Kununurra land set for return to cane fields

Alicia BridgesCountryman
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The East Kimberley's sole cane grower says sugar is the only sensible choice for 15,000 hectares of irrigated farmland released under the Ord Stage 2 expansion.

Hoochery Distillery owner Spike Dessert has 3ha of cane grasses, just enough to keep the rum flowing, but his small crop is the biggest in WA.

Sugar cane crops were plentiful in the Ord Valley before the local industry collapsed five years ago.

The Ord Sugar Mill, established by CSR in 1995 and purchased by Korean company Cheil Jedang Corporation in 2000, folded under the weight of low world sugar prices in 2007.

Earlier this week, Premier Colin Barnett announced the Government's preferred developer for the Ord Stage 2 farmland was Kimberley Agricultural Investment, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese hotel company Shanghai ZhongFu Co, which would invest $700 million to re-establish sugar production in the East Kimberley.

Mr Dessert, a Kununurra identity who arrived in the Kimberley in 1972, has seen a variety of broadscale crops, including cotton and sugar, come and go.

Despite the sour end to the region's last sugar mill, which recorded high yields until its demise, Mr Dessert has confidence in sugar as a broadscale crop for the Ord Valley.

"Sugar didn't fail (in 2007), the mill failed, there wasn't enough acreage to run the mill and a mill that size was less economical," he said.

"Now with a big mill and bigger acreage and a bigger pocket to start with, I think it's got a very good chance."

Mr Dessert said various crops had failed in the Ord Valley because of a combination of poor management and bad luck.

"We still grow very, very good sugar," he said.

"Some of these other crops, some have failed, but a lot of them it was not the plant that failed as much as the management failed, or the situation in markets (changed) which nobody has control over."

With cotton and sandalwood as alternatives, Mr Dessert said Shanghai ZhongFu's sugar proposal was the "only decision" the State Government could have made for the Ord Stage 2 land.

He expected the company would hire local people, including former sugar farmers, with hands-on knowledge about growing sugar cane in the East Kimberley.

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