Article – Family farms could help northern irrigation expand

7 February 2014
Virginia Tapp
ABC Rural

A 500-hectare rice trial on a station west of Richmond, part of the push to grow food in Northern Australia. PHOTO: James Hunt

A report released by the CSIRO has recommended the family farm drive irrigation development in Northern Australia.
It found the potential cropping area in North Queensland is three times the size of the Ord River Scheme in Western Australia, and points out more water can be drawn from major northern rivers than the Queensland Government currently allows.
The CSIRO uses the report to warn against massive scale developments, saying the northern environment is more suited to a series of small to medium-size farms.
North Queensland grazier Brendan McNamara says the study supports the mosaic style of farming development.
“We’ve been pushing for the small mosaics along the river and this report certainly seems to support that view, so I think the fact that it’s CSIRO that’s done it, which is an independent, well respected organisation. It certainly puts some good science behind being able to allocate more water out of the Flinders River.”
The push to start irrigation in the north and north-west Queensland has intensified in recent years, with the release of 95,000 megalitres from the Flinders and Gilbert Rivers.
This allocation ended a 12-year moratorium on water released from the rivers instated by the Bligh Labor government.
Dr Peter Stone, the lead researcher on the Flinders and Gilbert Agricultural Resource Assessment, says science indicates serious potential for irrigated cropping in North Queensland.
“(There’s) the possibility of 10,000 to 20,000 hectares of irrigated agriculture in the Flinders Catchment and we saw the opportunity for 20,000 to 30,000 hectares of irrigated agriculture in the Gilbert Catchment.”
The report recommends up to 28 per cent of the average annual flow of the Flinders River and up to 25 per cent of the Gilbert River’s average annual flow could be used to irrigate crops.
While it’s good news for smaller family operators, it casts doubt over plans to build a 325,000 hectare mega-farm.
The company behind the project, Integrated Energy and Food Development (IFED), plans to include 64,000 hectares of crops, requiring two million megalitres of stored water.
The approval process for the farm is now in the hands of the Co-ordinator General, but the Wilderness Society’s Karen Touchie says the project shouldn’t even be up for consideration.
“That proposal has to be taken off the table now. It’s quite clear the CSIRO has said there is a maximum of 20,000 to 30,000 hectares of land on the Gilbert river system. IFED wants 65,000 hectares.
“CSIRO has said that there is a maximum storage capacity of 752,000 megalitres of water, IFED wants two million megalitres of water.”
IFED was unavailable for comment.
Farmers along the Gilbert River hope the report will lead to more water allocations.
Ken Fry currently irrigates hay crops for use as cattle feed on his property on the Gilbert River.
He says the report is encouraging for farmers in the north.
“It’s going to be a big thing for this area, I think. The Gilbert’s got beautiful soil, beautiful climate, so it’s just going to revolutionise this area.”
The Wilderness Society has also expressed concerns over the potential effects irrigation can have on the rivers ecosystem, but Dr Stone says these impacts are manageable.
“Upstream there’s the possibility of increased blue green algal blooms, particularly in dams, and downstream agricultural developments can lead to impacts on the river system’s water quality through the introduction of sediments, nutrients and possibly chemicals.
“[but] There are actually management techniques for managing them and seeking to reduce them so that the impacts are minimised.”
Ultimately, the CSIRO says the report is designed to direct future agricultural development in north Australia.
Dr Stone hopes it will inform government decisions.
“What reports like this do is actually provide government, industry, prospective industry and the community with the information they need to go in with their eyes open and to work out what’s possible, what it might cost, who pays and who benefits.”
The report took two years to complete, and cost $6.8 million dollars. It’s available at
Courtesy of ABC Rural