NORTHERN Australia’s cotton industry is powering ahead, with the first gin north of Katherine starting operations in December and the nearby Kununurra facility under construction.
The Northern Territory gin is currently receiving cotton and will begin ginning in December.
The facility is expected to process about 25,000 bales in its first season.
Owned by WANT Cotton Company Pty Ltd – a group of Western Australian and Northern Territory cotton growers – the project has been in the pipeline for several years.
Northern Territory Cotton Growers Association president Bruce Connolly said having a gin closer to the growing regions was an exciting step for the industry.
He said growers have typically been forced to transport bales thousands of kilometres to Queensland for ginning.
“It will give a lot of growers a lot of confidence to plant the 2024 crop,” Mr Connolly said.
“We are looking forward to probably 10,000 or 12,000 hectares to be planted in the coming season.”
If realised, this area will be slightly higher than the 2022-23 season and more than the 8000ha planted in 2021-22.
NT cotton planting usually commences in early to mid-December and is ideally completed in January.
Mr Connolly said the livestock sector was also looking forward to having access to NT-produced cottonseed.
“With the crop comes the byproduct of seed, which the northern livestock industry is looking forward to.
“It will be a very valuable supplementary feed source for the northern livestock industry.”
Port export plans
The gin commissioning has also fueled plans to export processed cotton out of the Port of Darwin.
Mr Connolly said this would add to the sustainability of the industry by reducing the need for the cotton to be transported south.
He said there “were still a few hurdles to overcome” but the industry was confident these issues were not insurmountable.
“Whilst exporting from the Port of Darwin is still challenging, it’s certainly well and truly on the radar and very much a possibility for the 2024 crop.”
He said growers envisaged cotton could be shipped to “all of Australia’s regular cotton markets” from Darwin.
Kununurra gin construction
Hot on the heels of the NT gin, construction of the $60-million Kununurra facility is well under way.
Works commenced in June at the site, located 17km north of Kununurra in northern Western Australia.
The new gin will have the capacity to service the forecast production of 100,000-150,000 bales in the Ord River irrigation area.
Gin owner Kimberley Cotton Company has contracted Namoi Cotton to head construction of the facility.
Namoi Cotton is also a key shareholder of KCC, alongside Kimberley Agriculture Investment, Prime Grain, MG Corporation and the Ord River District Co-operative.
KAI general manager Jim Engelke said the gin should be completed by the second half of 2025.
“As far as everything is going for the construction program, we are on time, if not slightly ahead of time,” Mr Engelke said.
Namoi Cotton has commenced building ancillary gin equipment at its Wee Waa engineering workshop.
The company plans to install this equipment next year.
Alongside bringing a processing facility closer to the source of production, the Kununurra gin will also reduce costs for owners and the wider cotton industry by being powered by 100pc renewable energy.
The gin will use low-emission hydroelectricity sourced from the nearby Argyle Dam.
WA Agriculture and Food Minister Jackie Jarvis said this decision will reduce the carbon footprint associated with ginning, and set the gin apart from existing facilities.
“This processing facility is central to the development of a sustainable cotton industry,” Ms Jarvis said.
She said the gin “will provide significant employment opportunities for the Kununurra community”.
Research has estimated the new cotton gin has the potential to create more than 1000 direct and indirect local jobs in its first 10 years.
Additionally, the construction itself will see the creation of 30 full-time jobs until it begins operation in 2025.
Overall, the project is forecast to yield significant public benefits of up to $386M over 20 years.
Planning for growth
Mr Engelke said the industry was going from strength to strength and the new gin would push it even further.
“We are optimistic for the future of cotton up here; we wouldn’t be spending the money if we weren’t.”
He said the imminent commissioning of the NT gin would also increase Ord-region grower interest in the crop.
“The cotton planted in this area will probably increase, given the NT gin will be in the space.
“I imagine [the area] will continue to climb for the next 10 years at least.”
Despite this confidence, he said growers were still working through the challenges of building a new production system from scratch.
“We don’t have a fixed cropping mix; we don’t have a well-established cropping program or rotations, and we don’t have a well-established industry.
“We have to build everything, so you have to remain a bit flexible and think on your feet, as well as plan long term.”