#AceNewsReport – June.14: Our ambition as a great Australian food company is to really increase the level of Australian peanuts and become less reliant on imported peanuts,” Bega Foods general manager Adam McNamara said:
Australians eat roughly 70 per cent of the imported peanuts each year: It is a statistic the local industry is trying to change but farmers have insufficient water to cope
The dairy and peanut butter giant has a commanding share of the domestic peanut industry and has ambitions to grow the local peanut crop.
Those plans have run into the vexing challenge of climate change and its insidious effects on traditional growing areas.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to get on with it whatever the cause is, and if we want to grow peanuts we’ll have to adapt,” Kingaroy peanut farmer Wayne Weller said.
He and many other farmers did not grow peanuts because of severe drought.
“Last year was the first year on record that we haven’t produced any peanuts in this region,” Mr McNamara said.
Kingaroy’s drying climate
Bega’s processing facility sits at the heart of the historic peanut town of Kingaroy in Queensland’s South Burnett region, which until recently produced most of Australia’s nuts with dryland crops.
The first commercial peanut crops there were planted in the region’s rich volcanic soils in the early 1900s.
University of Southern Queensland climatologist Chelsea Jarvis said the industry’s precarious future was already being charted as early as the 1920s.
“The trend for the amount of rain in the South Burnett region is, unfortunately, declining as it has been since about 1920 overall and we’ve seen declines of about 1.5-to-2 millimetres per year, which doesn’t sound like a lot but over decades it has added up to quite a lot,” she said.
Even before the drought, Mr Weller said, the timing of rainfall had changed and its reliability in the key planting and growing months of summer had decreased.
The flow-effect of less rain in the key months of January and February is delayed harvesting, which exposes crops to damaging frosts in early winter.
“We’ve only been here a couple of hundred years, white men, and we don’t know what the weather patterns have been in the past but we’re thinking it could be the norm, so we’re just going to have to adjust our management,” Mr Weller said.
His thoughts are shared by others who hope the drought will ease and the seasons will return to the way they were.
“It is cyclical. The rain will come, however, will it be as reliable as it used to be? Probably not. Will you get as much as you used to? Maybe not,” Dr Jarvis said.
“Hoping for a climate you don’t have isn’t helpful for anyone and it will cost you in the end, financially.”
Overcoming a water crisis
Mr McNamara said Bega was supporting Kingaroy’s farmers with existing and developing drought-tolerant peanut varieties.
“That’s all about producing peanuts which have that shorter maturity cycle and by having the shorter maturity cycle it means they’re less exposed to the elements, and the need for water isn’t as great,” he said.
The peanut processor is working with the Grains Research Development Corporation at its speed breeding facility where the crops for a volatile future are being grown.
“The key thing for growers is for them to have options, as we know seasons are variable and I think we’re able to try and provide growers with different options for different planting windows and also different rain events or climatic conditions,” Bega plant breeder Dan O’Connor said.
Mr O’Connor is also selecting disease-resistance genes for wetter conditions because peanut production has shifted to mostly irrigated production.
South Burnett will account for 20 per cent of peanuts grown this season, while irrigators near Bundaberg now grow the most peanuts in Australia in rotation with sugarcane.
South Burnett Regional Council Mayor Brett Otto would like to see farmers have access to more irrigation water.
He said the region was in a water crisis and lobbying the federal government to fund a permanent irrigation scheme near Kingaroy.
The peanut frontier
Farmers are starting to grow peanuts in entirely different areas with better access to water.
The Red Centre of Australia may seem unlikely for peanut production, but Paul McLaughlin is in his second year of commercial peanut production at Ali Curung, 400 kilometres north of Alice Springs.
“We get a lot of surprises when people learn we’re growing peanuts out here, because they associate peanuts with Queensland and Kingaroy,” he said.
“Once we’ve got the growing worked out, I think it’ll be another success story for Central Australia.”
Mr McLaughlin grows his crops under irrigation sustained by vast aquifers beneath the desert floor.
He said his peanuts thrived under the baking dry-season sun.
“It’s a very similar climate to Texas, that has very similar soil and climate to here, and they grow, I think it’s a couple of million tonnes of peanuts in West Texas, so this climate is ideal for peanuts,” Mr McLaughlin said.
Mr McLaughlin said expensive freight costs from Ali Curung to Kingaroy were the biggest issue, and he was building his own on-farm processing facility to solve it.
Mr McNamara said diversification of peanut growing regions was a key method to combat “climate volatility”, and grow the domestic peanut crop.
#AceNewsDesk report ………Published: Jun.14: 2021:
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