Mallee under threat as industry hits crossroads

Jo FulwoodCountryman

Thousands of oil mallee trees across the Wheatbelt could be destroyed because markets for the native trees continue to be elusive.

With the industry at crisis point, farmers say without regular harvesting, the trees become invasive and impact on productive cropping land.

They say weeds in the tree lines also need constant maintenance to avoid weed seeds blowing into crops.

Anticipated biomass markets, carbon credit schemes and the potential for oil production have failed to materialise, and the industry is now at a crossroad.

Kulin farmers Keith and Sara Wilson have planted 750,000 oil mallee trees in the past six years on their 6500-hectare property.

Mr Wilson said he would consider ripping out trees to reduce the impact on his crops from weeds and invasive roots. He said while the trees were useful as shelter for stock, the in-paddock tree lines were proving to be a major problem in productive cropping land.

"If we can harvest the biomass, the roots retreat, and it doesn't affect the crop. But the edge of the crop gets affected by the expansion of the tree roots because of the moisture competition. They call this the edge effect," he said.

"If there is no market for the biomass, and we don't harvest them, we have to prune or burn the trees to reduce their root systems."

Mr Wilson said significant investment was needed in the processing sector to ensure the longevity of the industry.

But the right people needed to be given the incentive to find outside investment to allow the industry to be profitable.

"I'm very sceptical about it all," he said.

"The money needs to go to groups that have the capacity to commercially develop this industry."

Mr Wilson said government bodies had promoted the planting of the trees several years ago but growers were now left to clean up the mess, with limited support and no prospect of an income in the present circumstances.

"This issue needs to be treated seriously by government," he said.

"This is a product that we can grow out here, and grow successfully, even in adverse seasonal conditions.

"It's the processing and the marketing systems that we need to enable us to extract value from it.

"We need a workable plan from these trees, such as a carbon credit plan. If farmers can earn a passive income from oil mallees, it then doesn't matter if you harvest them or not."

Upper Great Southern Oil Mallee Growers Association regional manager David McFall said farmers were getting frustrated with the lack of industry and market development.

"Early adopter growers, who responded to the challenge of changing farming systems for the better, have been hung out to dry," he said.

"It's little wonder that farmers are getting frustrated. The only recourse for them is to take this dramatic step and push the trees out, which is the last thing we want.

"This is an exciting industry for regional Australia and the last thing we want is to go backward."

However, Oil Mallee Association of Australia general manager Simon Dawkins said many growers were happy with their tree plantations, saying they never had any expectations of harvest returns.

"They are happy to have the trees there because the landscape needs it," he said.

But he acknowledged that some growers had felt disenfranchised by a lack of policy consistency and government commitment to industry development.

"We are looking at a number of strategies but we understand that people have lost patience," he said.

"We worry about it, we care about and we are trying to find solutions for the industry.

"We believe this is a good story for regional WA, for a sustainable farming system which is like no other.

"As the rain amount drops these trees are going to become more and more important."

A spokesman for Agriculture Minister Ken Baston said the Department of Agriculture and Food WA had supported research into alternative crops such as oil mallees over many years and had always been balanced in communicating the benefits and problems with the trees, consistently advising that there were concerns about commercial viability of the end product.

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