Article – Tapping the Kimberley's true agriculture potential

28 July 2014
Olivia Garnett
ABC Rural
Western Australia’s Kimberley region is on track to becoming a major player in the beef export supply to Asia, with an irrigation vision that’s expected to attract billions of dollars of investment.
The State Government has announced more than $15 million for some stations as part of the Water for Food project, funded through Royalties for Regions.
The first stage of the Water for Food West Kimberley program involves four projects – $3.6 million for stand-and-graze irrigation trials at Mowanjum Station, near Derby; $2.78m for water investigation on Knowsley Agriculture Area in Derby; $6.1m for a Fitzroy Valley groundwater investigation project and $2.9m for a pastoral land tenure project.
WA Water Minister Mia Davies says there are about one trillion litres of fresh groundwater that can be used to grow cash crops in the Kimberley and Pilbara.
“What we know is that there’s 50,000 hectares under irrigated agriculture in WA at the moment. Science from the Department of Agriculture tells us that we could have up to 10,000,000 hectares.
“Now that’s a big number and if we got even a small proportion of that underway through this investigation project we’d be doing well.
“We have huge potential and that’s what this is about.”
Pockets of the Kimberley receive as much rain during the wet season as parts of the south west land division gets annually, but fattening cattle during the dry season for the live export market has always been a challenge for northern pastoralists.
“During the wet season, there’s more fodder than we can utilise, but it doesn’t get the cattle through to market so we can leverage off the (wet season) rainfall and finish the cattle reliably on a centre pivot irrigation. So we have a consistent supply to our market,” said water and agriculture consultant Richard Nixon.
“It’s effectively drought-proofing the industry,”
It’s an exciting time for agriculture in the state’s north, with huge demand for Australian food in Asian export markets and plenty of investor interest.
The key now is scale.
But very little can happen until the issue of land tenure is addressed, as most pastoralists are limited to traditional cattle crazing under their current leases.
Pastoralists say they need to be unshackled from their lease agreements before they can diversify into high value crops like hay and sorghum.
Minister for Regional Development and Lands, Terry Redman, says pastoral leaseholders will get priority access to secure forms of land tenure.
He’s considering legislative changes to give leaseholders what’s called ‘first right of refusal’.
“Just about every shift in tender triggers native title. That means you need to settle up the arrangements with the native title proponents to get past that point.
“Part of the Water for Food tenure reform process is about getting a more streamlined approach to that.”
The Mowanjum Indigenous pastoral lease, on the doorstep of Derby, is taking centre stage of the Water for Food project.
With the help of a centre pivot irrigation system to tap into precious groundwater resources, they’ll soon be able to grow protein-rich fodder for beef finishing.
Given its proximity to the Broome port, it is hoped Mowanjum will be transformed from a small property that produces a few cattle to a major player in beef cattle exports.
Eddie Bear, chair of the Mowanjum Aboriginal Corporation, says in just two years the cattle herd has jumped from zero to about 1,800 head.
With access to cattle feed in the dry season, he expects to grow that to more than 10,000.
“To have this project now is great. It’ll bring about more opportunities for the Mowanjum community,” Mr Bear said.
“I think Aboriginal people need to be part of that project too.”
Peter Camp, from the Kimberley Cattlemen’s Association, has thrown his support behind the Water for Food project.
“It’s certainly a big boost to the area.
“This will be a very good role model for the rest of the industry. Confidence like this can only attract other people to invest and outside investors.”
Cattle producer Kirsty Forshaw, from Nita Downs Station, south of Broome, is in the process of native title negotiations and pastoral lease adjustments to give other crops a go.
“We’ll be ready to start growing something soon. We’re looking at a couple of different options.
“I think any interest for development of irrigation is fantastic for the industry.”
Courtesy of ABC Rural