Northern Queensland could, and should, be an agricultural powerhouse with new crops that cannot be grown in southern Australia, says Thomas Elder Consulting’s Peter Spies.
Mr Spies, who specialises in soil science, agronomy, grazing land management, says a coordinated approach and the right regulatory settings could see the north rival the agricultural riches of the south.
“Many indigenous and non-indigenous communities, particularly in the Cape and Gulf, aspire for agricultural development to provide employment and opportunity in what is a low socio-economic area,” Mr Spies said.
“These opportunities should not just be afforded to southern areas that have had centuries of development.”
The region could be used for more intensive grazing and fattening as well as cropping, he said, building a food bowl that could help to double Australia’s agricultural output.
Some parts of the region boasted soils Mr Spies said were suited to sugarcane, broadscale field crops, intensive livestock, perennial horticulture like mango and citrus, as well as annual horticultural crops like vegetables.
But Mr Spies pointed to challenges facing northern Australian producers.
“Some difficulties are due to the boom and bust cycles of unregulated production coupled with high transport costs to far southern markets,” he said.
“With this in mind, any assessment of potential agricultural expansion in the north must include investigation of potential markets and the ability to profitably transport products to those markets.
“Crops which cannot be grown as easily in other parts of the country are obvious choices.
“For products that suffer from competition in southern markets with other Australian production, the focus should be on development of new markets in countries to our north where there are transport and marketing advantages.”
Mr Spies suggested potential new crops suited to Far North climates with strong markets in Asia included sweet potato, yam bean, yam, taro, cassava, lychee, rambutan, longans, tamarind, pataya (dragon fruit), and Australian dryland rice.
Guar, a legume requiring well-drained soils and warmer night temperatures, also showed a lot of promise, Mr Spies said.
The gum from guar seeds is used as a food additive, but its most important use today is in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for oil shale and gas.
Any new developments, Mr Spies said, would have to be underpinned by public and private investment in water infrastructure, together with suitable environmental regulation.
“All of this potential can only be realised with a regulatory approach that allows such development,” he said.
“Public water schemes would also be important and there are private off-stream water storage opportunities that could be progressed or analysed for their contributions to long-term sustainable economic development and minimise reliance on groundwater,” he said.
“Off-stream water storages in the Flinders and Gilbert catchments would provide for irrigation of fodder and grain crops for feedlotting, turning off a constant supply of fat cattle enabling the establishment of an economically viable meatworks.”
Peter Spies is a qualified agronomist and soil pedologist, who joined Thomas Elder Consulting in September.