EFFORTS to establish a cotton gin in northern Australia to service the region’s expanding cotton-growing industry have taken a step forward with the Western Australian Government providing a $100,000 grant to an East Kimberley grower co-operative to pursue cotton processing opportunities.
The Ord River District Co-operative (ORDCO) will receive a Value Add Agribusiness Investment Attraction Fund grant to develop a business model and governance arrangements for a local cotton gin.
The proposal involves the local ginning of cotton fibre which can be exported directly from WA’s top end, instead of the current situation where harvested cotton is trucked more than 3500 kilometres away to southern Queensland for processing.
The funding, which will be matched by ORDCO, will support the preparation of a business case and investment proposal to build cotton processing facilities in the Ord Valley.
ORDCO has reached a joint agreement with Kimberley Agricultural Investment (KAI) and Miriuwung and Gajerrong (MG) Corporation for establishing a cotton processing facility in Kununurra.
A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the three parties in May which sets the framework for the proposed ownership and management structure of the cotton ginnery. This allows for a co-owned, industry led facility to be established.
An Expression of Interest call was recently made to other local farmers and industry stakeholders to join the project, with 13 additional interested parties indicating a willingness to explore the opportunity further.
ORDCO chief executive officer, David Cross, said the next steps included the development of a comprehensive business case and subsequently establishing an entity to own and operate the ginnery.
“The project partners are very pleased to receive initial support from the State of Western Australia and look forward to continuing a close working relationship to see this exciting and important project for Northern Australia come to fruition,” he said.
Mr Cross said site selection and a determination of how much cotton would need to be produced in the north to make a gin viable would form part of the business case.
Positive trial results
Cotton production has been trialled extensively in the Ord River Irrigation Area over the past four years using new varieties and technologies.
The positive results of these trials have given local growers a level of confidence that a commercial cotton industry in the region is viable and sustainable
With sowing taking place between January and March, picking occurs during the favourable mid-year dry season conditions.
There are about 1000 hectares of cotton being grown in the area this season.
Kimberley Agricultural Investment (KAI) farm manager, Luke McKay, who used his 2018 Nuffield scholarship to study the potential for cotton production in the north, said one of the main challenges of growing cotton in the region was the difficulty of managing and controlling the plant in a tropical environment.
“What we are trying to do in the north is manipulate a perennial plant to become an annual in a climate where it has all the ingredients available to it to become a perennial. If you give a cotton plant a chance in northern Australia it will become a tree and not be productive for you,” he said.
“The focus of what we are doing now is on in-crop management and the decision-making around the tools you have available to influence the plant’s behaviour as an annual and keep it in check to make sure it is productive on an annual basis – how you can tweak the nitrogen to keep the plant in check, how you can use growth regulants given the weather forecasts, etc.”
Mr McKay said while the key to being able to grow cotton in northern Australia had been the advancement in Bollgard technology that gave plants built-in resistance to insect pests, the lack of infrastructure and ginning facilities remained an impediment to industry expansion.
WA Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan said that without local processing a viable cotton industry would not be developed in the north.
“The proposed facility in the East Kimberley would allow local growers to separate and clean cotton locally, generating jobs and reducing costs associated with transporting cotton thousands of kilometres to the east coast for processing,” she said.
“We commend the East Kimberley groups involved in reaching an MOU, which brings together Ord growers and traditional owners in striving towards a local cotton gin.”
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