25 September 2014
As plans to develop northern Australia gain momentum, cotton is once again being investigated as a new crop industry for the Northern Territory.
Interest in Top End cotton farming dates back to the 1960s, but pest issues, community opposition and a lack of infrastructure, have so far prevented the industry’s establishment.
The crop was banned by the NT Government during 2003, in response to community concerns over water use, pesticide run-off and genetically modified crops.
With the ban no longer in place, the industry is once again turning its attention to the north.
Cotton Australia CEO, Adam Kay, says while there are still many challenges to overcome, cotton is a viable prospect for the Top End.
“It certainly is, there’s a lot of interest in cotton,” he said.
“The modern cotton industry is very different to what it was 20 years ago.
“There’s been major advances, and the modern industry now uses 95 per cent less pesticides than it did in those days.
“We’ve improved water-use efficiency by 40 per cent in the last decade, and it’s on the back of those things that people are revisiting the crop and having a look at its potential in the north.”
Mr Kay says attracting investment for cotton processing infrastructure remains the greatest barrier to development.
“We’ve had research and development conducted over the last two decades, there’s been work at Katherine and Kununurra, and in northern Queensland at Richmond,” he said.
“That’s shown us that cotton has a lot of potential.
“But at the end of the day you need the investments in key pieces of infrastructure, especially cotton gins, to be able to move the industry ahead.
“You’d be expecting that a cotton gin would require something like 70,000 bales to be viable, for a company to make the investment of the $20 million in a gin.
“With yields of around 10 bales per hectare, we’d probably need 7,000 hectares to be able to produce that sort of level.”
Industry vision backed by research
CSIRO research agronomist Dr Stephen Yeates has grown trial cotton crops at a number of sites across northern Australia, including near Katherine during 2004.
He agrees cotton could be a viable option for the Top End.
“Yes it can be. We had to do a fair bit of work a while ago to assess its potential, but yes, it’s one of the better options that I’ve evaluated in my time up north,” he said.
“Cotton is adapted to the climate for starters, secondly there are markets not far away. The lint grows out of the seed, and the seed is very good stock feed, and that’s a by-product of growing cotton, so there’s a spin-off to the beef industry of having seed as well.
“And the other thing with cotton is there’s significant markets, so you can grow a significant enough area that you can get that critical mass.
“One of the issues we’ve always had in the north is the cost of isolation, if you get a critical mass of other growers, you can reduce some of those input costs.”
Dr Yeates says while cotton is not difficult to grow in tropical climates, the crop does require a different management approach in the north.
“You can’t assume you’ll grow the crop the way they do in southern Australia, because of the difference in climate and pests, things like that,” he said.
“We had some pests of cotton that we wanted to avoid, and we wanted to set-up strategies where you had the crop at its attractive stage to pests at a time of year when they weren’t around, which was the dry season.
“That way, we were able to massively reduce reliance on any insecticides.
“My own experience was that once you’ve done the research and development, it’s not particularly difficult to grow.
“It’s not that different to growing something like peanuts, in terms of the intensity of management, probably less than something like rockmelons and a little bit more than sorghum or corn.”
ABC Rural is an official partner of the Northern Australia Food Futures Conference to be held in Darwin 3rd – 5th November, 2014. More information here