“Cane growers can't do it alone. World Wildlife Fund, Reef Catchments and The Coca-Cola Company can’t do it alone. But together, we create a powerful partnership, the potential of which we’re just beginning to see.” – Tony Bugeja, cane farmer in North Queensland, Australia

These words perfectly capture my recent visit to North Queensland, Australia, where I toured the farms of four agriculture pioneers from Project Catalyst working toward better quality of water coming off of their property.

Project Catalyst – a quintessential Golden Triangle partnership of cane farmers, industry, government and civil society – aims to reduce polluted run-off from cane farms from entering the Great Barrier Reef. This grower-led initiative has expanded over eight years to nearly 80 cane farmers introducing and adopting innovative agricultural practices to improve soil, nutrient, pesticide, irrigation and storm water management on more than 20,000 hectares of farm land in North Queensland.

Catchment Project

The partners tour farms in North Queesland and learn about work being done to reduce runoff during high-rain events to protect the Great Barrier Reef. 

During the two-day tour of the farmland surrounding Mackay, local cane farmers – Tony Bugeja, Scott Simpson, Jo Muscat and Tony Jeppesen – shared with me firsthand the secrets to success of this long-standing partnership. 

Successful Partnerships Require Shared Vision

Catalyst Project Partners

Project Catalyst partners. Left to right: Dermot O'Gorman, Chief Executive Officer of World Wildlife Fund-Australia; Roberto Mercadé, Business Unit President for Coca-Cola South Pacific; Joe Muscat and Tony Bugeja, cane farmers in Project Catalyst; Bea Perez, Chief Sustainability Officer of The Coca-Cola Company; and Royce Bishop, Chair of Reef Catchments Limited.

While walking through the sugar cane farms on a hot Australia afternoon, Bugeja made an amusing comment about the makeup of our Project Catalyst partnership, calling the diverse set of stakeholders in the project “strange bedfellows.” I asked him what he meant, and he said it was an unusual group of partners coming together – but that he’d learned first-hand that even diverse groups can accomplish more together than any one group can do alone when they have a shared vision.

Now in its eighth year, Project Catalyst farmers are increasing yields while reducing inputs on their crop, thus reducing agricultural runoff to the Great Barrier Reef by more than 180 tons each year.

The Only Thing Constant is Change

Skip Row Farming

Bea and Tony walk a farm where they are testing newer techniques like skip-row planting, which reduces pesticide and fertilizer per tonne of cane grown. 

In one short day in the fields, it became clear that Project Catalyst is challenging growers’ way of thinking and creating a collaborative where they can learn from one another. Project Catalyst farmers are continually innovating and exploring more sustainable farming to address both current and emerging needs of their industry. They shared with me some of the changes they’ve implemented since the project began.

They’ve built artificial wetlands to capture water and topsoil run-off, altered paddock and drainage layouts, applied filter press and fly ash by-product, employed high-technology soil and yield mapping overlays, and changed irrigation and machinery technology. I even toured a pilot farm where they are testing newer techniques like skip-row planting, which reduces pesticide and fertilizer per tonne of cane grown.

They proved the only thing constant is change and just like any successful business, you need to see around the corner to anticipate what’s coming next.

Sharing Best Practices

Bea, Dermot and Katrina

Left to right: Katrina Dent, Manager of Reef Catchments; Dermot O'Gorman, Chief Executive Officer of World Wildlife Fund-Australia; and Bea Perez, Chief Sustainability Officer of The Coca-Cola Company on a cane farm during a tour of Project Catalyst.

Success doesn’t end with testing and validating new ways of farming. It’s the responsibility of the collaborative to put these new ideas out to the broader farm community. For those involved, it’s one of the most valuable elements of the project – being able to share expertise and ideas with fellow farmers, economists and agronomists.

The lessons we’re learning through Project Catalyst have the potential to reach other sugar cane-producing areas of the world, as well. The good sustainable agricultural practices being pioneered are applicable globally – and not just for The Coca-Cola Company partners, but for the whole sugar cane industry.

It was a fantastic opportunity to meet the farmers and tour the sugar cane farms that are a part of Project Catalyst.  Their innovative work, in partnership with WWF, Reef Catchments the Australian Government and the local industry, is inspiring to so many and demonstrates perfectly how even “strange bedfellows” who share a common vision can work together to accomplish amazing results.

Bea Perez is The Coca-Cola Company's chief sustainability officer.