The Australian sugar industry is comprised of growers, harvesters and the mill, each with a vital role in the value chain.  Growers grow the cane; it is contract harvested by harvester operators who transfer the cut cane from the paddocks onto a rail system for transport to the mill for crushing.  The point of transfer from the paddock to the train system occurs at small railway sidings, which are part of a complex network of railway infrastructure radiating out from the mill and weaving its way among hundreds of independently owned family farms.  Each siding is often used by up to a dozen farmers in the immediate vicinity.  Changes in harvesting and other technologies have necessitated changes to the rail infrastructure, including upgrading of railway sidings.

Because the new technologies require a different siding layout, siding upgrades often involve relocation and the surrender of growers’ land on which to construct them.  Production land is precious.  All surrounding farmers and harvesting contractors benefit from the upgrade, though the land-loss burden is carried by only one or two.  Therefore siding upgrades involve considerable negotiation.

In one of Queensland, Australia’s, major growing regions, several sidings were shared by neighbouring families where relationships were strained, and had been so over several generations.  This was particularly the case between two farming families, both very successful and highly regarded.  And so attempts at negotiating siding upgrades proved problematic, despite it being in the parties’ longer term interests for the siding upgrades to proceed.  No upgrade meant an inability to use the newly introduced harvesting and rail technology. 

‘Co-operative Conversations’ were then suggested, and proved to be very successful.  In three separate cases, four hour meetings were held, involving growers, harvesting contractors and rail crew.  Not only were the immediate grower protagonists invited, so too were all the other growers who were to use the new siding.  In the first two hours, participants were introduced to the Co-operative Conversation tools.  Those tools were then used to facilitate a two hour conversation about the design and location of the new siding.  Despite prior negative history and previously expressed animosity, the conversations progressed to agreement without any argument or raised voices.

Following the workshops, the following letter was received from one of the observers.

I have attended three workshops in the Herbert with you where you used your ‘Co-operative Conversations’ methods.  These workshops were used to plan the Siding Rationalisation and upgrade in three different areas.  They involved growers, CSR staff, Harvester operators, Rail crews and Traffic controllers.  All three workshops resulted in agreed outcomes and plans to move forward.  All this was achieved with no arguments and very little angst.  In all three cases, multiple meetings had been held previously with very little or nothing achieved.  In some cases, participants had walked out in sheer frustration or in anger.

Whilst participants began your workshops with little familiarity with the ‘tools’ you taught and in some perhaps a fair degree of negativity, they responded well and adapted quickly to the new format.

All three workshops I believe have achieved outcomes that are supported by all attendees.  This was an achievement I did not think possible prior to becoming familiar with your methods.

Thank you for running these workshops and if these words are of any use to you, please use them as you see fit.

Yours sincerely

Michael Pisano,

 Director CANEGROWERS, Herbert River.