Pasture program sold

Jo Fulwood, COUNTRYMANCountryman

The Australian arm of New Zealand-based agricultural conglomerate PGG Wrightson has been awarded the rights to purchase the Department of Agriculture and Food WA's Pasture Breeding and Agronomy program.

But the shock decision has earned the ire of pasture growers in WA, with some saying DAFWA sold out to the highest bidder to offload a $600,000 annual cost, with no regard for the wishes of the industry.

PasturesWest - a consortium of growers, local breeders, a university and grower groups - is now considering creating its own pasture breeding group to rival the research that will be undertaken by commercial company PGG Wrightson Seeds.

The PasturesWest group had submitted an expression of interest to the tender process, and despite conceding it had no financial backing, believed it was in the best interests of the WA pasture industry to keep the program in local and independent hands.

The consortium had requested 12 months to develop a business plan and secure funding.

But the program is to be sold early in the new year to the private seed business, which began trading as a rural supplies group in New Zealand 160 years ago and is listed on the New Zealand stock exchange.

The company set up operations in Victoria in 1938.

Pasture seed grower and Pingelly farmer Ray Marshall, who is a member of PasturesWest, said he and many other pasture growers were bitterly disappointed at the decision.

"By their actions, it is clear DAFWA has little interest in the future of the WA pasture seed industry," he said.

"We could have taken this program on, and kept the research in independent hands, if the department had given us the 12 months that we requested.

"Clearly, DAFWA needed to quickly offload this program to the highest bidder, which is a very sad day for the future of the industry.

"What say will growers now have in the research that is undertaken when the program is picked up by this commercial company?"

But DAFWA executive director of grains and livestock Industries Peter Metcalfe said the transfer of public investment to the private sector would strengthen WA pasture research and development.

Mr Metcalfe said a new business model was the best way forward for the local pastures industry.

"The new structure will provide greater agility for the commercial sector to respond to the changing needs of producers by delivering pasture cultivars that suit local livestock and grain producers for the future," he said.

"It will also open the door to potential national and international export opportunities and to new research collaborations."

PGG Wrightson Seeds general manager John Stewart said while there was still water to go under the bridge, he could not envisage any reason for the deal to fail.

He expected his company would take over the program early next year.

"The deal is not fully consummated, we have to find appropriate partners to work with yet," he said.

"But I don't see how it would fall over, these types of collaborations with us are common.

"DAFWA wants to keep the program in WA, keep it alive and use the resources there and so do we.

"It's great to have the opportunity to work with DAFWA to identify how we might develop a new product to take to market."

Mr Stewart confirmed PGG Wrightson Seeds would take over funding the program.

"Yes, we'll fund the ongoing program. DAFWA did not want to continue funding that program, so that's our role going forward," he said.

He said the company would be looking to form collaborations with industry groups and research bodies.

"This is not about reinventing the wheel - if we can collaborate with RDCs or industry groups, that's a far more effective way to leverage both funds."

But Mr Stewart stopped short of committing to work with PasturesWest in setting the goals of the program.

"We like to be involved with regional adaptation of varieties, and our intention is that WA would be one of our primary markets," he said.

"We are commercial, and we will work with other groups to take products to market, and it's in our interest to collaborate where it makes sense to get adoption of new technology."

Mr Marshall acknowledged the government program had lost its focus many years ago, saying funding had been primarily funnelled into the development of serradella pastures, which only suited specific soil types.

"The principle clover that is grown in WA is still subterranean Dalkieth, which was bred over 30 years ago," he said.

"If this was a grain crop, this sort of misdirection of research and breeding would never have happened."

Mr Marshall said the PasturesWest group still hoped to reinvigorate a WA-owned and run research program, saying the direction of any research would be determined by the industry, not based purely on achieving profit margins for a commercial conglomerate.

He said any industry-led pasture research program would mirror the successful strategies employed in WA's oats industry.

"Sustainable and profitable agriculture has been and always will be based on good legume nitrogen- fixing pasture crops," he said.

While the department expects to exit its pasture breeding and agronomy activities in the next year, its pasture intellectual property will still be available to bona fide researchers via the newly established Australian Pasture Genebank.

Mr Metcalfe said discussions with PGG Wrightson Seeds would include a strong commitment to work with the local industry and service providers to generate sustainable benefits to WA agriculture.

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