Pastoralist eyes desert crops

Brad Thompson
Andrew Summers, Robin Mills, Scott Mills and Nicholas Thurston with an irrigation centre pivot at Warrawagine Station. Picture: Sharon Smith/The West Australian

On a remote cattle station, a veteran pastoralist is about to find out whether his vision of farming thousands of hectares on the edge of the desert is something more than a mirage.

Robin Mills believes he can produce viable crops on Warrawagine Station, about 130km east of Australia's hottest town, Marble Bar, and there is green and growing evidence he might be right.

Mr Mills took charge of the station, covering 401,000ha on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, almost 25 years ago.

It had just 460 cattle when he moved in and now it has a herd of more than 20,000.

He has pumped almost every cent he's earned into developing the station.

Now he's pumped about growing irrigated crops for food, cattle fodder and bio-gas in a project backed by the State Government and supported by a leading mining company.

Mr Mills and business partner Rob Jowett agreed to a trial planting of sorghum on one hectare of irrigated land last year and it took off so fast they could almost hear it growing at a rate of about 10cm a day.

Mr Mills started seeding last weekend for a commercial trial that involves three centre pivots, each irrigating 37ha, and the partners are already seeking Government approval to open up 12,000ha on Warrawagine for irrigation precincts.

Mr Mills and Mr Jowett also own Wallal Downs Station on the coast between Broome and Port Hedland and have been stunned by the results of irrigated agriculture on the 200,000ha property.

On Wallal, sorghum crops are being planted and harvested at a height of about 1.8m on a cycle of fewer than 40 days with three centre pivots used to water about 150ha.

"I'm 73 years of age, mate, and it has blown the top off my head trying to keep up with it," Mr Mills said.

"The capacity of what we could do here is amazing when the rest of the world is desperate for food security and the rest of the world is very short of water.

"We basically have it running out of the ground."

Warrawagine and Wallal both sit on top of huge aquifers and the Government sees tapping into the underground reserves as a key to unlocking the food production potential of WA's vast pastoral regions.

The revolutionary farming project at Warrawagine involves making use of 60 gigalitres of water a year discharged by a mine sitting on its boundary.

The water pumped out by Consolidated Minerals to get to manganese at its Woodie Woodie mine is enough to irrigate about 3000ha a year.

In a related trial, bio-gas could eventually replace diesel as the power source for the irrigation and mining operations.

Private company AgGrow Energy is investigating the business model for feeding a portion of the irrigated crops into biodigestors - an increasingly common source of power in Europe - to produce bio-gas.

Water Minister Mia Davies and Agriculture Minister Ken Baston watched the start of seeding at Warrawagine this month and are backing the project to succeed.

Together with Regional Development Minister Terry Redman, they have formed a ministerial working group aimed at encouraging big investments in irrigated agriculture.

The Government has put up $4 million to finance one of the three centre pivots at Warrawagine over the next two years.

Mr Baston said he was passionate about the project and the potential for irrigation to boost the productivity and profitability of pastoral regions.

"First we need to understand the potential for this through scientific research," he said.

"This 38ha trial will run for two years and test 31 crop species using some pretty exciting technology, including remote operation and monitoring."

Ms Davies said the Government was encouraging a game-changing approach to what was possible on pastoral land with untapped water resources.

"The Government is creating the right space for the private sector to say, 'What can we do with this land and this water'," she said.

Ms Davies said WA had some of the best groundwater scientists in Australia to oversee sustainable development as the economy diversified to become less reliant on mining.

Mr Mills said sorghum was good feed for sustaining cattle but it did not fatten them up, which was vital for adding value.

He is counting on the trial to come up with other viable cropping options.

"In our case a big reason for doing this is to make us droughtproof," he said. "We have only had 50mm of rain at Warrawagine for the total wet season.

"So it is pretty devastating.

"The cows are in very poor condition and those feeding calves are really feeling the pinch."