Article – Food to Asia: farmers on the Federal 'white paper' vision for northern agriculture

18 August 2014
ABC Rural
The term ‘Asia’s food bowl’ has become a cliche when discussing farming in northern Australia.
Its use makes many of those living in tropical parts of the country frown or shake their head.
Whether they be an outspoken environmentalist or a progressive farmer, few long-term residents of the Kimberley, Top End or North Queensland believe the region will be anyone’s food bowl, let alone Asia’s.
The Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce agrees. In fact, he describes the food bowl description as ‘ridiculous’ and says it is perceived as a threat by Asian farmers.
Mr Joyce and other agriculture industry leaders recognise that chasing the premium dollar with unique, high-quality produce is a far more valuable and realistic approach.
Thousands of hectares of land were cleared for broadacre farming across the north from the 1960s to the 1980s, but it no longer appears that large-scale agriculture is being pursued there.
Farmers beginning from a smaller base, with a lower economy of scale, have performed far better than the larger operations.
A Coalition pre-election commitment to a 2030 vision for developing northern Australia is the backdrop for the debate about the future of primary production in northern Australia.
A Green Paper and the submissions, comments and ideas it attracted will be used to formulate a White Paper due for release by the end of the year.
While the policy is debated, farmers in the Top End, in the Kimberley and in north Queensland look for ways to grow their business with alternative crops, new markets and the need to cut production costs.
Trial, error and success on northern Australian farms
Disease, weather, market price and the cost of production will determine whether an agricultural venture survives in northern Australia.
Typically, the closer developments are to solid infrastructure, the greater the chance of long term success.
Finding a niche market for a unique product means taking risks. For sugar producer Gerard Puglisi, diversifying into cocoa and chocolate production was worth it.
“If you’ve got a patch of dirt that’s not making as much money as it could, you’ve got to look at alternatives… if worst comes to worst, I can always drown my sorrows in chocolate,” he said.
But success does not always follow investment in something new.
The once-thriving and very remote table grape industry north of Alice Springs is in decline despite plenty of artesian water and sunshine.
Power and road transport costs have eaten away at profits and multiple farm properties are now up for sale.
Former government horticultural research officer Geoff Kenna says there is potential.
“But until we can have some competitive advantage again and select the crops that have that competitive advantage, it’s going to be a struggle to make money in remote areas out of horticulture,” he said.
Melon production has tripled in value in the Northern Territory in five years.
While the allure of the north is strong for many melon farmers, Dianne Fullelove, from the Australian Melons Association, says it’s not for everyone.
“It is a challenging environment. The plants grow well, but good growth also brings its own issues with disease and pests.

“We love melons that grow very fast, but so do insects and the diseases they carry with them.”

Research and innovation: the next crop alternative
Farmers wanting to grow rice, dates, figs, bush plums, or any other crop with ‘potential’, generally seek assistance with research and development.
Research funding has come and gone over the many decades, and so too have the various ventures into niche food crops.
Chia, melons, mangoes and beef are all in favour currently, but what types of future developments occur will depend on the Federal Government’s White Paper and the policy direction it takes.
Courtesy of ABC Rural