Article – Northern farmers urged to start small if they want to develop strong industries

5 November 2014
Lucy Barbour
ABC Rural
Farmers in northern Australia are being urged to avoid expanding new industries and businesses too quickly, in order to better develop the region.
The 2014 Food Futures conference in Darwin has brought together farmers, politicians and researchers from the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia to consider how to improve agricultural output and tap into emerging Asian markets.
Director of the Research Institute of Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University, Professor Andrew Campbell, says small-scale projects are often the most successful because the people involved have local knowledge of crops and climate.
Up here you’ve got massive variability within the year,” he said.
“There’s guaranteed drought and floods, so it’s a really tough gig doing agriculture on any scale.
“There’s a critical message today that you do need enough capital to be able to survive a crook year or two, but the idea of a big mega-project, the cavalry coming over the hill that’s going to save the whole economy, I think that’s what’s in question here and I agree with those that are questioning that model,” he said.
Chief executive of the Northern Territory Farmers Association, Grant Fenton, agrees and points to the success of Vietnamese mango growers versus some larger companies who’ve tried to set up large-scale companies in the Top End and failed.
“The Vietnamese growers came here 40 years ago with no support from government and hardly any language and with some funding out of the markets were able to establish small plots of ground and grow over time,” he explained.
“And while one or two farmers might fail and fall away, there’d be another to replace them.
“So those small growers have developed into such a position now that they represent around $30 billion worth of Asian vegetables and about $30-40 million worth of mango production. So that’s what we would say is starting small and growing big.”
The chief executive of the Peanut Company of Australia, John Howard, knows first hand why investing too quickly in large-scale farms in the north can be problematic.
In 2007, his company invested millions of dollars to establish a commercial peanut crop just outside Katherine, in the Northern Territory. But plans for large-scale production were abandoned and the property was sold two years ago.
“We went too big and hence the business issues that we had with it,” he said.
But he says the company has learnt valuable lessons about the importance of research and development.
“What we have shown is that there is a way to grow peanuts and we think they do work up here. One of the beauties with peanuts in that ‘start small and grow’ is you don’t need large amounts of off-farm capability to be able to grow them,” he said.

Northern Food Futures conferencePHOTO: Northern Food Futures conference, Northern Territory, 2014

David Menzal grows melons, pumpkins and legumes at Kununurra, in far north Western Australia, but it’s taken years of hard work and learning.
He says he had no choice but to start small.
“We started in the Ord moving from Victoria and knowing nothing about growing in the north,” he said.
“We worked for a farm for a couple of years, gained some experience and then got the opportunity to start in a very small scale with our partners. And yeah, it’s a lot cheaper to learn on other people’s money than it is on your own.
“So to get that slow affordable start so that a small estate doesn’t bankrupt you, yeah, (it’s important).”
Andrew Campbell, Director of the Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University
Courtesy of ABC Rural