Farmers cash in on mining boom

Claire TyrrellCountryman

Unpredictable seasons and the stress of working on the land are resulting in increasingly more farmers seeking to cash in on WA's mining boom.

For some it's a case of mining companies being right on their doorsteps when land access agreements can provide extra income.

Others choose to leave the land to take on a career in the resources sector.

Morawa farmer John Cunningham encountered both situations.

His farm is 60km from Gindalbie Metals' Karara iron ore project and the mine's electricity, rail and water infrastructure run through his land.

Before Karara came along, Mr Cunningham battled depression and was ready to walk away from a farm that took three generations to establish.

He said Gindalbie threw him a lifeline when the company approached him after successive poor seasons.

"The 2004 drought was the last straw and I never thought we'd get out of it as well as we have," he said.

"In 2005 we were ready to sell the farm but managed to put a crop in.

"In May that year we started laying pads for Karara's drill program and we haven't looked back since.

"To go from being pretty much written off to where we are now is great."

Mr Cunningham started his own earthworks business in 2003, using a bulldozer he had on the farm.

Since then, Cunningham Earthmoving and Logistics has grown to a 12-employee, 10-dozer operation.

"The main mines we work for are SinoSteel (for its Koolanooka project) and Karara but we've gone as far as Meekatharra and Cue," he said.

About 12km of rail line, 6km of power line and 6km of water pipe to service the Karara project run through the Cunninghams' land.

In late 2010, after extensive negotiations, the family sold about a third of their farm to Karara.

"Before Karara came along we owned 11,000ha and they bought a third of our farm due to the rail line," Mr Cunningham said.

"We leased that land back off them so we could still crop it, with the agreement that we would not give them any grief."

Mr Cunningham said his farming operation had to change considerably since Karara's arrival but overall he had benefitted from the project.

"We've had a lot of interruptions, with spraying and seeding and harvest logistical nightmares," he said.

"At seeding time we shifted three lots of wide machinery and we had 25km of trucks going both ways and it took us three hours when it should've taken us 45 minutes.

"I think once the mine is fully operational it will change because there won't be the traffic.

"I wanted to see the mine go ahead - I think it's good for the area. If the mine wasn't here I don't think we would be here."

Mr Cunningham said the earthmoving business provided a way for him to keep working on the land while having a reliable income source.

"We are in marginal land and need to be able to ride out the dry years," he said.

"In the dry years the earthmoving brought in three times what the farm did. In a good season, like this year, it's about 50:50.

"The biggest thing is it gives us flexibility because if the farm doesn't look good you can just shut it off."

Karara has employed at least 25 farmers during the process of the mine's construction.

Morawa Shire chief executive Gavin Treasure said mines had generated employment and population growth for the region.

"We have been working very hard to attract more people into the district and it's good to see the mining companies employing locals," he said.

"A lot of farmers are looking at additional revenue sources by working with mining companies."

The Karara magnetite project, based 225km east of Geraldton, is set to enter its production phase by late 2012.

Karara chief executive Steve Murdoch said attracting farmers would be a big part of the company's recruitment drive.

"Farmers are a segment of the community, albeit a very big one," he said. "Our aim is local engagement, which does impact farmers."

Karara came head-to-head with farmers in the Mingenew area last year when the company was granted a licence to draw water from the Parmelia aquifer.

Farmers protesting against Karara's application were of the view that Karara's operations could adversely impact agricultural growth in the region.

Mr Murdoch said it was vital for Karara that the two industries worked together.

"We don't want to take over agriculture," he said. "We think it is good for the industries to co-exist and 95 per cent of farmers think the two (types of) commodities can co-exist."

Karara's water pipeline runs through 26 properties, its rail line through eight and its power line through 42.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails