Kimberley farmers welcome Ord Stage 3 go-ahead and expansion of irrigation scheme across the NT border

Fifty years after the completion of mainland Australia’s largest storage dam to feed the growth of the Ord Irrigation Scheme, Kimberley farmers have welcomed news a developer has finally been decided to expand farmland across WA’s border into the Northern Territory.

Only a few years ago, plans for Ord Stage 3, as it was historically known, seemed all but dead in the water.

But last week, the AAM Investment Group (AAMIG) was announced as the preferred proponent to develop the 67,500-hectare parcel of land.

The Keep Plains Agricultural Development, as it has been rebranded, will adjoin WA’s Ord Stage 2 and could one day see the Ord water channel extended across the border to irrigate crops.

Ord farmers welcome announcement

Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley David Menzel said the announcement had been a long time coming and had the potential to be one of the most significant northern agricultural developments in recent history.

“Lake Argyle was built to service something along the lines of 40,000–60,000 hectares,” he said.

“Stage one of the Ord, which is based around the town of Kununurra, is around 15,000 hectares; we were stuck with around 15,000 hectares for the first 40 or 50 years, and then about 10 years ago, Stage Two got up and going.

“There’s still a 5000-hectare parcel we’re hoping will be given the go-ahead on the end of Stage Two at Knox Plains…and then really, the next big parcel of land is over the border and into the Territory.

The Ord Irrigation scheme is the result of a bold plan to develop a food bowl in Northern Australia.(ABC Rural: Courtney Fowler)

Land release timely for growing cotton industry

On Friday, the Australian-owned investment company AAMIG, which already owns the nearby Legune cattle station, revealed to the NT Country Hour that they would begin by developing the site for dryland farming and grow a range of crops that would complement their beef cattle operations .

The company’s proposal said future irrigated crops could include cotton, maize, mangoes, bananas, nut trees and other fruit and vegetables.

Mr Menzel, who is a local farmer and chairman of the Ord Irrigation Cooperative, said a new agricultural development couldn’t be timelier, with momentum building to scale up a cotton industry in the region.

David Menzel leaning on a tractor wheel at his farm in Kununurra.
Ord farmer David Menzel is the president of the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley.(Tom Edwards)

Traditional owners at MG Corporation are already trialling cotton on two parcels of Goomig farmland, only a few kilometers from the WA/NT border, in partnership with Cubbie Agriculture.

Next door, the Chinese-owned company that developed and currently farms on Ord Stage 2, Kimberley Agricultural Investment (KAI), has been instrumental in reviving a cotton industry in the Ord.

KAI is currently negotiating approvals with the State Government to clear a parcel of land adjacent to the WA/NT border called Knox Plains to accommodate the growing cotton industry and construction of a highly anticipated cotton gin.

Ord Stage 3’s complicated history

It wasn’t long ago KAI also had its eye on expanding into the Territory.

However, in 2017, when the NT’s former Agriculture minister Ken Vowles said the Labor Government would not be “actively pursuing” the Ord Stage 3 expansion, it shelved plans to grow sugarcane because it required significantly more land to be viable.

Ord Stage 3 proposal
Map detailing the original Ord Stage 3 proposal.(Supplied: NT Government)

Mr Menzel said there would still be many Kununurra farmers interested in sub-leasing or farming on land in Ord Stage 2 down the track.

However, he acknowledged there were still many challenges ahead for the Keep Plains Agricultural Development to become a reality.

“They have a proponent, but they haven’t got all the land clearance and heritage and other paperwork in place yet.

“There’s also no particular signatories to any sort of water sharing, although there have been talks going on for a long time. There’s no formal agreement in place yet.”

Environmentalists opposed

It’s understood the WA Government has been working with successive NT governments over the past decade to facilitate the Keep Plains land release.

When a call for expressions of interest was announced mid-2020, Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the development would be contingent on negotiations with potential investors on the use of WA water and infrastructure.

AAMIG has also pointed to opportunities to capture water onsite and to draw water from the Keep River.

This suggestion has been met by fierce opposition by environmentalists in the north, with the Environment Center NT labeling the project as “outrageous”.

Aerial photo of cotton crop with picker in it and ranges in the distance
Kununurra farmers celebrated their largest cotton harvest in recent history last year, with 1,500 hectares picked across the Ord in 2021.(ABC Kimberley: Courtney Fowler)

Co-director Kirsty Howey said the development did not stack up environmentally or economically.

“This is a project that comes around with striking regularity in the Northern Territory news cycle and political cycle; it’s like Groundhog Day,” she said.

“This is the largest land release in Northern Territory history. It deserves close scrutiny.”

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AAM Investment Group outlines plans for Ord Stage 3
AAM Investment Group outlines plans for Ord Stage 3

A long road ahead

Back in WA, second-generation Ord farmer Fritz Bolten said sustainable farming practices were important to the agricultural community in the Kimberley.

“And I think it’s really important for that particular development that the traditional owners are really well engaged. It’s a very spiritual place that needs to be very well respected and cared for.

“To me, that’s the first thing that needs to be sorted out properly.”

a drone shot of a road cutting through bush.
AAMIG plans to grow maize, mangoes, bananas and nut trees on the Keep Plains Agricultural Development.(ABC Rural: Courtney Fowler)

AAMIG and the Northern Territory Land Corporation will now enter into negotiations to finalise a Project Development Agreement.

But if the “red tape” surrounding the expansion of the Ord Irrigation Scheme in WA is anything to go by, realistically, it could be more than 5-10 years before crops are being farmed in the area.

It was a sore point for Stage 2 developer KAI, who spent several years clearing and developing land on the 7,400ha Goomig development, although not being able to come to an agreement with the state government on conditions surrounding the lease.

After several years of negotiations, KAI officially signed off on lease arrangements with the WA Government in 2017.

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