LEADING Sunshine Coast arborist Leo Phelan is a man with many hats but perhaps the hat that fits best is that of innovator and inventor.

His work in regenerating old sugar cane land into a viable demonstration farm on an 8.5 hectare block at Rosemount, near Nambour on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, has the potential of offering sustainable farming options for the approximate 7,600 hectares of former caneland, on the rich alluvial soils of the Maroochy River floodplain, which have been largely left to grow weeds since the Moreton Central Sugar Mill closed on December 4, 2003 after 106 years of crushing.

According to Mr Phelan, it is not only economically vital to regenerate these canelands, it is also incredibly necessary from an environmental perspective.

Leo shows one of his English large black pigs
Leo shows one of his English large black pigs

In its heyday, some 65,000 to 75,000 tonnes of raw sugar were processed at the mill in a normal season from a crop of about 500,000 to 600,000 tonnes of cane generating a direct $80 million into the economy. The mill’s closure spelled the end of the region’s sugar industry and had massive economic and social repercussions for the region and its sugar cane farmers – many third generation cane-farming families.

Some farmers turned to small crops, pineapples, cattle – even solar power farms. Some kept growing sugar and trucked their raw cane to mills at either Beenleigh or Maryborough. But there is still much cane land left lying fallow – coveted by developers who are restricted by the Sunshine Coast Regional Council from building housing estates on flood plains.

In the council’s Sustainable Cane Lands Precinct Class, preferred uses are mainly agriculture, animal husbandry, aquaculture, bed and breakfast, forestry or home-based businesses.

The council is currently working towards a Draft Canelands Masterplan to determine agricultural options, mixed use and entrepreneurial enterprises, environmental options and public use and recreation options for the old caneland.

While much discussion is taking place with numerous key stakeholders, Mr Phelan – a passionate advocate of regenerating canelands and training farmers of the future in the process – has put his money and energy where his mouth is and begun developing his Rosemount demonstration farm which features cattle, pigs, chickens, fruit and vegetables and is being set up not only as a training farm for Nambour State High School students, but also as a working model for community-supported agriculture (basically, bartering time working on the farm for produce).

According to Mr Phelan, it is not only economically vital to regenerate these canelands, it is also incredibly necessary from an environmental perspective.

“Our water tables are rising because the caneland is not being maintained as it used to be. The cane is gone. t used to be manicured land and the farmers regularly cleared their drains which fed into the river system. Now the drains are inundated with weeds and the water isn’t flowing freely.”

When Mr Phelan bought the Rosemount land – a former cane farm owned by the Moreton Mill – five years ago, the first step was developing a management plan for the block which straddles a section of upper Paynters Creek.

His qualifications for this venture are impressive, comprehensive and varied. Mr Phelan hails from farming stock on the Darling Downs, Queensland, growing up on a dairy and pig farm.

As a young man he achieved his boilermakers’ ticket and then began small cropping at Withcott with wife Charon and family. On this small acreage farm he designed and built all the farm equipment required – a skill he has put to use on his Rosemount farm.

He then spent time working in the hard rock and coal mining industries, moved to the Sunshine Coast 24 years ago and completed a horticulture degree at Sunshine Coast and Cooloola TAFE majoring in horticulture, turf, nursery and arboriculture.

Such was his passion for his craft, Mr Phelan was asked by Sunshine Coast Institute of TAFE (CSIT) to join other horticultural industry peers to assist them in recommending training direction for better outcomes for potential industry employment and to promote best industry practice. “I was one of the guys who assisted steer the guys in educating trainees in best practice in turf, nursery, flowers, arboriculture and horticulture,” he said.

Mr Phelan started his successful business, ArborCare Queensland, 21 years ago. It’s a business that specialises in vegetation management, conservation management, arboricultural and ecological management and tree surgery. ArborCare Queensland services include developments and bushland consulting, management strategies and plans, urban and bushland management, restoration and revegetation, environmental weed control and management, ecological site assessments, flora surveys, bushfire management plans, tree management and maintenance programs.

Mr Phelan and his team work closely with government departments of all levels in vegetation management. They are the team called in to regenerate degraded, weed-infested areas such as sand dunes and bushland, advise on conservation management at major developments and advise private developers in environmental management. And Mr Phelan is a past president of the Queensland Arboriculture Association and is on the board of trustees.

Leo Phelan plans to build up the fruit and vegetable paddocks of the block as part of his grand plan to develop the farm into a demonstration farm, a farm training site, a working model for community-supported agriculture and a venue for regular field days.
Leo Phelan plans to build up the fruit and vegetable paddocks of the block.


So, drawing up a management plan for his Rosemount demonstration farm was a given for this forward-thinking, hard-working man of the land. “We had to think about the land use for the block. We needed to put it to use now that the cane industry has gone,” Mr Phelan said.

“The plan determined uses and non-uses for the land, what its catchment area was to understand the local soil hydrology, and where land uses sat in the local economy so that we could develop an economic management plan as well. We had to produce a plan that showed people what they could do with a block like this,” he said.

“The management plan was based on people like lifestylers and sea-changers who would take on a block of about 20 acres. We had to identify what condition the soil was in and so we conducted a soil mineral test, a biological test and a soilfood web test. We also took GPS co-ordinates of all our soil test sites so that we could build our data base from zero and chart our progress as we rebuilt the soils.’

“Being old cane land, the soil was high in nitrogenous fertilisers such as super phosphates – high in nitrates, sodium and aluminium. These chemicals deplete soil health by stopping the microbiology of the soil working. The soil was also high in salinity and had a loose structure. We want to reverse this process and put some structure back in the soil, rebuild the soil,” Mr Phelan said.

“I’m big on pasture management and paddock rotation strategies. We introduced pasture grasses that suit wet lowland areas. We are also building the soil with compost and compost teas that we make here on the farm – so we can show and teach people about soil food education.

“We also completed a riparian management plan to recognise the riparian zones (around the farm’s creek area), fence off these areas from livestock and revegetate the areas. We pulled out a lot of environmental weed from the creek banks and cleaned up the creek and planted more riparian species.

“We got a couple of grants from the council to help with this through Seedling Incentive – Plants for habitat restoration on Land for Wildlife Properties as our property is registered Land for Wildlife. And we have just applied for a rehabilitation and restoration grant for 2013, under the same program.

“We don’t water the livestock from our creek – we have old bathtubs for drinking water. We want to lead by example as far as water quality goes. We want nice water to make its way out to sea with no silt and low salinity and chemical levels,” he said. “And we retained and maintain the old cane drains to preserve the water table levels.”

Mr Phelan also completed an assessment on the health of the bushland on the block and neighbouring bushland areas.

“We recognised the connectivity of the vegetation on our boundaries and want to regenerate all these areas back to good bushland,” he said. “We are hoping to receive a grant from the Sunshine Coast Regional Council to regenerate two hectares of bushland.”

The farm will soon be establishing a micro-dairy with the smaller breed of lowline cattle, English large black pigs and free-range Lanshan chickens. Even though he grew up on a dairy farm with pigs, Mr Phelan recently completed an advanced course in pig diseases so he could continue best practice in the animals’ management.

The farm animals are fed via mobile feedlots – feed sheds that can be systematically moved around the farm to rotate soil mulch. The feedlots were designed and built by Mr Phelan.

And soon Mr Phelan plans to build up the fruit and vegetable paddocks of the block. His grand plan is to develop the farm into a demonstration farm, a farm training site, a working model for community-supported agriculture and a venue for regular field days. “We want to show people how to grow food of good quality and do it ethically,” Mr Phelan said. “This farm is an opportunity to show the potential of locally-produced foods.

“We put little to no imputs into the farm. We don’t use a lot of chemicals, we make our own compost and compost teas and we work to best practice. We do have to use a small amount of chemicals to contain fungus and bacteria. We’ve had three wet years and it is wet here. We want to show people the best practice in farm management,” he said.

The community-supported agriculture initiative involves CSA members bartering their labour for farm produce. For example, one dozen eggs equals a 15-minute work contribution. Additionally, people with land that has good pasture can set up a micro-dairy at their property – they take three or four cows to their land using a mobile dairy parlour.

In return for their pasture, people can receive milk or cheese produced at the farm, for example. “We’re building a transportable dairy (mobile dairy parlour) that can sit on someone’s property for as long as the grass lasts,” Mr Phelan said. “We can teach people how to create food from the dairy – milk and cheese products.”

Leo Phelan with his self-designed mobile chicken coop.
Leo Phelan with his self-designed mobile chicken coop.

Mr Phelan is liaising with Nambour State High School’s agricultural department to introduce internships at the farm for senior students.

“We are talking about three to six-month internships where the students gain a Certificate II in Agricultural Science Practices. The interns virtually take over the running of the farm. I supply the equipment and I finance it. But this has to be a learning outcome,” he said.

“We want this farm to be a model of best practice but if we make a mistake then we want students to be involved in the mistakes we make so that we all gain a better outcome. Education is a key component of the farm,” Mr Phelan said. “We want to inspire council, inspire people. A lot of young people don’t know what they want to do – this farm might just inspire them too.”

Mr Phelan is dedicated to demonstrating to the Sunshine Coast and regions across Australia that small acreages can be viable, sustainable farming propositions. It just takes an idea, a passion and lots of energy. “And at this farm I can also show my kids the value of good, old-fashioned hard yakka,” he said.

Acres Australia Archives – Issue #100