Landline / By Ashleigh Bagshaw and Angel Parsons
Posted April 23, 2023
It started with a frank but friendly conversation between strangers at the local pub.
Paul Schembri Jr was asked a question that was to-the-point and, in a way, changed his life.
“So, you’re on a bike , what sort of idiot are you?”
Paul had recently modified his dirt bike so he could ride it for the first time in years – the same bike that, at age 16, left him with paraplegia and unable to walk.
After seeing a video of Paul’s bike on Facebook, Shaun Wells recognised him at the pub and had a lot of questions.
“[Shaun] just came over and said ”How’d you do this?’ so we started talking and that’s where it all started,” Paul said.
Ten years later, the pair are friends and colleagues who’ve designed what’s believed to be a first for accessibility in the sugar cane industry.
But more importantly, they’ve discovered a shared passion in proving people wrong.
Harvesting against the odds
Farming has always been in Paul’s blood.
With a childhood spent in the rolling cane fields surrounding Mackay in north Queensland, Paul has had a lifelong love affair with sugar cane.
“Just like any normal farm boy ‘ I just loved the land and loved machinery,” Paul said.
Cane farming has run in his family for a century, with his great-grandfather setting up the family farm at Farleigh in the 1920s.
Paul dreamed of following in the footsteps of his father, Paul Schembri Sr, who has been a prominent sugar industry advocate.
“I remember just following Dad around like a little shadow,” he said.
After building Lego tractors since he was six, it was no surprise when Paul started a diesel fitting apprenticeship at 16.
But that year a tragic dirt bike accident turned his life upside down.
“I just went for a ride with my cousins,” Paul said.
“I remember being probably 10 meters away from the corner [where the accident happened] and I don’t remember anything after that.
“I woke up 10 days later in intensive care down in Brisbane. That’s the first memory I have.”
It was a gruelling five-month recovery process in hospital, 1,000 kilometres away from home, although Paul’s mum Sally Schembri was never far away.
“Life as I knew it had changed,” he said.
“The biggest battle I had was mentally.”
But Mrs Schembri said Paul’s resilience never failed to impress her.
Paul told her one day he was “like a V8” and would fire up.
“And he did. We got home, and he fired – and he hasn’t stopped since,” Mrs Schembri said.
Father Paul Schembri – who was with industry lobby group Canegrowers for 39 years including nine as chairperson – said watching his son’s recovery has taught him a lot.
“I thought he would not have a future as a farmer,” Mr Schembri said.
“As a parent [I] terribly, terribly underestimated [him].
“[But] that was the mistake I made.”
An industry first
With the help of his family, friends and community, Paul modified tractors and his dirt bike to be able to operate them with his upper body.
This led to his unlikely friendship with Shaun, who also had a farming background.
“I asked Paul about his accident ‘ there was nothing he wouldn’t talk about, and it went from there,” Shaun said.
They started experimenting with designs and ideas to help Paul pursue farming.
“Every idea he had, he’d come to me. Anything he wants to design, we’ll just keep having a crack [at],” Shaun said.
“Everyone else was saying, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that’, or, ‘How are you going to do that?'”
Their response to the doubters?
“Hold my beer and watch me,” Paul said.
Accessibility in agriculture
Eventually, they modified machinery that allowed Paul to work in the fields carting cane, but operating the harvester was his ultimate aim.
It was a goal they finally achieved in 2021.
Last year brought another huge innovation – they fitted out the harvester with a hydraulic lift system.
It helps Paul get into the cab independently.
“You’re basically like anyone else up there,” he said.
“I didn’t feel restricted or limited. I felt like I could operate just as good as anyone else.”
Today, Paul and Shaun have a contract harvesting business.
They aren’t aware of other modifications like theirs in the cane industry, and say each step of the way has felt like “the great unknown”.
They hope their machinery modifications show the possibility of improving accessibility in agriculture.
“Achieving what we’ve achieved with the harvester has proved we can do a lot of things that people say you can’t,” Shaun said.
Industry veteran Mr Schembri Snr agreed.
“I think, to be truthful, it’s always the case that agriculture could be doing more and that every industry could be doing more,” he said.