DESPITE two-thirds of its area being in drought, and parts of the north still recovering from floods, Queensland is looking ahead to some bold projects and better services which will strengthen its rural economies.
They were the subject of yesterday’s program at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) in Toowoomba, where its Resilient Regions Week gave voices from research, industry and communities the chance to build a picture about where rural economies are at and where they are heading.
USQ’s Institute for Resilient Regions (IRR) executive director Geoff Cockfield said this year’s event had come at an important time.
“We’ve moved from a situation where rural development is agricultural policy,” Professor Cockfield said ahead of the event.
He said while the building of dams and irrigation schemes, and the role of towns to service agriculture, once kept economies going, regional centres now needed to build resilience by employing innovation and collaborations.
“Our big problem is we’re replacing labour with capital, and some towns are reaching thresholds which are becoming hard to sustain.
“If a town loses a major employer, that can take families away from a town, and that will reduce the number of children at the school, and that will reduce staffing at that school, or if you lose a few key people in a community, the whole community will suffer.
“We need to look for ways to stop that kind of thing from happening.”
Professor Cockfield said the idea that infrastructure or advances like roads or digital connectivity could be rolled out and “everything will be great” was flawed, and effective policy was needed to drive their uptake.
“You have to make a bit more effort so people use them in a more constructive way.
“Drought is the big challenge for us at the moment.
“We’ve had a sequence of droughts, and we don’t have policy settings that support that.”
Professor Cockfield said researchers were working with communities, government and industry to look at agricultural value chains, sources of energy and innovation ecosystems to help build resilience in the regions.
Yesterday’s session was hosted by the Rural Economies Centre of Excellence (RECoE), a USQ-led partnership which involves Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF), Central Queensland University, James Cook University (JCU) and the University of Queensland.
It was opened by DAF executive director Beth Woods, who said the need to have widespread access to fast and reliable internet connectivity was paramount.
“It’s part of the strategy of attracting and retaining employees businesses need to thrive,” Ms Woods said.
Ms Woods said universities involved in RECoE had jointly invested more than double the amount of money put in by the Queensland Government at its establishment last year, and the centre was already providing reliable data and analysis needed to help formulate policy.
“High-quality data and analysis is a critical input.”
She said this information allowed policy, communities and practitioners to help build resilience in rural and regional areas through practical means like the state government’s Advance Queensland program, which was supporting 15 businesses in agriculture and food futures.
They include Ceres Tags’ Smart Ear Tags for Livestock Project.
Circular economy advocate and Vital Places director Robert Prestipino is the driver of the Quilpie Wellspring project, a planned four-hectare development which targets sustainable jobs, strengthened local lifestyle, and enhanced regional tourism.
The proposed cornerstone enterprises for the proposal will be the Wellspring Water solar distillation plant, which will tap into the Great Artesian Basin to treat 3000 litres of water per week to supply the Power House Brewing Company.
“We can get these businesses across the line in an area like Quilpie.”
He refers to the water, brewing and aquaponics businesses as “nested enterprises” which could support a further nine entities including an opal-based jewellery outfit, and tourism and recreation.
“Queensland’s government is the first to have a craft beer strategy,” Mr Prestipino said, but said Quilpie Wellspring, and projects like it, needed support from government, business, research and the community to succeed.
Nutrients from the brewing process can then go into aquaponics to produce and fish and salad vegetables.
Mr Prestipino said projections for the proposal look good.
Quilpie Shire has a population of 790, with 654 in the town, with that figure forecast to drop by 158 by 2026.
Quilpie Wellspring is expected to reduce that population loss by 25pc.
Collaborative partners are Climate KIC Australia, and UQ Integrated Bio Economy Project, while strategic advisors come from government and industry.
Mr Prestipino said growing support from the Quilpie community has been heartening.
“In October 2017 at our community consultation, six people turned up.
“In November 2018 at our ‘Big Idea’ presentation, 139 residents turned up.”
“That’s the biggest turn-out in living memory to a community meeting.”
Appeal of innovation
On the western outskirts of Toowoomba, the family-owned FKG Group is developing AATLIS, which it calls a state-of-the-art precinct where advanced manufacturing meets digital technology and collaborative research.
AATLIS director strategy and innovation Thomas Hall said the physical and virtual precinct would allow symbiosis between sectors, including energy, borderless trade, and agrifood.
Mr Hall said AATLIS was already looking at paddock-to-plate supply chains for meat and horticultural produce.
“We’re engaging Coles and other supermarkets about what a complete digitised supply chain…looks like.”
“We’re wanting to look at a circular and bio economy.”
Mr Hall said Shell, Siemens and Telstra were already involved in what he called Australia’s first regional tier-three data centre.
“We’re looking to business needs of 2050, 2060.”
The forum included input from local government, with Goondiwindi Shire Council mayor Graeme Scheu a panellist.
He said families as well as corporates were important investors, and a number of them helped to drive the Goondiwindi economy.
“We back family operations.”
Cr Scheu said lifestyle, including sporting facilities, were also an important part of Goondiwindi’s success as a regional community.
“We’ve got 6000 people, 12 doctors and seven dentists.”
Bulloo Shire Council mayor John “Tractor” Ferguson said his region was lobbying hard to get a 150-kilometre stretch of road from Noccundra to the Warra Gate on the New South Wales border sealed, which would improve travel time and safety between Central Queensland and Adelaide.
Mr Prestipino said public funding was hard to secure unless the project could be shown to stack up.
“The government is saying ‘come to us with a full-blown business case and we’ll help you’; that’s $500,000,” Mr Prestipino said.