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The king of the north

Although it accounts for 53 per cent of Australia’s landmass and just below 14 per cent of national agricultural production, northern Australia and its contribution to fulfilling the nation’s demand for quality food are often overlooked. 

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This is well understood by the region’s producers and industry leaders who are united in their view of the need to create an environment which encourages investment and diverse growth in agriculture.  

"Less than 1 per cent of our land mass is producing $A250 million dollars of produce; we should be tripling that - even 20, 30 times that.” - Vowles

At the Northern Australia Food Futures Conference in Darwin in July leaders agreed the region’s agricultural industry had enormous growth potential. The assessment is backed by a CSIRO suggestion there could be an additional 1.5 million hectares of soil in the region with the potential to support irrigated crops.

While the region is well known for supplying quality cattle and horticulture - specifically mangoes and melons – opportunities to introduce new crops such as table grapes, passionfruit, cotton, hemp and grains are emerging aided by a series of research and development programs.

“I’m a great supporter of diversification because I think it’s the way forward in the Northern Territory,” Northern Territory’s Minister for Primary Industry and Resources Ken Vowles said.

“Less than 1 per cent of our land mass is producing $A250 million dollars of produce; we should be tripling that, even 20, 30 times that.”

Investment

Critical to the diversification and uplift in productivity will be ongoing investment. Failure to attract additional capital could mean a significant lost opportunity for northern Australian agriculture.

Numerous funding models and structures are available for farming operations, including foreign direct investment. According to the Foreign Investment Review Board’s annual report for 2015-16, investment in Australia’s agricultural land has reached $A4.6 billion.

“With a population of only 24 million, we have a limited savings pool and by necessity, much of the investment will come from foreign sources,” Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Joel Fitzgibbon said during closing comments in Darwin.

“Our language, attitude, and rules must be clear, concise and consistent; our potential investors are watching and listening.”

At the same time there are other northern agribusinesses which have attracted investment closer to home. In May 2018 Humpty Doo Barramundi became the first Northern Territory business to receive a loan from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF). 

In addition to the $A7.18 million NAIF loan the company also secured commercial funding, with the combined loans enabling the farm to fund the first of a three-stage expansion program.

The program includes building a new solar farm and a specialised barramundi nursery which will move Humpty Doo Barramundi towards achieving its goal to take production from 3,000 tonnes to 10,000 tonnes per year.

“Investment in new technologies to improve the sustainability and efficiency of farms will lead to more jobs and development of specialised technical skills,” Humpty Doo Barramundi CEO Nick Preston said.

Persistence pays

NAFF attendees toured multiple farming operations around Darwin and while the opportunities were made clear so too were the challenges including climate, biosecurity, land management, freight costs, labour availability and barriers to trade.

West Australian Corn Growers established a corn and bean farm near Broome around a decade ago and stress the need for trial and error and a whole lot of patience. 

“People always love to come to the Broome farm with me and they get out there and think it’s beautiful,” West Australian Corn Growers Managing Director Jim Trandos said.

“To me, I’ve never looked at it like that; I have no romantic connection with that land at all. All I ever see is risk. You’ve got to switch varieties, you’ve got to watch for bugs, you’ve got to reduce production because you’re never going to eliminate the heat. And it took us 10 years to work that out.”

“The north is tough and it’s not for the faint hearted.”

Technology

Using technology to improve farm productivity and mitigate risk was also top of mind for attendees.

Sydney University - with the support of Horticulture Innovation Australia - are working on a range of automation projects including the use of hyperspectral, infrared and vision and laser sensors on robots to analyse tree crops and use the data to detect individual fruits in real time.

This helps to estimate yield per tree which when used daily can produce a series of growth patterns and influence future planting decisions.  

For some growers however traditional farming methods remain integral - which is why Arnhem Mangoes owner Barry Albrecht can often be found on his quadbike at 3 am using its high-beams to detect insect infestations among 11,000 mango trees.    

This is emblematic of agribusiness in the top end: committed people working hard to keep things going and making the most of what this unique part of Australia has to offer.

Bernadette Shaw is Regional Executive Business Banking, NT at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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