Buntine banks on greenhouse effect

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Katherine FlemingThe West Australian
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Growing vegetables in greenhouses on unproductive paddocks in the Wheatbelt is an audacious plan but locals in shrinking Buntine believe it could save their town and others from certain death.

A million-dollar pilot project to do just that is due to begin next year.

It is part of a collaboration between local farmer Stuart McAlpine and Wide Open Agriculture, a company part-owned by Dutch foundation Commonland, which supports land regeneration work with economic and social returns.

Earlier this year, they identified a gently sloping, gravelly section of Mr McAlpine's farm that was relatively poor for growing wheat but perfect for capturing rainfall to grow a more intensive crop.

Work is expected to begin in February on water-channelling contours to direct heavy falls into a dam, instead of running off to the valley floor.

A 5000sqm greenhouse will then be built to grow spinach, capsicum and runner beans for a fledgling horticulture industry in a region known for wheat.

Hydrology reports indicate that even in years of drought, the rainfall funnelled from the impermeable ground would be enough for the water-efficient greenhouse.

WOA planned to buy 300ha from Mr McAlpine and potentially install up to 200 greenhouses on 100ha, regenerate another 100ha and use the rest for other purposes, such as potential tree crops.

Ben Cole, WOA's Narrogin-based managing director, said there would be up to $3.5 million available as the project grew.

Commonland project developer James Mackintosh said there was potential for "rapid positive cash flow, job creation, protection of remnant vegetation and large-scale impact on Wheatbelt communities".

The project would create jobs for five workers by April and at least 10 more after that, at a conservative estimate, Mr Cole said.

For Mr McAlpine, a fourth-generation farmer, the potential social benefits were as exciting as the economic and environmental possibilities.

Mr McAlpine, long worried about Buntine's dwindling population, said the new arrivals could breathe life into the town, where the disused bowling and tennis clubs had fallen into disrepair.

"There are plenty of facilities that we would just need to fix up a bit, " he said. "It would keep the schools going and the communities going. We can rejuvenate rural WA."

It was an approach Mr Cole said could be replicated across the Wheatbelt.

Three Nepalese workers - a soil scientist, a hydrologist and a forest management expert - have already volunteered to move to Buntine early next year.

Mr Cole said there were many families, including migrants, living in Perth who would like the chance to build a new life in the country, if there was work.

"This gives them the opportunity to go somewhere with infrastructure and a great community that is trying to attract more people," he said.

"Commonland has amazing networks and we want to show that the Wheatbelt can do this because we believe there are huge opportunities to attract investment.

"Things have been going one way in the region, but there is a completely alternative story that could be told for the Wheatbelt."

Mr McAlpine said land was cheap and plentiful, so those working on the WOA project could also branch out into their own farming businesses by leasing plots and unused facilities, such as sheep yards.

"It is hard for people to start from scratch these days, especially in agriculture, but this will release a bit of capital to get people out here to work," he said.

WOA's Buntine project was sparked by an article in _The West Australian _ about nearby Dalwallinu, where a program to attract skilled overseas workers increased the population by 15 per cent.

Mr McAlpine, the instigator of that plan, believes his beloved home town could realise similar benefits. But the community was dealt a blow last week when it was told the project was not enough to save their school, which has 13 students.

Local MP Shane Love and Regional Development Minister Terry Redman had both strongly advocated for a reprieve to determine whether the number of students would grow as anticipated.

But Education Minister Peter Collier said the "preliminary steps" to regenerate the town did not represent "tangible evidence of real population growth" in the short to medium term.

Schools with an average enrolment of 15 students or fewer for at least two years are not considered viable.

Instead, students will be transported to Dalwallinu District High School, 35km away, from next year.

Mr Redman said he was still seeking a meeting with Mr Collier to discuss the school's future, including whether there were any options left to keep it open.

Parent Leanne Wyatt said the closure in effect turned off the life support for Buntine, making it difficult to attract families to town because the travel to and from school would be "ridiculous".

Despite the setback, Mr Cole said the project would go ahead. He wrote to the local Shire recently asking that the facilities at the school be kept intact with a view to reopening it if the project attracted workers with children.

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