The forgotten food basket of the west: WA Farmers

By: Trevor Whittington, CEO WAFarmers

Presented by

OPINION: Plans to expand irrigated agricultural land around the Ord river have stalled since the ‘70s, leaving Western Australia lagging behind when it comes to producing fodder.

Lake Argyle, created by the building of the Ord River Dam

In 1972, the Ord River Dam was completed in the far north of Western Australia, capturing 2,500 gigalitres of water. This was 11 times the size of Sydney Harbour and, with it, came 15,000 hectares of land for agricultural development.

In the same year, Sudan opened up the first of the upper reaches of the Nile River for foreign investment, while Brazil opened up the vast central Cerrado region, along the southern tributaries of the Amazon.

In all three jurisdictions not much happened between 1970 and 2000 due to government ineptitude, a lack of infrastructure, crop failures and supply chain issues but, after 2000, the race was on to expand and utilise their respective massive water resources.

In the last 20 years, in an attempt to open up Stage II of the Ord, Western Australia has spent over half a billion dollars in taxpayer funds, along with vast amounts of bureaucratic time, to release another 13,500 hectares of land.

In that same time, Sudan released 750,000 hectares of large-scale irrigation leases to investors from Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Syria, Jordan and Turkey. In addition, it is looking to release another 3.4 million hectares for irrigated agricultural production.

Brazil, in the same time period, opened up 3.5 million hectares for fodder under irrigation and is well into the planning stage to release another 22 million hectares.

All the while, Western Australia, with its massive standing start, staggers along on its 50-year process of assessing the 5.4 million hectares of the  

Fitzroy catchment deemed suitable for irrigated agriculture, with only trial blocks released to date.

As Sudan and Brazil race to utilise their water assets and develop intensive livestock industries, Australia is flat-out finding reasons not to.

The frustrating thing is the potential to  

produce vast amounts of fodder through broadacre irrigation in the Kimberley was first recognised by the Duracks in the 1940s on the Ord and then by the famous Texan Jack Fletcher in the 1970s on the Fitzroy.

Trevor Whittington – CEO WAFarmers
Trevor Whittington – CEO WAFarmers

Fletcher had plans to develop a million-acre fodder industry across the seven stations owned by his Australian Land and Cattle Company but bureaucratic delays and a one-in-100-year flood washed away the 25,000 hectare stage I of the project, along with kilometres of levy banks, and, with it, probably the last chance of turning the  Fitzroy into a fodder food basket.

More recent attempts by the Harris family of GoGo station to get approval for a 50 gigalitre license for its planned 8,355 hectares of freehold irrigated cropland has run into endless hurdles, while mining magnate Gina Rinehart’s offer to exchange part of her Kimberley pastoral empire for a 325 gigalitre water license and a billion-dollar development fell on deaf ears.

Despite the strong demand from Kimberley’s 93 pastoral stations for fodder to supplementary feed their 650,000 cattle, the government in its wisdom has, after decades of inaction, ruled out any dams on not just the river but any tributaries.

The government continues to claim that it is committed to working with anyone who has the patience to wait for a final decision, which will be an allocation of between zero and 600 gigalitres of water. A coalition of Indigenous and green groups are, however, calling for it to be zero.  

It’s little wonder that all eyes are turning to countries like Sudan and Brazil as the fodder  baskets of the future.  

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