Archive for April, 2008

Native ‘wonder’ fruit

 

 

TRIAL cultivation of an indigenous bush “wonder” fruit has started in the Kimberley.

With international pharmaceutical companies in hot pursuit.

 

Terminalia ferdinandiana, commonly known as gubinge or Kakadu plum, is a cherry-sized, pale green fruit found from the Kimberley through to Arnhem Land in the NT.

 

But initial environmental concerns of wild harvesting sensitive bush areas were heightened when it was revealed an international pharmaceutical company had exported tissue culture material of the fruit to Brazil with the aim of establishing commercial plantations there.  

These issues were raised at a forum organised by the WA Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) and hosted by the Kimberley College TAFE Broome Campus late last year.

 

TAFE program coordinator and horticultural lecturer Kim Courtenay said the forum established conclusively the development of the industry and its security was at risk because of a lack of local supply.

He said cultivated plantations, based on organic principals that preserved natural bio diversity presented the way forward for the industry.

 

Kimberley TAFE is currently trialling a new concept known as enrichment planting – an environmentally sustainable approach to farming through a practical training program at its Broome Campus.

 

The trial is the first stage of an initiative in conjunction with the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) to establish a training and research facility in horticulture and land management on the outskirts of Broome.

The training programs have successfully established the first cultivated plantations of gubinge in the region.

 

Mr Courtenay said a critical element has been how the trees are watered.

 

“The young trees have been watered using the latest technology in drip-irrigation,” he said.

“Gubinge are deep rooted trees and adapted to the dry tropics. Drip-irrigation helps simulate the perfect wet season by giving them an early start.

“We plant the trees at the beginning of the build up and with drippers it tends to go well during the first wet season – ending up with well-established trees.”

 

Mr Courtenay, who has grown the plant for 25 years, said it was an exciting time for gubinge – which is currently fetching up to $20 a kilogram.

 

However TAFE itself has been trialling gubinge for 10 years on West Kimberley aboriginal communities – teaching and involving the residents.

Mr Courtenay said a lot of the work had involved special training for minimum security prisoners as part of a corrective services, training and rehabilitation initiative.

He hopes to venture further with the project as there are more than 200 communities in the Kimberley region who would benefit from horticulture programs.

 

Kimberley TAFE horticultural trainer Merridoo Walbidi is a traditional Elder of the Yulparija people from the Great Sandy Desert.

He has been involved in the gubinge project for several years and won the Aboriginal Student of the Year award in 2004.

 

Premier Alan Carpenter said Mr Walbidi had demonstrated traditional and modern culture could effectively work side by side.

 

“We must walk together to create opportunities for young people and a better world for everyone,” Mr Walbidi said.

He said growing plants and creating gardens on communities was a good thing for people and improves their health.

 

Nutritional studies carried out by the Australian Army accompanying the Bush Tuckerman television series in the 1980s found the fruit to have extraordinarily high levels of vitamin C.

Further studies revealed the fruit also contained high levels of antioxidants – mooted as having anti-aging, immune system boosting and even cancer fighting qualities.

 

Research by Charles Darwin University (CDU) in 2006 revealed there were 17 major health and cosmetic companies worldwide interested in trialling gubinge fruit for product development.

The emerging industry was largely instigated by Sydney based company Coradji, which has established international markets and patented a technique which turns the fruit into a powder while maintaining high levels of vitamin C.

 

Since 2003 Coradji has purchased wild harvested fruit from licensed pickers in the Broome region and top end of NT – but supply has consistently fallen short by 12 tonnes a year.

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Hemp weaves its way into the Ord

 

 

HEMP will take its next step in the Ord Valley next month with trials to asses its viability as a commercial crop.

With an existing market, 1.2 tonnes of a new seed variety in storage and a modified harvester, all the company needs is a grower.

 

Hemp Resources director Colin Steddy said discussions were underway with the Department of Agriculture’s Frank Wise Institute in Kununurra.

 

 “An outcome will hopefully be determined within the next two weeks,” Mr Steddy said.

“We have been communicating with a couple of parties but the Department is our preferred grower,” he said.

 

The company’s managing director and CEO Kim Hough said with 70 million seeds, they were hoping to get a minimum of 25ha planted to properly trial a commercial crop.

“This is necessary if we are to determine what adjustments are needed for growing the crop and the use of our modified harvester,” Mr Hough said.

“We will be planting a new Chinese seed variety as well as re-trialling the Canadian seed,” he said.

 

Kununurra Agricultural Department research manager Gae Plunkett said although past trials conducted by the department were unsuccessful, “it may be worth looking at a different variety.”

 

Mr Hough said recent trials in the far north and south west of WA have given his company a great deal of confidence coming into the southern winter and northern dry seasons.

“We are hoping to also bulk up our seeds with this trial for a major planting in the summer months around September/October,” he said.

 

He also said it was a possibility the company would be planting out several thousand hectares by 2009 for full scale commercial production.

This would be assisted by Hemp Resources having exclusive rights to the Chinese seed variety, which he said would grow well as a broadacre crop with the best possible yields.

 

This was in addition to a Canadian seed variety which was subject to an exclusive agreement with the Ontario Hemp Alliance.

 

Hemp is an annual crop and can be harvested for three purposes: biomass, seed and fibre.

The crop is at its most dense at 90 days and by 150 days the lower part of the stem is ready to be harvested for biomass.

 

In 2006 the Yunnan Industrial Hemp Company from China signed with Hemp Resources to work on the development and marketing of sustainable products, including hemp.

Yunnan is the only hemp company in China endorsed by local and central governments, police and Ministry of Agriculture for breeding and supply of industrial hemp.

 

Mr Hough said Yunnan’s principal Dr Nelson Tan and vice general manager, senior engineer professor Hu Guang, had spent four years developing international relationships and developing an extensive breeding program for the betterment of the industrial hemp industry, for both China and other countries.

 

Past failures have resulted in mixed feelings around the Valley, but Mr Hough is certain the company is heading in the right direction – with a market already established.

“The most important thing with any industry is establishing a market for the commodity – and we already have that,” he said.

“The difficulty is not how much we can produce on land but how much it will cost to get the produce to an international market.”

He said this was a key component in the crop’s success and a lot of logistics were being done.

 

There has been much debate surrounding the harvesting of hemp because of its association with marijuana.

Commercial hemp crops contain only very low concentrations of the active chemical in marijuana, THC.

 

Irrespective of past controversy, Mr Hough claimed the Government was keen on seeing the crops success in the Ord – “but not another failure”.

 

The State Government passed legislation in 2004 allowing hemp to be grown for commercial enterprise only.

The project has been in operation for 12 years, and has had what Mr Hough believed to be some of the best people in the world working with it, because of their passion for the environment.

 

“The huge demand for hemp and hemp-derived products, together with the shortage of product available globally, had given us an enormous amount of confidence in the re-emergence of the industrial hemp industry,” Mr Hough said.

 

He added there was no doubt Hemp Resources and WA would play an important role in its future.

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Going troppo over bananas

 

 

ONCE a booming industry, Ord Valley banana growers are becoming an endangered species.

With only a handful continuing the tradition and a lot of expressed negativity – hope for the industry’s future is varied.

 

But devastating storms, low market prices, high transport costs and fungal diseases have done little to deter grower Dave Dietrich from going bananas.

 

Dave moved to Kununurra 12 years ago and after spending two years working on a banana plantation decided it was time to go solo – with a new variety in tow.

 

Cavendish has long been the favoured variety in the Ord Valley, but has proved problematic in strong winds and is easily affected by a serious fungal disease known as Yellow Sigatoka leaf spot.

Originally this disease posed a problem with commercially-grown Cavendish bananas in Northern Queensland and was first reported in Kununurra in 1990.

The fungus was most noticeable at the end of the wet season on plantations that had not been sprayed.

 

But for the past two years Dave has been the only Ord grower trialling the Ducasse variety – with positive results.

 

The Ducasse banana is native to Thailand and is being grown all over the eastern seaboard.
It was brought to Kununurra because of its strong resistance to tropical fungal leaf diseases – in particular Yellow Sigatoka.

 

And Dave said it had also proved more suited to the harsh environment of the Ord Valley.

“It seems to be well-matched to the extremes in temperature and stands up to storms a lot better.”

“We recently lost two hectares to a storm but the Ducasse held on pretty well.”

“It is our plan to convert most of our 4.5 hectare property to Ducasse.”

 

The Ducasse banana is a small, thin-skinned, sweet tasting banana that does not brown easily when cut.

“I really enjoy growing bananas,” Dave said.

“It has its ups and downs – half the killer is the extreme temperatures we get up here – but it is something I like doing.”

 

He and his wife Mandy established Bullrout Produce – named after their original territory – to sell largely into the local Asian market.

And they have plans to expand into the boutique market.

 

“Mandy and I work very hard, it is just the two of us and bananas are quite labour intensive,” Dave said.

 

Dave said Kununurra was not the ideal climate for bananas and growers had to use different strategies to survive and succeed.

 

“Mandy and I grow the trees closer together to create a larger canopy to trap the humidity,” he said.

“We also water the trees from the bottom, using micro-irrigation, which helps create a micro-climate for the trees and we think this is the only way to do it.”

 

Additionally, the bananas are covered with a bag to keep the heat distribution even and dirt-free and they are harvested between 10 to 18 weeks – depending on the weather.

 

Bananas grow all year round in the Valley and Dave and Mandy are currently harvesting weekly, sending 120 boxes south every seven days.

“It really starts to pick up this time of year during the dry season and our bananas are growing well,” Dave said.

But with boxes fetching no more than $22, Dave hopes the market price will increase too.

 

And even though some growers insist on letting their crops drop to the ground if market prices are not good enough – Dave said it was worth sending them anyway.

“A lot of money is put into growing the crop – you are better off getting something rather than nothing.”

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Flowers in the Valley

 GROWING an assortment of crops in extreme temperatures is one thing – growing flowers commercially is an absolute wonder.

Until Diane Robinson arrived in Kununurra in 1988, no grower had tackled the seemingly hopeless task of harvesting such a delicate crop.
It was time to say goodbye to Mills and Boons and see what real romance was all about.
In 1993 Diane and her husband decided it was time to turn ORIA Orchids into a mixture of colourful crops – including mangoes, grapefruit and herbs.

Then in 2002, despite the limited market as a result of geography, Diane thought it would be wonderful to start growing her own flowers.

“It is a small part of our business but lot of work goes in to it,” Diane said.
“Weddings are our biggest market – as there is nowhere else in town to get a large amount of fresh flowers,” she said.

The medley of flowers comprises snapdragons, sunflowers, gerberas, cosmos, Heliconias and tuber roses.
Most grown are tropical and brought in from Darwin after they have undergone strict quarantine.

Diane said trial and error has been a major part of floriculture in the Ord – especially during the wet season when flower beds could be easily destroyed.
But it has done little to hold back her budding enterprise.

And she has planted roses, which, even more surprisingly, have actually begun flowering.
Additionally she will be trialling different bulbs such as liliums and gladiolus in the hope of harvesting them each week.

ORIA Orchids is a biologically friendly farm, which sprays only when necessary, using soft chemicals.

“We are happy enough growing holey spinach,” Diane joked.
“It is better to let the worms have their share than spray it full of chemicals.
“Once we had a person return a frog they found in their lettuce.”

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Cotton on to what’s happening with fibre

 

THE future of GM cotton trials in the Ord Valley is in doubt.

 

After a decade of research and $6 million worth of external funding, this year could see the eradication of any future the crop may have had, in the region.

The Department of Food and Agriculture (DAFWA) received a letter from the Cotton Co-operative Research Centre (CRC) late last month, indicating further funding would be dependent on changes within the State Government’s policy.

 

DAFWA project manager and entomologist Geoff Strickland said the letter was part of a standard process for advising researchers on the status of research applications.

“But in our case there is a provisional offer of funds subject to an announcement of WA government policy that permits for a 2009/2010 season,” Mr Strickland said.

“We will clarify with the CRC what is required and go through our internal budget process before making a decision on future cotton trials,” he said.

 

The WA Government has had a moratorium on GM crops for several years but allowed DAFWA to conduct trials for cotton as a potential crop in the Ord River Irrigation Area (ORIA).

 

Cotton Catchment Communities CRC chief scientist Professor Peter Gregg told the Echo the prolonged drought in Queensland and NSW had resulted in only a limited amount of funding being available for research involving the cotton industry.

“In such circumstances we have to prioritise and the chance of achieving outcomes from the research is a key consideration,” Professor Gregg said. 

 

Professor Gregg said he wanted to make it clear the CRC was not lobbying for cotton production in the Ord or for GM technology in general.

“We are just doing the research to establish whether cotton can be grown in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner in that region,” he said.

“It is up the WA Government and people to decide what to do with the results.”

 

And although cotton had proved a viable crop, Mr Strickland said there were several other obstacles to the development of a GM cotton industry in Kununurra.

 

If the moratorium were to be lifted, Ord Valley farmers would need sufficient available land to justify and attract investors to construct a cotton gin.

“Infrastructure to enable the storage, processing and export of the crop,” would be necessary Mr Strickland said.

“A water allocation to irrigate the crop in a sustainable cropping system,” he added.

 

He also said prices would have to compete with other options such as tree farming, chia and horticulture.

 

A discussion paper on GM cotton was released by the state Government in August last year for public comment.

The paper provided an overview of existing and potential cotton production in Australia, as well as the status of global production of GM cotton and potential markets and prices.

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Making hay while the chance shines

 

KUNUNURRA hay contractor Steve Jonsen will have his work cut out for him this year – because he’s suddenly got the market to himself.

The North West’s chief hay producer at Kingston Rest has called it quits and Mr Jonsen said that offered a great opportunity for his business to expand.

 

Kingston Rest farm manager Nick McCabe said his company had worked closely with Mr Jonsen to ensure a smooth transition.

 

Mr McCabe said the company would be planting 50 hectares of sandalwood this year and had to finish hay production early to get ready for next year’s planting.

“Once land has been used for pasture, it can take between one and two years to get it ready,” he said.

 

Mr Jonsen leases 300ha, with 100 currently producing 10,000 round bales of hay.

To meet his expected increase in demand, he will now be planting the remaining 200ha with oats in May.

 

“If all goes well we could potentially increase our supply by up to 20,000 large square bales,” Mr Jonsen said.

Kingston Rest, owned by Sandalwood giant Tropical Forestry Services, harvested 16,000 large square bales each year on 320ha.

 

Mr Jonsen has been producing hay for six years in the Ord Valley and said he understood the challenges involved in upping the scale of production to this extent.

 

“It will be bloody hard, but I will be giving it my best shot,” he said.

“Hopefully people understand, and, hopefully we will be able to meet their demands.”

 

The Kingston Rest market was split between pastoralists throughout the Kimberley and live export stockyards in Port Hedland, Broome and Wyndham.

 

Mr Jonsen said he was keen to secure an arrangement supplying hay to cattle yards and had already received a few enquiries from surrounding stations.

“We also offer free transport to stations within a 600-700km radius of Kununurra,” he said.

 

Mr McCabe added pastoralists were not disgruntled by the early stop to production of hay by Kingston Rest

“We held a fire forum at Kingston Rest recently, which was attended by several pastoralists,” he said. “Most said they were pleased with the relationship they had developed with TFS and the notice given.”

 

Kingston Rest was an operating hay and cattle farm, 66km south of Kununurra before it was purchased by TFS for $18.05 million last year.

It comprises 2400ha of freehold land, 1200 of pastoral leasehold and a 3200ha dam with a current capacity of 65 gigalitres.

 

Mr McCabe said the new 320ha of sandalwood would be part of a total of 600ha to be planted next year.

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