Words of wisdom from a thriving cane farm

March 15, 2024

There’s a lot of cane on Scott McLean’s cane farm of course. But oats, soy, sorghum, cattle, or even flourishing birdlife isn’t out of the ordinary either. It’s all part of Scott’s holistic approach to farming, which sees him taking some big steps back to look at the whole picture of his farm, then zoom in on the details to identify where he can make an impact.

Over many years, Scott and his family have been experimenting with soil restoration and environmental management to maximise his farm’s potential with great results – including some very happy resident brolgas.

Scott wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what to do with their farm.

In farming, no one’s right. No one’s wrong.

But there is still a lot of wisdom to gain from his experiences, so here are 5 lessons from Scott’s farm that could be right for yours.

It’s cheaper to do the right thing

It can feel overwhelming for established farmers to introduce new and seemingly complicated tactics such as nutrient budgets. Unfortunately, this can lead to non-compliance with government auditing and regulations. But between productivity gains, costs of materials, and risks of a fine, it’s economically savvier to be strategic about farming practices like soil, nutrient, and pest management. And in fact, Scott notices far more farmers going above and beyond rather than those who don’t meet best practice requirements.

We've got all these farmers doing good things … most of them are doing the right thing and trying to do better than the right thing. You know … let's go one step further, lets add some trace elements for example and do that sort of work.

Don’t push past the sweet spot

We're trying to grow the best cane our soil is capable of growing. It's like they say about Formula One: ‘You can get to 300 kilometres an hour very efficiently. But to go to 350 costs an absolute fortune.’ So let’s get to where it's good, to that point where it's sustainable.

When it comes to productivity, Scott’s ambition is to not be too ambitious. By balancing his input costs with his yield to create consistency, he can put himself in a position where the system is sustainable, and the big expense of replenishing nutrients is replaced by the cheaper one of maintenance. Scott also finds his well-maintained soil is more resilient to drought and flooding conditions, which evens out big peaks and valleys in productivity.

Play the long game

Investing in quality has been the most cost-effective soil health strategy for Scott. After treating the whole farm with trace elements, his rotational fallow crops then started doing the heavy lifting. When necessary, rather than harvest these crops for income, Scott chooses the nutrient ‘trickle down’ effect they have on the soil over 2 or 3 years as they break down. It’s an economic balancing act; sacrificing some yield in the short term but gaining cheaper soil and nutrient management in the long run.

That’s the cost of soil health, which is actually pretty cheap at the end of the day.

Test the soil and test the plant

Soil tests are crucial for knowing and tracking what nutrients lie in the ground, ready and waiting to be taken up by thriving cane. But Scott has found that soil tests alone don’t deliver the full picture. Soil that is rich in a particular nutrient may not result in a plant as rich in the same.

We soil test our fallow every year, plus if we're doing different trials and that sort of stuff we soil test to see what's happening. If we've made a change to an element or to something, we will then test. But then we also test the plant. So we go, okay, we've got a boron deficiency in the plant, say. Okay, we’ve got X amount of boron in our soil test, so maybe we’ve got a deficiency over here that’s stopping that boron being taken up.

By thinking about the system as a whole and gathering relevant information more widely, Scott can identify uptake problems and be confident about the adjustments he’ll make to solve them.    

Get every square inch working

Instead of buying another farm … let’s get every square inch of ours working. And then we can go, okay let’s expand because we can’t physically fit anymore in.

Scott’s rotational fallow crops not only contribute to soil health but are also a big part of his strategy to maximise his farm’s potential. Another way he does this is by partnering irrigation with environmental restoration. Scott has set up an interconnected system of dams and a turkey’s nest so that during rain events water can flow or be pumped through and saved. This also means nutrient and chemical releases are caught onsite rather than allowed to runoff into the environment. Between rains and floodwater, Scott can gain a metre of stored water over natural levels that he can later use for irrigation. The final storage dam was built to be an ecosystem and provide habitat for wildlife. During construction they took special care not to knock over even small trees so that the tree lines could be sustained. Scott has been excited to see a proliferation of bird life, in particular ducks and brolgas.  

We call it the bonus of the ecosystem, but you know, we've got a full-on irrigation system that's sustainable.

These lessons are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to embracing sustainable practice change. For Scott, it’s been a long and rewarding road that he hasn’t walked alone - but that’s another story.

Read more about the McLean farm.


  • Scott McLean employs a comprehensive farming approach, integrating diverse crops and conservation practices to enhance soil health and biodiversity, benefiting both agriculture and wildlife.
  • Adopting strategic soil, nutrient, and pest management practices aligns with regulatory compliance and proves economically beneficial, highlighting the importance of going beyond minimum standards for environmental and productivity gains.
  • Balancing input costs with sustainable yield levels, Scott's farm demonstrates resilience against environmental challenges, emphasizing the long-term benefits of maintaining soil health over immediate productivity gains.
  • Investments in soil quality through crop rotation and trace element addition offer a cost-effective strategy for enhancing soil fertility, reducing the need for expensive soil amendments.
  • Innovative water management and environmental restoration efforts maximize farm utility, illustrating the synergy between agricultural productivity and ecological stewardship.