Mallee industry in crisis, says inventor

Jo FulwoodCountryman

The inventor of the world's first self-propelled oil mallee harvester has lashed out at Australia's political leaders, saying the mallee industry was in crisis because of a lack of leadership and direction.

Biosystems Engineering managing director Richard Sulman said he had been awarded $1.5 million by the WA Government to design and build a harvester prototype, but there was now no market for the product and he had been forced to look internationally to sell his concept.

He said he had secured funding from Future Farming Industries Co-operative Research Centre to continue developing the prototype since promised funds from WA "industry stakeholders" had not been forthcoming, despite a contractual agreement.

Biosystems Engineering is based in Toowoomba, Queensland, and while the prototype harvester was sent to WA early in its development, it can no longer be brought to WA because of quarantine laws.

Mr Sulman said he had faced criticism for not producing a "ready to use" harvester for the WA market, but there had been limited support from government and industry and his major market for a commercial product would now be overseas.

He said Australia's political focus on carbon credits was "crazy" and governments needed to focus on investing in renewable energy programs.

"The reason that oil mallee harvesting is not happening in WA is based on policy and policy alone," Mr Sulman said.

"When the Australian and State governments move away from this silly idea of carbon farming initiatives towards a policy of generating fuel from the landscape, then you will see a flurry of activity."

He said he had spent more than a year living in Brazil researching its renewable energy industry and South America would ultimately prove to be a more valuable market for his harvester than Australia.

"Brazil has an agricultural energy plan," Mr Sulman said.

"We talk carbon, they talk renewable energy.

"As a result they have one of the biggest agricultural sectors of any country.

"Brazil is only running a surplus because of their agricultural industry.

"In Australia we are so intellectual about this problem that we have lost sight of solutions. These need to be low-tech, on-ground solutions.

"Frankly, it's a mess. I took a major gamble taking on this project. There is no strategic pathway, there is no commercial plan for mallees in WA.

"The initial concept has been put together by dedicated well-intentioned public servants who have been given no support."

Biosystems Engineering has secured private funding from eastern states investors to complete the self-propelled harvester and develop it as a commercial product.

Mr Sulman said a price had not yet been set for the new machine and it would be several years before the harvester was commercially available.

"If WA can't get a statewide strategic development plan together for mallees-to-energy, with a chronological layout of research and development activities required to address each aspect of the supply chain, then sadly the fate of mallees as a fuel source will be sealed," he said.

However, in a written statement, WA Environment Minister Albert Jacobs said the State Government was working with a range of stakeholders to establish a sustainable commercial mallee industry that was integrated with farming.

Mr Jacobs said an estimated 13,000 hectares of mallee had been planted in the South West.

"The Department of Environment and Conservation has undertaken research and development into mallee species selection, breeding, planting design, economics and early establishment," he said.

Mr Jacobs said the State Government had also started working with a range of rural industries either using, or interested in using, biomass to generate heat and power.

"This work aims to demonstrate the viability of biomass harvesting and processing," Mr Jacobs said.

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