Article – The Country Hour visits north-west Queensland

by 5 June 2014

5 June 2014
Craig Zonca and Virginia Tapp
QLD Country Hour

PHOTO: Lorraine Station in north-west Queensland.

The Queensland Country Hour is on the road this week through the north-west of the state, tracking from Mt Isa to Karumba.

Today’s stop is Lorraine Station, halfway between Cloncurry and the Gulf of Carpentaria on the Leichhardt River.

The property is huge – it covers 2,400 square kilometres and reaches across the Burke, Carpentaria and Cloncurry shires.

It would take a solid week to walk the entire 270-kilometre perimeter, and a long time to drive the 890 kilometres of roads.

The property is ahead of the pack when it comes to the irrigation potential of northern Australia – it has mixed cattle grazing with feedlotting and irrigated cropping.

Developing irrigated cropping in the north

Lorraine Station managerPHOTO: Manager of Lorraine Station, Hannah Crisp (right).

Lorraine Station has a rich history.

It’s still owned by the descendents of the original owners, and will celebrate its 100th birthday next year.

Michael Crisp and his wife Hannah have managed Lorraine since 2003.

In that time, they’ve established a red Brahman based breeding herd, 900-hectare irrigation farm and 7,500-head feedlot.

In a normal year, the station runs 30,000 head of cattle, but the drought has slashed the stocking rate by ten per cent.

The lack of water has also affected the property’s 2,500 acres of farming land, which produces up to 3,300 tonnes of hay each year.

Water security is a major problem, but Michael says the future could be very promising if cattle prices lifted.

“We just need to see the cattle prices stabilise at a level that makes what we do profitable; we basically need $1.80 a kilo for an animal that we deliver to the Cloncurry yard to be sold.”

The man behind the station’s irrigated cropping component is George Andrew.

He says dry weather has restricted crop options and reduced water storage to a third – down to between 3,000 and 4,000 megalitres.

But water isn’t the only variable.

“It’s a bit of gamble; you’ve got to get your planting seasons right… and the birds do give you a bit of a caning.”

Hannah Crisp says one of the greatest challenges running Lorraine Station is finding and keeping staff.

“Getting staff into the north-west and onto your properties with families – because that brings down the teaching, everyone wants their children to have a really good education and out here you are offered school of the air so at times that can be a bit difficult.

“That’s one thing about Lorraine we do have a continuity of staff, we have people that have been here for seven and eight years, which we find that that’s a really good overall picture of Lorraine, that they like to stay here that long.

“I think when you have children in the Gulf that brings you towards families and school events and you become part of the community and that’s very important.

“We just love living out here in the north-west in the Gulf, it’s just a great place to live and we’ve made long life friends here that we’ll have forever.”

Feeding a small army on Lorraine Station

Lorraine Station homesteadPHOTO: Lorraine Station homestead in north-west Queensland.

Many a ringer would say that good station cooks are as rare as hen’s teeth, but at Lorraine Station they’ve been lucky.

Their cook Narda Vause is from Port Macquarie in New South Wales, and came out of retirement to work at Lorraine.

“We were travelling around Australia, we’re both retired Warren and I, and we got far as Burke and Wills and we haven’t left the area since and that was five years ago.

“Absolutely love it, I love the people, the kids that work here they work hard and I choose to do it, I don’t have to do it.”

Nada feeds 20 to 25 people every night – they kill a beast about once every fortnight and have some produce growing in their garden including spinach, bok choy, watermelon, zucchinis, tomatoes and bananas. Meanwhile lamb is a real luxury – they only eat it about once every six weeks.

“We do a really big shop about every three months but then we get our fruit, vegetables, bread about fortnightly and it comes in on big road train,” Nada says.

“Say for instance the icing sugar at home you probably buy 500 grams, probably lasts you three months – I buy 15 kg and it lasts me about three months so there’s a lot of shopping here.”

“Last night we had a sort of an Asian night – we had fried rice, we had sweet and sour pork because we have our own pigs here and we had pork fillets with honey and pepper sauce, (and) we had butter chicken and satay beef.

“Breakfast this morning was sausages which we make ourselves, we got our own little garden here so we picked some spinach and had some scrambled eggs spinach and bacon together.

“That’s what I do, I just cook and I love cooking.”

Major mine tackles FIFO and water issues

The Cloncurry mining region is home to ten of the state’s 45 significant mineral mines, including the Great Australia Mine discovered by so-called father of the region Ernest Henry in 1867.

The iconic explorer first arrived in the area looking for grazing land, but instead found significant mineral resources.

The Great Australia Mine, which is operated by CopperChem, extracts mainly copper sulphide and copper oxide.

The site has ceased mining, but continues as a processing and administrative centre.

Noel GertzPHOTO: Noel Gertz from CopperChem.

Noel Gertz from CopperChem says the company has a significant focus on encouraging people to live locally, and has slashed its FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) workforce by 70 per cent to 27 per cent since last October.

“… senior management wanted to invest a lot of time and effort into training and employing local people because in the long run, the dividends of them will pay off.”

Troy Cook has been working at the mine for five weeks.

Originally from Canada, he’s been in Australia for 16 years and relocated his partner and 15-year-old step-daughter to Cloncurry.

He says he couldn’t be happier in Cloncurry, the winner of the Queensland’s Friendliest Town title last year.

“Not only is the town super friendly, I’ve never worked with so many pleasant and lovely and intelligent people as I have here.”

Chanise Cumsing is a bit newer – only three weeks into the job.

She says it’s nice to stay in the town she grew up in.

“Still new, still getting my head around the whole process of it, but they encourage you.”

The local workforce is strong, but dry weather has wreaked havoc on the mine.

It’s heavily reliant on water, and low water supply earlier this year forced the company to lay off staff and reduce production.

Mr Gertz says CopperChem has worked with other local mines to construct a weir to replenish underground wells.

“That’s part of a storage strategy, but now we have to then look at how we can take some of that water out and utilise it in the mine and that’s all subject to ongoing negotiations.”

Living together: mines and communities

The Cloncurry shire mines generate $120 million in royalties for Queensland, but Cloncurry itself gets very little money back through the program.

Mayor of the Cloncurry Shire Andrew Daniels says it’s disappointing for the area.

“The reality is is we want to remain the town where our grass roots are and that’s in the beef industry.

“But I suppose while the mining’s here we’re trying to build as much infrastructure and make our town as cosmopolitan as possible.

“The Royalties for Regions program in the last two years we’ve seen six million. I’m contented with that but I just think that if the Government want to see a better income for themselves then they need to invest more out here and that way they’ll get a better return for their investment.”

Councillor Daniels believes the private mining companies also need to give more back to the region.

“The biggest issue we face is that mining offers so many opportunities but the opportunities don’t flow to the locals.

“If we’re going to be here and putting up with what’s happening around us and watching the money fly out of our town, it’s pretty hard on the locals to not get a crack at any of that.”

Considering Cloncurry is such a busy mining hub, tensions between landholders and miners are to be expected.

However, there are benefits that can flow to landholders in close proximity to mining operations.

Colin SaundersPHOTO: Owner of Round Oak Station Colin Saunders.

Round Oak Station is on the doorstep of CopperChem’s mining operations south of Cloncurry.

Owner Colin Saunders has been working with the company since they first bought the property 30 years ago.

He says they’re better off with the mine next door.

“There’s many advantages, you help them out, they help you out.

“They’ll grade roads and build fences for us, and then for four months last year we were able to cart water for them so that was a good job.”

He believes the mine site on Round Oak wouldn’t decrease the value of the property.

“They only take up 600 acres, we couldn’t run many head of cattle on that, so it’s no disadvantage.”

Money and water needed to develop northern Australia

Mt Isa is playing a major role in the push to develop northern AustraliaPHOTO: Mt Isa is known as the gateway to the north-west.

Mt Isa is known as the gateway to the north-west, with a population of about 22,000 people.

It’s a mining city, but it’s playing a major role in the growing push to develop northern Australia.

Glen Graham is the chief executive of the Mt Isa Townsville Economic Zone group (MITEZ).

He says the planets are aligning, with promising developments in small-scale irrigation, renewable energy, meatworks and small mines.

But two major things are standing in the way; money and lack of water.

“Had we had a few good wet seasons in the past, I’d say the irrigation precincts we’re trying to develop, would have moved a fair bit forward,” Mr Graham says.

He says more government funding would help, but it’s expected more landholders will partner with investors to build water infrastructure once the rains come.

Tony McGrady is the local mayor and former state member for the region.

He says it’s now time to move to the second stage of the Carpentaria Mt Isa Mining Province he helped establish two decades ago.

He says the region is now firmly on the political agenda, with the release of the final draft of the North-West Queensland Strategic Development Study and the Federal Government’s upcoming white paper on northern Australia.

The potential for uranium mining is also coming to the fore, after a ban was lifted about 16 months ago.

Mr McGrady says two companies are working on deposits, just outside of Mt Isa and in the Gulf of Carpentaria, but they need to wait for the right time.

“Obviously they need the economic climate to be right and the international climate to be right… once the price of uranium starts to move, both of these mines will commence activity.”

He says the exploration will lead to the discovery of more metal deposits.

North Western graziers unsure about drought assistance

This week the Federal Government is finally rolling out an additional $280 million in drought support, promised back in February.

However graziers in the north-west aren’t that excited by the announcement.

They say the money sounds good in theory, but the reality is that most people have been unable to get much drought assistance.

Mike Macnamara is on Mount Guide station, just south of Mount Isa.

He’s now halfway through a third consecutive year of drought, but on a brighter note, he says conditions are starting to pick up on his place.

“It’s been a lot better than the last two years, bit of water, bit of grass, what cattle we’ve got left look good.

“I think we measured six inches of rain, it’s six inches more than last year… average rainfall’s about 16 inches of rain… previous two years we got probably four inches in two years.

“This time last year our dam was dry and no feed, so we got water in our dams and things aren’t too bad.”

Mr Macnamara says they haven’t applied for any drought relief, other than water infrastructure funding.

“It’s just too hard, it’s too time consuming, there’s too much to it, the benefits are minimal.

“The water infrastructure, we’ve applied for a bit of that and we’ve got some of that, but other than that no, no other water or freight fodder relief.”

For the last two years Mr Macnamara has been working in the mines.

He says he does 12 hours a day in town and about four hours each night at the property, looking after his day to day jobs.

“The drought’s part of it but our industry’s in big trouble, the costs increase year on year, our returns haven’t increased for 20 years, we can’t make money out of industry anymore.”

Do residents in the north-west believe in climate change?

Chief executive of Southern Gulf Catchments Bob Wilson.PHOTO: Southern Gulf Catchments chief executive Bob Wilson says the group is surveying north-west Queenslanders to see if rural communities truly believe in things like ‘global warming’.

Last year was Mount Isa’s driest year on record. Just 93 milimetres fell in the bureau’s rain gauge.

A year like that has some people wondering whether this is a climate cycle, or whether the climate is actually changing.

Natural resource management group, Southern Gulf Catchments, wants to find out if rural communities truly believe in things like ‘global warming’ and is surveying north-west Queenslanders about just that.

Chief executive of Southern Gulf Catchments, Bob Wilson, says the response so far has been very mixed.

“We’re looking at responses such as ‘the dry season seems to be getting longer and more extreme’, ‘the wet season may be arriving a little later’, ‘temperature’s generally on the rise and extreme weather events becoming a bit more severe’.

“We’re tasked with a project to upgrade the natural resource management plan for north-west Queensland and part of that is to look at climate variability, so that our plan is ready for any changes that might be related to so called climate change.

“It has been a little bit mixed over the last season, but defiantly the responses show that it is drier than normal.

“This maybe a seasonal thing, it may not, what we look at is just getting community to tell us what their feelings are about it.

“Generally speaking there is increased pressure on pastoralists and communities with lower rainfall and the effects of perhaps variability to the climate.”

To complete that survey visit southerngulf.com.au It’s open for the next month and you must be a resident of the north-west to take part.

Courtesy of QLD Country Hour

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