Clearing signals dawn of new Ord

Nathan DyerThe West Australian

In the dusty bush north-east of Kununurra bulldozers have started clearing the first lots of what will eventually be 13,400ha of new Ord Valley farm land.

Chief executive of Chinese-backed company Kimberley Agricultural Investment Jian Zhong Yin said the beginning of land clearing was a major milestone for the company which earlier this year brokered a deal with the State Government to lease all land available under its $311 million Ord-East Kimberley Expansion Project.

"This is actually the foundation for the whole of our development work here," Mr Yin told _Countryman _.

KAI plans to clear an initial 500 ha this year, with the remaining 12,900ha to be cleared over the next four years.

_Countryman _ understands land clearing costs alone will amount to about $200 million, with an additional $500 million needed to build processing and export facilities.

KAI general manager Jim Engelke said the company was looking to initially grow sweet sorghum for ethanol production, with a long-term view to growing sugar if economies of scale could be reached to make a Kununurra processing mill profitable.

"We need scale in a sugar industry to make it viable, so we're talking some years before a sugar mill," Mr Engelke said.

"The smallest mill we want to build is a two million tonne mill, so in rough area that's about 20,000 hectares," he said.

Mr Engelke said the company would look to the 14,000ha of existing Ord farmland and at future developments in the Northern Territory to expand potential sugar-growing land from the 13,400ha leased to the amount needed to sustain an industry.

The company will look to plant 500ha of cash crops next year, with sorghum, maize or chia the most likely choices. As part of the deal with the State Government, KAI must begin farming progressively as land is cleared.

Regional Development Minister Brendon Grylls said the commencement of land clearing on Ord Stage Two showed northern Australia had a strong farming future.

"There are plenty of naysayers who say we shouldn't be developing the north of Australia. They probably need to come to Kununurra and see it actually happening," he said.

The Government has spent $311 million to double the size of the Ord River Scheme to 28,000ha, extending the main irrigation channel 31km and building 40km of sealed roads.

The State Government is expected to finalise its lease agreement with KAI by the end of August.

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