Opinion – Ord Valley farmer Robert Boshammer's wish list for developing northern Australian agriculture

4 November 2014
Robert Boshammer
ABC Rural
I think the five major challenge to successful farming in northern Australia are:

  1. Clear land tenure
  2. Water security
  3. Clarity of governance processes
  4. Supportive infrastructure
  5. Background knowledge

The major challenge not mentioned here is having committed people, but as people are excited with the opportunities, these people will be in place if the other issues are addressed.
1. Land tenure
Security and clarity of tenure is vital if irrigation farming is to occur. Pastoral land value, at best, is less than $50 per hectare.
Irrigation development will cost $10,000 per hectare.

If a developer knows he can sell the developed property he is more likely to commit to the project.
If the development has to be written-off over a short time period, with no value at the end, it will be very difficult to justify a development economically.
If freehold is not available, a minimum requirement would be a 50-year-lease.
Generally, pastoralists haven’t the required skill-set to undertake a successful agricultural development, and such developments historically are difficult to make work.
The best chance is when the developer has skin in the game.
Also, few people have the financial resources to completely fund a development and the early operating capital.
Without clear title, lending institutions won’t lend the finance, so developments will be restricted to wealthy individuals and companies.
Both of these have a poor historical record in developments.
We have already seen how title issues associated with Native Title have made it very difficult to get projects, not funded by the government, going on Aboriginal-owned land.
I would suggest a five-year development lease with a 20-plus-20 agricultural lease if freehold isn’t a possibility.
2. Water security
Water is an asset of the people and as such should be available on a use it, or lose it basis.
Water banking can thus be controlled.
Landholders should be entitled to harvest 50 per cent of the rainfall on their property – this could be assumed to be 25 per cent of total rainfall unless verified.
This could be all of the runoff in a localised gully system, ten per cent of the flow in a creek system, and one per cent of the flow in a river system.
This type of ruling would give some certainty of water supply on which to base development planning.
If a statutory charge of $1 per megalitre per year for a surface water entitlement, and $5 per megalitre per year for ground water entitlement, was levied from the time of acceptance of a development plan being accepted, this levy could be used to increase the knowledge of the water resource.
Money spent on measurement and monitoring the resource by the developer could be offset against the levy.
There should be no trading of water licence if the development plan has not been completed and the water hasn’t been used for the past five years.
3. Clarity of governance processes
At present there are so many government departments and other entities involved in getting the required permits to undertake a development, that many people give up on the process.
We should encourage people to have a go, not destroy their plans.
There should be set time periods for the different entities to make a ruling, and they should be required to make such rulings independent of other entities.
For example, one department should be required to make a decision, not say they have to wait for another department’s ruling.
4. Supportive infrastructure
There is a lot of good infrastructure (roads, rail, towns, ports etc) in the north.
A lot is under utilised, and more is required to make many industries competitive.
Most multi-user infrastructure is put in by government, at taxpayers’ expense.
This infrastructure is great, but we all know that the easiest money to spend is other people’s.
We need to encourage business to also put in multi-user facilities, like the many toll-roads around Australia.
In many cases there is government assistance to build such roads, and we should investigate if similar funding models can be used to promote infrastructure development in the north.
Perhaps giving 150 per cent tax deductibility for multi-user facilities could work to encourage fit-for-purpose facilities in the regions.
5. Background knowledge
There has been a lot of research done in north Australia, but much of it is difficult to find.
Development of a web-based knowledge bank, a bit like a localised Wikipedia, would be very useful to prevent knowledge being lost and research effort wasted.
As is often seen, people enjoy publishing their work, and social media is the way to allow this to happen.
Information that would be useful includes soil surveys, water flows, bore flow quality and depth, environmental data, agronomist and grazing trials.
Validation of social data is always an issue, but probably not a lot more so than validation of dated trial work – but it all adds up to a better understanding of the system.
There is also a lot of information in CSIRO and other archives that at present is difficult to access, that could be added to the site.
Some work in all of these areas could inspire people in the region or with an interest in the region to contribute to its future, particularly if they believe their work is valued and will contribute to making a difference.
There is something about the north that inspires us, and there are many people out there with various skills and knowledge of a similar ilk.
People are the key to making the area develop to the advantage of all of the people here and elsewhere, and anything we can do to keep people inspired is beneficial.
Robert Boshammer is an Ord Valley farmer and a guest speaker at this year’s Northern Australia Food Futures conference being held in Darwin. ABC Rural is a support partner.
The 'white paper' wish list for northern Australian agriculture
Courtesy of ABC Rural