17/07/2020 - 08:30

Ord farmers target cotton, again

17/07/2020 - 08:30

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When farming activity started in the Ord River irrigation area in the 1960s, the initial focus was on cotton.

Aerial view of the spillway at the Ord River dam, Kununurra, Western Australia Source: DPIRD

When farming activity started in the Ord River irrigation area in the 1960s, the initial focus was on cotton.

The early cotton crops were destroyed by pests, so in the 1970s, farmers in the fertile region switched to horticultural crops such as rockmelons and pumpkins.

That was followed by corn (maize) in the 1980s and then sugarcane in the 1990s, but all proved to be commercially unviable.

Currently the major crop is sandalwood, with two big companies, Quintis and Santanol, having planted about 5,000 hectares – equivalent to one third of the Ord stage 1 area. 

Most of the 60-odd farmers in the Ord are still searching for the ideal crop that suits their smaller holdings and remote location.

There is increasing confidence the future lies with cotton, after the success of large-scale trials using a recently developed, genetically modified variety known as Bollgard 3.

The trials have been backed by Chinese company Kimberley Agricultural Investment, which initially planned to build a sugar mill but has switched focus to cotton.

Its plans were detailed in a recent case before the State Administrative Tribunal, which ruled last month that the farmer-owned Ord Irrigation Co-operative should retain its annual water allocation of 335 gigalitres.

The state government had wanted to cut the co-op’s allocation by a third, despite the enormous water reserves in nearby Lake Argyle and Lake Kununurra.

A key factor in the tribunal’s decision was confidence that farming in the area is set to expand.

It was concluded cotton would become the dominant crop, hay production was likely to increase on the back of substantial growth over the past three years, and demand for corn would continue.

About 4,500ha were planted with corn last year, producing approximately 50,000 tonnes.  

The tribunal, which spent nine days in the region talking to farmers and other experts, also predicted that ‘double cropping’, including cotton as the first crop, would increase from 20 hectares in 2019 to 1,000 hectares over the next 10 years.

KAI general manager Jim Engelke told the tribunal his company was hoping to build a cotton gin at a likely cost of $30 million.

“At this stage, KAI is hopeful that a cotton gin will be built in the next two to three years,” he said.  

He explained that about 10,000ha of cotton plantings was required to make a cotton gin commercially viable.

Success with cotton and other crops is expected to underpin the development of additional land for farming.

In total, KAI plans to develop up to 25,000ha in the area.

Co-op chairman David Menzel said the tribunal’s ruling would give certainty to farmers that they would obtain the water they needed over the coming decade.  

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