Reprieve for research station

Corrina RidgwayThe West Australian

Two 15-minute meetings with the Agriculture Minister Ken Baston have been instrumental in revoking sale plans for the Esperance Downs Research Station.

Sale plans for the station were signposted on February 28 this year on the recommendation of Department of Agriculture and Food to Mr Baston.

Minister Baston overruled the former decision early last week, in a swift decision that stakeholders are applauding as a show of strong leadership.

Concerns were aired by South East Premium Wheat Association President David Cox and Projects Manager Nigel Metz, along with WAFarmers Grains Council member Mic Fels and Liberal Party President Tom Brown.

Both pairs put forward arguments to retain the station during the Regional Cabinet speed meeting rounds held on June 8, in Esperance.

"After listening to all views and seeking as many opinions as possible, I made a decision to pull the sale in the interests of the future of research in agriculture in the Esperance region," Mr Baston said.

After reaching Perth on Monday afternoon, he formally overruled the sales decision early the same week, less than four days after arguments were put forwards for retention of the asset.

"We can now look at ways to lease part of the land to help with the costs of retaining the asset," he said.

The operation of lease arrangements is now being considered by DAFWA for unutilised areas of the station. At present there is a grazing lease for part of EDRS for sheep.

Established in 1949, EDRS is one of 11 research stations Statewide.

In an effort to focus trial work on sites that best meet specific research or demonstration needs - including working with local grower groups and on private properties - sites that no longer support current and expected business needs are disposed of by DAFWA and sale proceeds are returned to Government.

A strategic asset plan undertaken by DAFWA identified the research facilities at Badgingarra and Newdegate as also surplus to needs.

Both properties are currently being leased until such a time as the properties then are sold.

The EDRS had initially been identified as being an underutilised asset, with just 30ha used for trial works and stock research relocated to Newdegate.

Costing less than $500,000 in total expenditure each year, sale of the 640ha property would be expected to garner about $2 million at current market prices.

Mr Fels was pleased with the outcome, believing sale of the station would have been severely detrimental to the region.

"The foundation of my argument to the minister was on the economics," he said.

"One-point-six billion tonnes passed through the Esperance Port last season. That's around half a billion dollars contributed to the economy.

"An increase of one percent productivity on that figure through research, would yield an extra $5 million profit."

The importance of a secure property for high-risk trial work was impressed upon the minister by both parties.

"There are times when trials call for highly contagious diseases or fungal infections to be allowed to run rampant," Mr Fels said.

"Other trials involving resistant weeds, certain new products, GM crops - all pose a risk to farm security.

"Farmers don't and can't have these types of trials on properties - this is where the research station is utilised."

Further biosecurity risks were perceived with allowing contractors from farm to farm to carry out higher risk trial work.

The loss of ability to replicate regional environmental conditions in trial work concerned stakeholders, who believed relocating certain trials would produce inaccurate results.

Deep tillage or long-term (seven-year) rotation trials were also noted as trial work that producers would not or could not viably undertake on-farm and were best researched on EDRS property.

For SEPWA, one of the heaviest losses stood to be that of the annual Field Day, held on September 11.

Mr Cox said the EDRS and its facilities had played a very important part as host of the field days.

"The SEPWA field day is the most important extension opportunity in the Esperance Region," he said.

"Without extension, research is null and void.

"The value to Esperance growers in keeping hold of that is huge."

Mr Cox went on to detail the impost of having to relocate facilities when EDRS already provided "very good accessible facilities".

Stakeholders were surprised at the lack of knowledge of the sale.

Mr Fels said he had come across the information by accident.

SEPWA received official notification from DAFWA of the sale two days prior to meeting the minister.

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