Law of the land: meet Canegrowers' top legal eagle

LAW OF THE LAND: Canegrowers solicitor Chris Cooper at AgroTrend in Bundaberg earlier this year.
LAW OF THE LAND: Canegrowers solicitor Chris Cooper at AgroTrend in Bundaberg earlier this year. Eliza Goetze

Chris Cooper is the principal at C.J. Cooper and Associates and Canegrowers' chief legal advisor. His office is different to that of most lawyers.

"I grew up on a cane farm just behind Coolum. We supplied the Nambour sugar mill which is no longer in existence.

My parents sold out when I was 12 or 13, they went out west and decided to do something different.

I went away to boarding school and forgot about the sugar industry; I didn't think it would be a part of my life.

I went to university and somehow fell back into a legal job in the sugar industry, just completely by chance. It's been terrific.

Having that rural background certainly helped and continues to help in terms of understanding grower issues from a grower's perspective.

I've still got close contacts on the land and the sugar industry is a wonderful, successful and long standing industry; the Australian sugar industry is the envy of the world.

One of the most common issues I deal with is succession.

I see some situations where you have the older generation clinging on, not wanting to let go of the reins, which is never easy.

That probably contributes to some of the younger ones not sticking around, because they may not see a short or even medium-term future.

They might have to wait another thirty or forty years before they can gain real control of the important decision making on the farm.

I've seen some families deal with it very well; I've seen others struggle with it. I've seen some ignore it and hope it will go away.

And I've seen some quite unfortunate situations where it's very difficult sometimes - (for example) when there's only one farm and several children involved.

Everyone is well meaning; some don't want to burden their children with debt, but the older generation needs money to move on and retire.

It's a complicated area but it's important.

There have been changes to government charges early this year which have made succession planning easier in terms of being able to transfer the farm within the family at a lower cost.

I was talking to the QRAA guys just before and they said they have noticed since those changes have come in, a big increase in applications for loans and succession planning.

Mine is a very interesting job because every day is different.

You might have a cane farmer in drought, and a neighbouring grazing farm with cattle looking over the fence longingly at the green shoots, so then they start getting in.

We get involved in native title issues, representing cane growers where there are claims that may have an impact on their farming operations.

We represent a number of growers here (in Bundaberg).

Because of the variety of crops growing here, there is a lot of mixed land use that brings its own issues; aerial spraying issues, damage claims with the impacts of cane farming on neighbours and vice versa.

Part of Canegrowers' free services to its members is that I provide legal service and representation to those growers free of charge.

It could be a machinery dispute one day with a manufacturer.

There's always a dispute with the mill, of course.

There are often disputes between growers and we can't get involved because there is a potential conflict, but often we can facilitate discussion, provide information on options to resolve a dispute or have an independent mediator help them sort through the problem.

Any Canegrowers member can ring me at any time and talk about legal issues.

I do a lot of work for the Canegrowers itself; it has offices up and down the coast with a lot of staff and commercial activity.

I enjoy getting out and about to the regional offices and getting around on farms.

It gives me a whole lot of challenges to sink my teeth into. I've been doing this since 1983 - I'm gradually getting to know it all.”

Topics:  agriculture cane canegrowers law native title succession planning

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