The remote Queensland town of Hughenden plans to turn around its declining population and fortunes with irrigated crops, via two schemes to better utilise the region’s water.
- Hughenden is hoping to drive growth through new irrigated crops
- $180 million from the Commonwealth has been pledged, if approvals for a Flinders River dam are granted
- The local council’s 15 Mile project will grow early season grapes for Australian consumers
Hughenden was founded by pastoralists, riding on the sheep’s back with a thriving wool industry, but drought, mechanisation and poor commodity prices have halved its population from 2,300 in 1961 to 1,100 today.
But proponents hope a planned $300 million Hughenden Irrigation Project (HIPCo) and the smaller 15 Mile project, developed by Flinders Shire Council, can prove the town’s commitment to economic diversification.
HIPCo chair Shane McCarthy said a $10 million detailed business case for a dam, weir and irrigation channels at Saego Station would determine the demand for water in the local community and further afield.
With an arid climate and four metres of evaporation per year, business case consultants Jacobs will determine how large a dam would need to be to meet irrigators’ needs.
Information provided to a recent public meeting suggested the scheme’s size could be from 80,000 megalitres to a minimum of 60,000.
“Jacobs will go into more detail on the design, one of the big things we’re going through is how much demand is out there, there’s no use building a dam with only a small amount of demand,” Mr McCarthy said.
Local irrigator and hay grower Jeff Reid, one of several farmers already operating along the Flinders River, said his experience was proof agriculture could succeed locally.
“The good thing is it’s not an airy-fairy fantasy wishlist,” he said.
With demand for fodder significant, the meeting heard scope existed for using HIPCo water to increase cattle production, with lot-feeding options to drought-proof the region.
But Mr Reid said no dam would survive on the existing hay-growing in the district.
“All we need’s a bit of a help, to smooth out the boom-and-bust cycle Hughenden suffers.”
Grape grower moves in
Flinders Shire Council has developed a separate irrigation project known as the 15 Mile, using local underground water to lure Victorian company Marciano Table Grapes to Hughenden.
Farm manager Maritz du Plessis said with Australian-grown grapes unavailable several months every year, Hughenden’s climate would help fill a key gap in the Australian spring.
“Early season fruit is predominantly imported from California, we’re aiming to eat out at some of those imports,” he said.
Mildura-based Marciano will invest $10 million in developing an initial 60-hectare farm, dam, packing shed, worker accommodation and machinery, with a total of 300 hectares of land potentially available for development.
“We’re aiming to plant vines this spring, then first harvest will be October, November 2022,” Mr du Plessis said.
Flinders Shire invested $4.5 million in the 15 Mile, with assistance from Queensland’s Department of State Development after the project was declared a coordinated project in August 2018.
Some financial assistance was also provided from the state’s Jobs and Regional Growth Fund.
More than a decade after it was first touted, mayor Jane McNamara said the success of the project would be critical for future investment.
“We had to make sure there was secure water, that’s all coming out of alluvial bed sands, as well as a licence for Great Artesian Basin water,” she said.
“This is a pilot project for the HIPCo project. We support that because a dam on the Flinders is going to be beneficial to the whole development of north Queensland,” she said.
About 34 full-time equivalent jobs will be created by the farm, with up to 150 positions during the three-month annual harvest window.