Thursday, July 4, 2024


Mackay and Whitsunday Life

From Bush Kid To Industry Advocate

In the dynamic landscape of Mackay’s sugar industry, Queensland Cane Agriculture & Renewables (QCAR) is fast becoming a driving force for growers, fostering innovation and resilience among its members. This organisation, dedicated to activating agricultural excellence, addresses rising farming costs, promotes environmental sustainability, and champions water quality issues.

At the helm of QCAR's efforts in the Proserpine, Mackay, and Sarina areas is Sonia Ball, a woman whose life and career are deeply intertwined with the land and its stewards. Her journey from a bush kid in Darwin to a pivotal figure in the sugar industry highlights her unwavering passion for helping growers thrive in an ever-evolving landscape.

Born in Darwin to parents who were buffalo shooters Sonia’s early life with five siblings was fun, rugged and adventurous. Being raised in the bush instilled in her resilience and a deep connection to the land.

Sonia’s first connection to the cane industry on moving to Queensland was through journalism, where she spent 18 years at the Daily Mercury, specialising in rural reporting.

"A large part of what I did there was rural journalism, and because I'm a country girl I have a real passion for telling the stories of the people who look after the land," Sonia recalls.

Her work allowed her to forge strong relationships with growers and industry stakeholders.

"I did a lot of articles with growers and stakeholders, and while you may think the sugar industry largely stays the same, it is complex and it always has something going on.

“It's always fascinated me how it evolves, and I quickly built knowledge and relationships in the industry."

After leaving the newspaper, her passion for the sugar industry led her to a communications role within the sector, where she worked for eight years before then joining Queensland Sugar Ltd (QSL) for another five years. At QSL, Sonia played a crucial role in educating growers about sugar marketing.

"I loved working with the growers; that's always been my passion."

She helped them understand the market dynamics and take control of pricing, ensuring they were better equipped to succeed.

After a brief hiatus to care for her unwell mother and recharge, Sonia joined QCAR with renewed vigour.

"I'd been going hell for leather for such a long time, so taking a break was a really good thing. It allowed me to find my passion again, and the new position with QCAR has reinvigorated my love of the industry," she says.

Sonia firmly believes that competition within the market benefits all growers, driving improvement and innovation.

"Growers should always have choice, and having competition in the market will make every entity better because they have to be—you can't continue to rest on your laurels," she explains.

Despite QCAR being relatively new in the Central Queensland region, it has a strong foundation and is well-established across the state.

"The experience behind QCAR is not new. The growers, knowledge, and experience in this organisation really is as good as you'll find anywhere," Sonia states.

QCAR’s approach is deeply rooted in listening to growers and incorporating their needs into the organisation’s strategies.

"We don't go from the top and say 'this is what we think you should have'; we go from the ground up and ask what it is they need.

“We're building and our growers are growing with us.

"There is a perception that we're not local, but I can tell you, I'm a local. I've been here for well over three decades and we now have a small cattle property at Ilbilbie.

“Our head office might be in the Burdekin, but all organisations have a head office somewhere. Our local office is in the heart of the CBD in Mackay. Of course I spend most of my time on the road visiting our growers and stakeholders and being involved in the communities of our three Central District regions.

“I am a local who is proud to know the industry and its people, and our Central District committee are all local growers. QCAR is here to stay."

Sonia is excited about the future of the sugar industry and the role QCAR plays in it.

"This is a real difference for growers; they've never had the whole kit and caboodle to weigh up before. The integration with ACFA has really strengthened QCAR as has our affiliation with AgForce, so our representation goes from face-to-face at the kitchen table right through to state and federal government."

QCAR is focused on sustainability and innovation, supporting projects that create additional revenue streams for growers through the bi-products of sugar.

"We're supportive of those projects to create additional sources of revenue for growers,” Sonia says.

“Let's start normalising reusing our products and making it a priority instead of constantly pushing the ideas aside. Let's make it more of the conversation and get these projects actually on the ground."

Outside of her professional life, Sonia and her partner Craig manage a rural property in Ilbilbie, where they run about 50 head of breeding cattle on 500 acres.

"Not all of it is pastured country; it's more like goat country. It's rough and it can be a bit dry, but we love it, and it is surrounded by beautiful cane country," she says.

Their weekends are spent tending to their cattle, chooks, and ducks, reflecting their enduring love for rural life.

Central Queensland District Manager for QCAR, Sonia Ball. Photo supplied

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