Several major agricultural irrigation projects are moving forward in the state’s north, with Pardoo Beef Corporation and Argyle Cattle Company among the proponents.
Singaporean billionaire Bruce Cheung is as motivated to see a dramatic expansion of agribusiness in the Pilbara as he is ambitious.
His Pardoo Beef Corporation, which was purchased in 2015, runs 11,000 head of cattle on a station in the Pilbara, with most headed for China or South Korea.
Mr Cheung plans to eventually have a herd in the north nearly 10 times that size to sustain feedlotting and processing operations in the region, which will underpin a Pilbara Beef brand to rival that of the famous Japanese Wagyu.
“It’s not about Pardoo, I’m not a young man,” Mr Cheung told Business News.
“I want to provide it so that the region has an option for change.
“Why can’t we (producers in the region) be named in this world as Pilbara Beef?”
Part of the decade-plus plan is to irrigate a portion of Pardoo’s pastoral lease using pivot sprinklers, which produce lush green circles across what is otherwise a dry, red landscape.
About 690 hectares is currently irrigated, with approvals under way for a further 330ha.
By 2031, Mr Cheung hopes to be irrigating 6,000ha, and is trialling growing grain crops such as maize as a potential food source.
Pardoo is also undertaking a major effort to lift animal quality, with data usage key to maintaining control of traceability and genetics in an Asian market increasingly interested in provenance.
Those animals earn a higher value than those that are identical but less traceable, ultimately giving local producers, who are currently price takers, a level of market power.
“You always need options,” Mr Cheung said.
“We want to create, through crossbreeding, a better eating animal, we want to feed them … to come up to a price competitive yet higher quality (standard), traceable to a region.”
To achieve all of this, Mr Cheung will be injecting tens of millions into Pardoo for the next few years.
“I envisage myself to continue to invest, probably until 2022 (breakeven), and that’s a long way for most projects,” he said.
Nonetheless, there are impediments.
“The government is very good, they’re encouraging, but historically there were a lot of steps that everybody had to take, rightfully, to safeguard the area,” Mr Cheung said.
“But if you want to move projects over a reasonable period of time, let’s say our lifetime, you need some momentum.
“We need to help those that have the ambition of investing in the north to have at least one-stop shops (for approvals).
“We need to somehow package it better, make it easier, make it more inviting and enticing.”
Taxation arrangements were also restrictive, he said.
“In the agricultural space … corporate tax rates are not low on a global scale,” Mr Cheung said.
“It’s especially important because agriculture is not a high profit, not a super-profitable venture.
“Most agricultural projects earn single-digit returns.
“So if you have to rely on the return to fund, your growth, it becomes extremely difficult if you start taking away a portion of it.”
Meanwhile, Argyle Cattle Company’s plan to irrigate 650ha of pastoral land at Shamrock Station for feeding cattle was approved by the Environmental Protection Authority last week.
It is the second such project to get the tick this year, with Kimberley Agricultural Investment’s Carlton Plain stage one irrigation project recommended for approval in March, while a further project at Gogo Station near Fitzroy Crossing is under review.
Pardoo’s third stage will also need environmental approval.
Argyle bought Shamrock, south of Broome, as one of four stations in a $100 million deal in 2016.
It is backed by Beijing outfit Archstone Investments.
Argyle director Dale Champion told Business News the business had further aspirations, with the station in a good location outside of the area where exports were restricted during part of the year for quarantine reasons.
Business News estimates stage one of the irrigation project will involve a capital commitment of between $10 million and $20 million.
Kimberley is a subsidiary of Chinese-owned business Shanghai Zhongfu.
It is also the operator of stage two of the Ord River irrigated agriculture scheme, at Goomig.
At Carlton Plain, Kimberley will be producing grains, cotton and perennial horticulture, with future expansions under consideration.
The Gogo Station project, with a proponent of the same name, will have 4,335ha of irrigated cropland.
That will be located near Fitzroy Crossing.