The reshaping of desert horticulture

Seasonal workers harvest grapes in the Ti Tree region during the 2000s.
Seasonal workers harvest grapes in the Ti Tree region during the 2000s. Steve Strike

ABOUT 350km north of Alice Springs at Desert Springs, the Territory's southernmost melon farm, manager Paul McLaughlin has seen annual melon yields tip 6000 tonnes since operations began a decade ago.

At nearby Neutral Junction Station, hay is cut from the dry red soil five times a year, with owners hoping to expand operations so long as aquifers can sustainably supply water for irrigation.

As Territory farmers increasingly take advantage of good quality waters under the desert, more and more ventures like these are cropping up.

Last month, the NT Government launched a horticultural prospectus for the Centre, aiming to grow the industry by attracting new investors.

NT Primary Industry and Resources Minister Ken Vowles says there are many opportunities in the region.

"(The) prospectus highlights our distinct market advantage in Australia as well as overseas with counter-seasonal opportunities to potential investors," says Mr Vowles.

"Many crops ... mature earlier than those grown in southern Australia because our production areas are closer to the equator."

As a case in point, the successful melons project sprouted from a $3.5m federal investment to seed development of Aboriginal land near Ali Curung, with about half the monies going to Desert Springs.

Aboriginal land owners traded land in exchange for rental income from agribusiness investors and the chance of a remote industry spawning jobs for the future.

But while traditional owners bank the rent, and some Aboriginals have been known to work at Desert Springs, none of the 500 living at Ali Curung work there full-time.

In fact, the successful melon farm's seasonal labour needs are met largely by backpackers, while Aboriginal workers tend to come and go.

Desert Springs' melons are part of a regional transition from grapes to other crops, after a decline in grape growing across the Centre from about 2008 on.

Watermelons, chia, mangoes, garlic, onions and other vegetables, even asparagus, are now being either grown or trialled on lands from Alice Springs north to Ti Tree and Ali Curung.

Other crops are already grown, including dates, melons, figs, olives, bush foods (from Australia's native plants), as well as fodder to support local cattle.

Despite the downturn in grapes discussed in Heartbeat last week, around 2000 tonnes are still harvested from the region each year based on 2015 figures, higher on recent (unconfirmed) reports.

As the government's horticultural investment prospectus notes, Central Australia is "free from a number of pests and diseases, and the dry climate and isolation means the requirement for chemical use is minimal and horticultural produce is of high quality."

All current grape production in the Centre comes from 150ha comprising lots at Ti Tree Farm (including smaller lots), and Richie Hayes' Rocky Hill vineyard near Alice Springs.

In total, Central Australia produces roughly 8% of Territory plant-based production, which in 2015 the NT Farmer's Association valued at $244m, most from the Katherine region.

At the time, grapes from the Centre were worth $8m based on production of 2,000 tonnes, a far cry from the $20.5m valuation at the industry's peak.

In 2015 heavy rain cut short the grape harvest and damaged some of the grapes, the humid conditions impacting the quality of the fruit.

But 2016 was by all accounts a good year, which also saw the first harvest in the region of a new variety of grape called sweet, black seedless.

Ti Tree Grape Farm is controlled by Phil Marciano of Mildura, although attempts by Heartbeat to contact Mr Marciano have failed.

Heartbeat understands all grape production out of Ti Tree (including the smaller properties) is marketed and distributed by Mr Marciano.

"It's huge, a big property," says new Ti Tree Farm manager Tony Tamera, recently of Mildura.

"The property did really well last year.

"At the moment we're getting ready (and) we'll harvest about January.

"The plants look good. We still can't see much because the vines haven't shot up yet, but we're hoping for a good crop."

Although new to the property, Mr Tamera says he understands many of the old vines were replanted using resistant root stock.

"There are still some old plantings, but they'll be replaced over time."

As for what has changed during the past decade, Mr Tamera wasn't sure.

"There was a lot invested here, and some investors pulled out, that's the way I heard it."

In 2007, in addition to the earlier Ti Tree Farm plantings, nearby Territory Grape Farm and the enormous Pine Hill projects were hailed as an emerging northern food bowl, and the great hope for regional Aboriginal employment.

In 2017 neither is in production. With a business loan from Indigenous Business Australia, Centrefarm bought Territory Grape Farm in 2013 planning to expand grape production.

It is understood that Territory Grape Farm and the property known as Ooloo-both part of the original Pine Hill-were recently bought by Roy Chisholm, formerly of Napperby Station.

NT Farmers Association deputy CEO Greg Owens blames the demise of grapes on a perfect storm of nematodes, non-resistant root stock and competition from Queensland.

"It's part of why biosecurity is so critical," says Mr Owens. "If it hadn't happened it's quite likely those grapes would still be viable.

"While you have a market share and a relationship with a wholesaler, it's much easier to keep it than get it back.

"If you lose that relationship for any reason, especially if someone is poised to jump in that spot, then you have to renegotiate that market access."

Still, challenges for new horticulture remain.

"(The Centre) faces similar challenges to horticulture everywhere," says Mr Owens.

"It is high-cost production, so you need a high-value product to maintain it, and a big part of that is high labour cost and availability. That's not getting easier anywhere in Australia.

"Some growers reported a big impact following changes to the working holiday visa arrangement, sometimes called the backpacker tax.

"In the Centre, the other thing to look at is what other crops can we grow that may have less intense labour requirements?"

A Centralian growers group meeting last week re-examined crops like peanuts, onions, garlic potatoes, all of which are mechanically harvested.

"Farmers are interested in working together" says Mr Owens, "to improve the length of the season and reduce costs by sharing machinery."

"Rocky Hill, Ali Curung, Orange Creek - all ask: 'What are the economics, how can we put it together?'"

NEXT WEEK: Sustainable growth may well emerge from research and investment. But how can it better engage Aboriginal communities and will NT government investment on the labour issue help?

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