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Breakthrough for mallees

THE development of a specialised harvester has been hailed as a crucial breakthrough in creating a commercially viable oil mallee industry.

Future Farm Industries CRC has appointed independent consultants Biosystems Engineering to design and manufacture a prototype harvester, using $1.5 million in funding from the state government's Low Emission Energy Development fund.

Farmers in Western Australia have planted more than 14,000 hectares of oil mallees, and the sector has attracted investor interest, with CO2 Group last year acquiring the Oil Mallee Company.

Oil Mallee Association managing director Simon Dawkins said the harvester was one more step in mallee becoming a commercially viable crop.

"It's always been seen as a necessary step," Mr Dawkins said.

"It is an important step in the viability of the industry, there's no question, but it's not rocket science, it's just a careful application of knowledge built up over a number years.

"We have always been confident that a harvester is possible, it just hasn't happened until now and we look forward to having a working, efficient, fast and cost effective harvester."

FFI CRC chief executive Kevin Goss said the harvester development was a major boost for the industry.

"FFI CRC will make mallees more profitable for farmers, with the world's most efficient biomass harvester becoming commercially available from as early as 2011," Mr Goss said.

Mr Dawkins said the new harvester would allow farmers to plan for a sustainable future.

"Alongside the availability of a harvester is the need to have a market, and a confirmed market," Mr Dawkins said.

"I would be more confident about planting mallees now that this is on track. I would hope that people are investing in mallees, they should continue planting and add to their existing plantations.

"Depending on the price of carbon, the renewable energy credit system and the efficiency of the harvester, we believe it could become quite profitable and very beneficial to have a crop that is not so subject to fluctuations in rainfall."

Farmers in the wheatbelt region have been planting mallee trees on their properties since the early 1990s to lower the watertable and reduce salinty.

"In terms of sustainability they are a fantastic feed stock for electricity generation and other processing plants," Mr Dawkins said.

In 2005, Verve Energy proved mallee biomass could generate electricity, carbon and eucalyptus oil.

But, its pilot processing plant in Narrogin has not gone into commercial production.

Due to the odd shape and size of the mallee, farmers have not been able to cost effectively harvest the trees.

"This technology that was needed to deal with the particular characteristics of a mallee is on track, and perhaps in a year or so [farmers] would be able to confidently know that a harvester or a number of harvesters will be at work in the wheatbelt," Mr Dawkins said.

The potential new cash crop is expected to assist farmers who have been struggling with the effects of diminished production resulting from lower rainfall in the region.

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