Baston extols WA exports
Lamboo Station’s Robin Yeeda and Agriculture Minister Ken Baston. Picture: Leon Mead Photography

Agriculture Minister Ken Baston believes WA has the potential to double farm and food exports to $12 billion a year over the next decade.

Mr Baston said hitting the target by 2025 would not be easy, but markets in China, South-East Asia and the Middle East were ready and waiting.

His biggest fear after one year in the ministerial hot seat is that WA ends up being all hat and no cattle when it comes to meeting skyrocketing demand.

Mr Baston threw down the gauntlet to the private sector to meet the challenge of boosting productivity, saying the State Government would support its lead.

His immediate concerns are for the live cattle industry with Indonesia expected to import 720,000 head this year, Elders and mining billionaire Andrew Forrest working to open up the huge Chinese market and exports to Vietnam growing rapidly.

"One of my fears is that we won't have cattle for the markets that are emerging," Mr Baston said. "We have been pushing like anything to get markets and rightly so. Now we must lift productivity with profitability coming back into the business."

The Pastoralists and Graziers Association and other industry leaders have been frustrated by State Government delays in clearing the way for more efficient land use through diversification permits and uncertainty over the extension of leases over millions of hectares of the Kimberley and Pilbara.

Mr Baston signalled urgent action to resolve the issues and described diversification permits as "extremely important".

"I see greater irrigation, feedlot systems and supplying cattle 12 months of the year rather than just in the dry season as ways to lift productivity," he said.

Mr Baston said improved herd management to increase calving rates and the potential for Aboriginal-controlled stations to partner with big cattle companies would also boost supply.

The cash-strapped State Government's commitment to agriculture faces a big test when it hands down its Budget.

Budgets cuts have forced the Department of Agriculture and Food WA to cut its staff from 1545 full-time workers to 1108.

Mr Baston admitted the reduced on-the-ground presence had started to bite.

Almost $300 million has been allocated for agriculture over four years. DAFWA is responsible for 10 of 14 key projects.

Mr Baston, the Liberal Party's first minister for agriculture since 1982, stopped short of saying all of the Royalties for Regions-funded projects were certain to go ahead but said they were an important part of hitting the $12 billion target.

The 64-year-old said he was thankful for the rain last July which saved crops in the most of the Wheatbelt and took some of heat out of what had been a baptism of fire in the job.

"WA produced over $5 billion of grain in a huge boost for the economy and farmers should be proud," he said. "They are real export dollars coming into WA that stay here."

Mr Baston said research and development, including the use of GM technology, held the key to increasing yields in the Wheatbelt.

He predicted sheep in WA would rebound as re-opening Middle Eastern live export markets boosted profitability.

The number of sheep in WA has fallen from 26 million to about 15 million since 2000.

Mr Baston, a former wool grower, tipped the price of ewes could reach $200 by the end of year.

"The sheep market is next. I think markets for meat, particularly beef but lamb as well, are going to be tremendous," he said.

The rain was absolutely God's gift from heaven and we ended up having a record grain harvest. " Ken Baston

The West Australian

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