THERE'S no denying it was a sophisticated operation.
A massive, hidden cannabis farm belonging to the defendant's brother was at the centre of the Crown's case against an Ambrose cattle farmer at Gladstone District Court yesterday.
Sheridan Lionel Flikweert, 62, appeared before Judge Michael Burnett and pleaded guilty to one charge of producing a dangerous drug in quantities exceeding 500g.
The court heard Flikweert had been assisting his brother, who lived on the farm next door, in the production of massive quantities of cannabis by helping him out with small tasks from time to time.
While the defendant was not alleged to have been a shareholder in the illegal operation, it was the scale and sophistication of the set-up that saw him facing heavy penalties.
While searching the brother's property, police discovered an irrigation pipe and followed it into dense bushland, leading them to two large crops of cannabis and a covert drying area.
Each crop contained six or seven rows of cannabis plants, each row about 40 metres in length, consisting of 1676 plants in total.
The plants were serviced by a water irrigation system linked to a 20,000-litre tank.
The drying area was covered by a large tarp covered in camouflage netting, and inside were shelves of drying cannabis leaves, five large bags of cannabis, a generator, soil testing kits, fertilising tools and cannabis seeds.
The court heard Flikweert was interviewed by police later that day and began cooperating immediately, admitting he had aided his brother in the operation by trimming buds from the plants every now and then for an hourly rate.
He told investigators he had been dealing with severe financial hardship, and the money he had made from helping his brother had gone towards buying feed for his cattle.
Defence barrister Tom Polley said Flikweert, who sat in the dock sporting a shock of white hair and a long beard, had been gainfully employed his whole life and had no criminal history of any sort.
Mr Polley said his client had been running cattle on his property since 2005, and had come under increasing financial pressure as a result of drought conditions.
He said the conditions were severe enough to have Flikweert and his wife Fay "using their mortgage as more of an overdraft", but not severe enough to have the area drought-declared and qualify the farm for financial assistance.
The couple were subsisting mostly on Fay's disability pension, the court was told, as she sat in the gallery in support of her husband.
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Mr Polley submitted character references from three other farmers from the same region, who all testified to his client's character and the struggle of raising cattle in the current conditions.
He acknowledged his client was facing a potential prison term as a result of the production charge, but argued a wholly suspended sentence was appropriate given his client's clean history.
He also pointed to the fact that if Flikweert were to serve time in prison, his wife would not be able to sustain their cattle operation given the ongoing issues with her knees and back.
"She simply wouldn't be able to manage the property, which is on the brink of disaster as it stands," Mr Polley said.
In sentencing Flikweert, Judge Burnett agreed personal deterrence was not the most important factor given the defendant's age and lack of prior convictions.
"Your previous history does assist you," he said.
But he said the charge must have been "a great disappointment" to the defendant's wife and family.
He accepted Flikweert had been experiencing difficulties on his property and "that provided the motivation for you to be tempted on this occasion."
He sentenced Flikweert to two years in prison, but ordered the sentence be immediately suspended for a period of four years.