28 July 2014
It’s a pretty radical idea, given the landscape’s harshness, but the director general of WA’s Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) believes dairy production is possible for the Pilbara.
Rob Delane can also envision a future in which the region’s mining camps house seasonal workers.
“It’s quite possible we could have cotton production here, or horticulture with mining camps turned into major backpacker camps for seasonal picking.
“My favourite is that it’s possible we could have red and black dairy cows here.
“That sounds pretty unusual in a very hot place, but I’ve been to a 50,000-head dairy farm in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert.
“There are even bigger dairy farms there than that, and whilst I think it’s unlikely, technically it’s possible that we could have dairy farms in the Pilbara.”
DAFWA is currently conducting trials using excess water from Pilbara mine sites to grow crops like sorghum, for biofuel and cattle feed.
It’s part of the Pilbara Hinterland Agricultural Development Initiative (PHADI), which is investigating the feasibility and economic viability of large-scale irrigated horticulture in the region.
Current estimates indicate there is potentially 200 gigalitres of water available for irrigation, which is enough to fill Perth’s Subiaco football stadium to the brim 200 times.
“It’s enough for 30,000 hectares or more. That’s a pretty big irrigation project by the standards of Western Australia.”
And while Mr Delane concedes that agriculture is unlikely to ever rival the scale of mining in the Pilbara, he believes it’s important to focus on developing more market demand.
“What we haven’t got in place yet is the very strong supply chain pull and that’s the area that I’m personally focussing on.
“We’re dealing with major markets in Asia which can take off very quickly. We’ve seen that with iron ore and with energy.
“With an exponential growth curve, it can seem very flat for a long time and then all of a sudden it grows very rapidly.”
Mr Delane cites Asia and the Middle East as two key regions looking for investment opportunities around a reliable source of fresh produce.
“They’re looking for projects for premium, clean, safe produce and that’s something Western Australia and the Pilbara can produce.
“With the right combination of technology, markets and supply chain logistics, it’s technically possible to grow large quantities of premium-priced produce here and for that not to be too many years away.”
Miners cautious about collaboration
While diversification might be the buzz word on everyone’s lips, the mining industry says it’s here to stay.
The Chamber of Minerals and Energy’s William ‘Chubb’ Witham says while Pilbara members are keen to help the region thrive in the future, they also don’t want to be overlooked.
“We welcome those different incentives for agriculture and tourism. Diversification is important for the Pilbara, but sometimes some of the resources companies do feel that they’re forgotten.
“We are actually providing a lot of the employment in the ‘here and now’. There’s a lot of value you can see today.”
Some miners in the region are already involved in the PHADI project.
Mr Witham says they are helping to collate water data, and some are also involved in stand-alone ventures like Rio Tinto’s Hamersley Agricultural Project.
“There are a couple of trials and we welcome those, but mining companies really do want to control their operations.
“In terms of the mines with their dewatering, a lot of it is reinjected into aquifers and it gets complicated.”
With many Pilbara iron ore mines increasing production, though, it’s likely more water could be available in the future.
“If we can find something that’s a win-win for both mining and agriculture, I think that’d be fantastic.
“The mining industry is here for the long term and is very much interested in investing in, and seeing, sustainable communities in the Pilbara.”
Pilbara beef production: caught in the middle
The Pilbara currently produces beef for both the local and live export markets.
But similar to their peers in Alice Springs and Central Queensland, producers have long distances to consider, between trucking their stock to southern abattoirs or to northern ports, for live export.
Construction of a Broome abattoir at Yeeda Station has been much touted, but is still a way off.
In the meantime, with regional port space at a premium, due to the resources sector, opportunities for live exports from Pilbara ports are almost non-existent.
Despite the current conditions, DAFWA director general Rob Delane believes the opportunity is there to increase future production.
“Certainly we can have much more intensive beef production, which means we could potentially have an abattoir or we could have substantial live shipping chains out of the Pilbara.”
To achieve that vision, Mr Delane says a lot of parallel work needs to be done by public and private stakeholders on current supply chains.
“Shipping containers of chilled or frozen beef back to Fremantle for export might in fact be the smartest way to do it.
“Alternatively, it might need something like a small shipping line to develop out of these smaller northern ports which can go into Asia because of rapidly increasing demand.”
Courtesy of ABC Rural