on a new tranche of apprentices, many of whom have worked their way up to be managers at the Mill today.
Isis Central is much more than a mill. It’s a township and community, built around a mill. Complete with bowling green, the village has 21 cottages that the Mill’s employees live in.
IT Manager Martyn Ryan (pictured above) has resided in the same cottage his entire life. He remembers riding bikes and playing cricket with his neighbours. “You knew you couldn’t get into mischief, because it will get back to mum and dad,” he said.
One of the Mill’s longest serving employees, executive assistant Irene Hayton (pictured above), recalls Marty as a child; standing on his toes, peering through the window at his father who worked as the Mill’s accounts clerk.
Marty’s brother, Kelly is the Mill’s engineering manager. “It speaks volumes about the company and the opportunities they provide, that two brothers can get skilled jobs where they grew up, and progress up the ranks. You won’t find anyone that’s more Isis than me.”
Marty and Kelly’s ancestors started growing cane in the district in the 1880s and their uncles still farm that same original property. “Isis Central is like a warm blanket, with the smells and sounds of making sugar. Every year when the Mill starts up again, you know it’s all going to be okay.”