Article – Northern Territory will be farmed but not everyone wants to dam it

by 9 September 2014

6 September 2014
Sue Neales
The Australian

THE clear warm water is gushing and gurgling across the dry plains of Tipperary Station as the new bore churns and drills into the limestone aquifers deep below the famous Top End cattle station.

It’s a sight that has lifelong cattleman David Warriner grinning in delight as he contemplates turning a $1 million investment in bores and irrigation equipment into a rippling 100ha field of white poppies next year to supply the global pharmaceutical industry with morphine and codeine.

Warriner — who manages the Tipperary group of cattle stations for leading Victorian commercial lawyer, multi-millionaire and philanthropist Allan Myers — also admits to sheepish surprise that he is now so excited about growing crops on land where once his preferred cattle roamed.

“But we have to do this agriculture (cropping); it is imperative to development of the north,” says Warriner, whose cattleman father Ken was long-time head of Kerry Packer’s Consolidated Pastoral cattle business and who now sits on the Prime Minister’s special northern Australia advisory committee.

“It’s exciting that we have finally arrived at the point where we can develop the North; the opportunity is here right now because Asia can afford to pay for our premium produce — it couldn’t have afforded that 10 years ago,” Warriner says, adding: “We can’t miss this chance.”

The gurgling new bore and hot dry-season sun at Tipperary Station west of Pine Creek is a long way from the privileged corridors of Parliament House in Canberra.

There the talk is all of developing the north, with Tony Abbott personally taking charge of the issue ahead of the release this month of a white paper on the subject.

But how to develop the north — an issue that involves not just agriculture but the mining industry, roads, ports and transport issues — has become somewhat confused with parallel policy papers being developed by the federal government on both the future of agriculture and a new dam-building push led by Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Joyce has made it clear that dams for northern Australia — especially the stage-three expansion of the Ord irrigation project in the Kimberley — are high on his list of top 30 project priorities.

But it’s an obsession with dams that frustrates many locals in northern Australia intent on making sure rapid and full-scale development of the north is not sidetracked into a simplistic, contentious and largely irrelevant debate about dams.

David Crombie, a former National Farmers Federation president and chairman of the AgNorth group, says development in northern Australia, even focusing on agriculture as the next big growth industry, is about so much more than dams.

“It’s not all about dams; it’s about land leases, labour, roads, ports, visas and water titles, but hardly about dams at all,” an unusually heated Crombie said in Darwin this week.

“If I hear one more person from Canberra talking about all this water going out to sea to waste in the north, I think I’ll go mad.

“We have to understand water flows and water reserves in both the wet and the dry, do the research, get the data, understand the impact of taking more wet season (river) flow on barramundi and prawns, and then allocate water for irrigation on that basis.,” he says.

“We must stop having these emotional debates about damming the north — there is hardly a suitable dam site in the north — and make much better, sensible policy that focuses on giving people certainty so they can do things differently, but also knowing they are doing it right in the first place.”

The Northern Territory’s Primary Industry and Fisheries Minister Willem Westra van Holthe wholeheartedly agrees.

While the Territory’s cattle industry is worth $400m and local horticultural production is $250m million annually, only 1 per cent of the Territory has been cleared and developed for crop or fruit farming.

Not surprisingly, Westra van Holthe believes there is room for considerable growth, with greater but prudent water use the key.

“We only capture 5 per cent of the water that falls in the Territory while the rest runs off; if we only double that use we can double agricultural production,” the minister says.

“Water is the lifeblood to developing the north, but in the Territory that does not mean damming rivers.

“Development is about making sure we channel more of the rain into our (groundwater) aquifers and off-river storages, and diversifying our pastoral leases to allow cattle operators to lease out their land to others who might want to do irrigated farming.”

Warriner says outside investment in undeveloped cattle stations across northern Australia will be what makes irrigated farming viable — either through complete purchases of properties by international companies looking to produce food or, more likely, joint investments and specific injections of capital in partnership with existing owners.

On Tipperary, he and Myers are committed to developing 100ha of irrigated land this year and putting in another 400ha of irrigation infrastructure in the next few years.

It will cost $7m, but Warriner says he has adequate licences for 5000 megalitres of underground water a year, enough to grow 500ha of irrigated crops such as peanuts, rice, guar, chia and even sandalwood in rotation, with poppies on Tipperary in 10 giant circles under moving centre pivot irrigators.

“It costs a lot to do this; but we’ve decided to really ramp it up,” says Warriner, watching in fascination as the clear fresh water continues to gush from the new irrigation drill hole.

“This is the face of it; it’s happening now — this is what all this talk and hot air in Canberra about developing the north looks like on the ground, in practice.”

Warriner, who is also president of the influential Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association, is intent on showing many other diehard cattlemen that farming — as cropping is known in the north — is not a dirty word but the future face of northern agriculture.

Tipperary — once bought for $50m by the notorious property developer Warren Anderson, who installed a safari park-like menagerie of African animals on the 200,000ha station — was the first pastoral lease in the Northern Territory to apply for a changed tenure permit, allowing cattle leases to grow commercial crops on 30 per cent of their land for up to 30 years.

It has also just been granted the first licence in the Territory to commercially grow opium poppies, and has entered into a novel farming joint venture lease with Tasmania’s TPI Enterprises, part owned by the Washington H. Soul Pattinson group.

The next development is likely to be the arrival of foreign investors and overseas pension funds to help fund further expansion of irrigation on Tipperary.

It may help finance further cropping development on its vast cleared paddocks and river flats, possibly including the construction of large storage dams located alongside waterways such as the Daly River — which form Tipperary’s southern boundary — to store floodwaters taken during peak wet season flows.

“Allan (Myers) is open to the idea; I get calls from foreign investors and fund managers every day looking to invest in agriculture in the north because of the Asian food boom,” Warriner says.

“We might be the first (cattle station) to convert our pastoral lease to allow for irrigation but we won’t be the last; this is the future of northern Australia.”

On the other side of the Daly River from Tipperary, Dan Thompson has been growing dryland hay to supply the live cattle export industry with feed and pellets on his 4400ha farm Ceres Downs for the past eight years.

But he has also begun irrigation farming using groundwater from the underlying Tindall aquifer.

This has enabled him to carve out a specialist niche, growing emerald turf to supply instant lawns for Darwin’s new defence housing estates 200km to the north.

Down the road, neighbours are venturing into irrigated chia and peanut crops.

Sandalwood corporate giant TFS has, in the meantime, bought many local water licences for its new Douglas-Daly district plantations.

Thompson is fascinated by the water potential of the area, with its complex beds of aquifers stretching from Katherine to Daly River, and options to take floodwaters from the myriad rivers and tributaries flowing into the Daly, such as the Katherine, the Edith, Ferguson and Douglas.

But he is also an avid fisherman, taking his boat out on to the beautiful Daly River at weekends to fish for barramundi — an integral part of life in the Top End for so many of its residents.

“If the government is serious about agriculture development, I do think you have to put dams on the radar as long as it is done in a sustainable way,” a thoughtful Thompson says.

“Everything is connected here — the aquifers, the groundwater, the river flows — so if you are going to do more (irrigated) development you have to do it properly or you will risk both the reliability and security of water for the irrigator and the river will suffer too.

And that, according to Thompson “would be the worst outcome for everyone”.

Tipperary Station manager David Warriner, with a new water bore being drilled that will s

Courtesy of The Australian

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