SOIL TEST: Some farmers are questioning the high value of the volcanic red soil at Cudgen, saying it is riddled with rocks and requires heavy pesticide use to ensure its viability.
SOIL TEST: Some farmers are questioning the high value of the volcanic red soil at Cudgen, saying it is riddled with rocks and requires heavy pesticide use to ensure its viability. Scott Powick

Red soil claims are 'pathetic'

YOU would be "dreaming” if you believed Cudgen's red soil was the best in Australia, according to some seasoned farmers.

Farmer Peter Lowe, who has been farming in Cudgen for more than 40 years and owns farms in Cudgen and Bundaberg, said Cudgen's red soil - which was declared State Significant Farmland in 2004 after much lobbying - was actually rocky and disease-prone and needed to be flooded with pesticides to keep the sweet potato industry viable.

He said Cudgen's red dirt had required "an enormous amount of chemicals for more than 20 years”.

Mr Lowe said the soil, which some claimed as "the best soil in Australia”, required heavy insecticides to get rid of ringworms which "love red soil more than ordinary soil”.

The farmer, who owns 73ha of Cudgen farmland, said giant rocks in the soil meant a large number of expenses went towards maintenance.

"Since I've been farming there we've moved probably 1000 tonnes of rock in that area, there are a lot of big rocks which break hoes, ploughs, rippers, the maintenance is unbelievable,” Mr Lowe said.

The red soil has been a fiery topic among farmers opposed to the proposed hospital site at Cudgen, with many claiming the red soil needs to be protected due to its high fertility.

But Mr Lowe said the soil was "not as good as they think it is”, with the future looking bleak for the region's sweet potato industry.

"The cost of growing a carton of sweet potatoes is about $13 and the farmers are getting between $11 and $12,” he said.

"I cannot see a way forward for the industry, I really can't. Woolworths is selling sweet potatoes all the time at $4 a kilo, they're giving the grower $1, so it's still a high price and the grower is only getting $1, it's just not viable.”

Mr Lowe said he had spoken to fruit and vegetable suppliers in Sydney who had told farmers to stop sending sweet potatoes because their warehouses were full.

Mr Lowe said he believed most of Cudgen's sweet potato farmers should have moved to Bundaberg 20 years ago, where "the difference is chalk and cheese”.

"If I was young again and wanted to be a farmer, Cudgen would be one of the last places on my list to go,” he said.

Mr Lowe said farmers who claimed the red soil as among the best in Australia were "absolutely dreaming”.

"That's pathetic,” he said.

Another Cudgen farmer, Alan McIntosh, who hit the headlines when he offered to donate $2.5million worth of land to build the Tweed Valley Hospital, said he believed chemicals he used to grow sweet potatoes were linked to his bowel cancer.

"I'm sure of it, the bugs in the soil get immune to the insecticide so you have to make it heavier and heavier,” he said.

"It got to the stage where it was so dangerous that if you put your hand in the drum of spray it would fall off, that's how bad it was.”

But Cudgen farmer Jane Prichard said today's modern farmers used different varieties of sweet potato which "are less susceptible to disease”.

Ms Prichard said Cudgen farmers "don't pretend to be organic” but were not using more chemicals than 10 years ago. She said while there were rocks in the soil, it does not affect their ability to farm the land.

"We have no concerns with profitability or viability,” she said.

"The price of sweet potato can vary at time to time, that's just the fluctuation of the industry, if you're not making money out of farming in Cudgen, you're not having a proper go or you're doing it wrong.”