The Chinese Wheatbelt revolution

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian
Agronomist Tang Jim Fu.
Camera IconAgronomist Tang Jim Fu. Credit: The West Australian

Chinese-backed companies are sowing the seeds of a revolution in the Wheatbelt as they roll out a corporate farming model many doubted would succeed.

Their seeding operations for this season are on a scale never before seen in Australia and cover farms from Ongerup in the west, Hyden in the north and Esperance in the east.

A fleet of five precision seeders - including four with a working width of more than 27m - have covered up to 2000ha a day as part of the round-the-clock operations.

The cropping program matches the Beidahuang Group's pledge to grow bigger and better and expand into livestock, after celebrating its first harvest last summer.

It is also slowly winning over sceptics by living up to a commitment to do business with local suppliers and not import chemicals and equipment from China.

Farming neighbour and Lake Grace Shire councillor Dean Sinclair said the Chinese operations - run under contract by Geelong-based Vicstock Grain - were moving the fence posts on what was possible.

"It is a new kind of farming," he said.

"What they are doing here is showing efficiencies that we haven't been able to afford.

"And they are teaching me a thing or two."

Mr Sinclair said the crops emerging on Connemara, the centrepiece of the vast tracts of farmland owned and leased by BDH's Australian business arm Heilongjiang Feng Agricultural, were the equal of the best in the district.

"I have some bloody good crops this year but they have got a better one," he said.

"It is brilliant and a credit to these guys that they took on these farms and turned it around."

Mr Sinclair said the Chinese still had their share of knockers, with rumours circulating the silo bags they used to store part of last season's harvest had split and been overrun by mice.

"That is just rubbish," he said.

"What they have done is stabilised the price of land and been more than fair in the price they have paid to lease land."

Mr Sinclair, who has farmed near Lake Varley for 33 years, said the investment had brought new hope after a spate of tragedies linked to tough times.

Farm manager Jimmy Hutchinson said Vicstock Grain was employing about 30 workers, including two full-time mechanics, for seeding and the lambing season.

The legion of mainly European workers includes 35-year-old agronomist Tang Jin Fu, who cut his teeth growing rice and corn in China's north-east, where BDH is based.

Mr Tang has been working at Connemara for about a year gaining local knowledge as the cropping and livestock programs expand.

The properties are carrying about 15,000 sheep and an inactive 3000-head cattle feedlot is about to be restocked.

A third road train is set to be added to the $200 million invested in WA through HFA and Vicstock Grain in less than two years, including $70 million to buy land.

Most of the grain from the first harvest is being sold in containers and this season's cropping program is focused on wheat, barley and canola.

The venture quickly grew to cover 85,500ha and the aim is to expand the cropping operation to 100,000ha.

Vicstock Grain chief executive Harold Sim, also a director of HFA, said the investment was for the long-term.

"We will continue to develop into a successful cropping entity, continue to support local farming communities and, if possible, expand the agribusiness," he said.

"With our farming scope, it is only sensible in order to minimise risk to incorporate livestock operations, but we will take a slow and steady approach."

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