NT's unirrigated cotton industry booming
The Northern Territory's unirrigated cotton growers are set for a bumper harvest after a big wet season, with hopes their fledgling industry will become a major contributor to the Top End's economy.
It is only the third season the innovative rain-fed cotton method has been used in the Katherine and Daly regions, about three hours south of Darwin, but growers expect to triple production in the coming years.
They are also building a local cotton-processing plant so they can keep more profit in the NT as they use the region's close proximity to Asia to tap into lucrative export markets.
But not everyone is happy about the plan. Conservationists say dry cotton relies on unreliable weather patterns and growers will need to draw water from already stressed river systems.
"It's an emerging industry for the NT and we've got a golden opportunity to do this very well and be a world-class industry in the NT," Northern Cotton Growers Association president Bruce Connolly told AAP.
Growers expect to start harvesting in late May, with cautious hopes yields will exceed last year's 4.5 bails per hectare.
With just nine local growers and 80 workers, the NT is a minnow in the broader Australian cotton industry, which generates about $2.5 billion for the economy annually and employs about 12,000 people.
Cotton Australia chief executive Adam Kay says there is global demand for the product.
"Australia sells every bale that it produces every year at a premium because the quality is so high and that's why the industry will grow in the Top End," he said.
The NT government has also backed the budding industry.
"We've got the land and the climate to massively grow cotton here in the Territory and create a $200 million a year industry," Chief Minister Michael Gunner said.
"That means jobs and it means continuing to diversify our agricultural sector."
Irrigated and rain-fed cotton production kicked off in 2019 but the unirrigated crop now accounts for 90 per cent of all cotton in the NT.
A crop uses about seven megalitres of water from planting through to harvest.
In the south, that comes from irrigation but in the NT, where the wet season can dump 1500mm of rain, growers largely rely on the monsoon.
The only problem with the plan is it does not always rain when producers need it and that means some irrigation could be required late in the growing cycle as the wet season ends.
"We're developing a supplementary irrigated model, so we think we can use part-wet season and part-irrigation and reduce water use by 50 per cent," Mr Connolly said.
The scale of the planned expansion has conservationists like Environment Centre NT director Kirsty Howey worried.
Growers will eventually need to draw water from the rivers and aquifers as the industry grows, she says.
"Continued cotton industry expansion could lead to a practice known as flood-plain harvesting, which is, at present, unregulated in the Territory and had a massive impact on the Murray-Darling basin," Ms Howey said.
"Claims the cotton will remain largely rain-fed also need closer scrutiny. Irrigated cotton is far more productive and the industry itself says dry cotton is opportunistic and driven by unpredictable cycles."
Daly River Barramundi fishing resort owner Adrian Koenen is also worried about the impact the cotton industry could have on rivers in the Top End.
"If the Territory wants this river to remain iconic then what's happening is the worst thing we can do," he said from Woolianna, about three hours drive from Darwin.
"If people want this river to survive they better do something about it."
Mr Connolly rejected the claims, saying the industry was working with regulators to make sure it remains sustainable.
"We haven't taken additional water. We haven't asked for additional water," he said.
"Most of the guys in the industry spend their recreation time on the rivers.
"We're all fishermen as well as cotton growers, so we're not going to destroy that which gives us life."
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