Huge agri-projects to reshape the North

Up north in Queensland’s Gulf country, an outback shire is set to become the unlikely poster-child for Australia’s ‘develop the north’ policy.

Etheridge Shire, 400km west of Cairns may seem an unlikely development hub, but three large-scale projects promise to change its fortunes and local property prices forever.

The biggest proposal comes from Integrated Food and Energy Developments who are a planning to spend $2 billion creating a food growing and processing precinct spanning 300,000 hectares.

At its heart, the scheme will irrigate sugar and guar bean plantations, drawing up to half a million megalitres of water from the Einasleigh and Elizabeth rivers then diverting it into two holding dams.

The scheme will form the centre point of a quarter of a million hectares of pasture country and incorporate livestock feedlots, a meat processing plant and an aquaculture farm raising Redclaw – the North’s answer to the Yabby.

The scheme will irrigate sugar and guar bean plantations.

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IFED estimates their proposal will result in 2,000 jobs during the construction phase and 1,000 positions permanently on the plantations and at a new sugar mill in Georgetown.

The other two projects are just as impressive; a new 60,000 hectare cattle station in Strathmore and a $150 million wind farm in Forsayth.

Etheridge Shire Mayor Will Attard is doing his best to keep his optimism cautious.

“I would say the community is neutral at present; they are waiting to see how things develop. At first, there was some negativity about IFED, with locals doubtful sugar cane could be grown here, but some are convinced that improvements in crop raising techniques will make it possible.”

“The real impact will be in the towns. While the construction phase will see fly in fly out workers living in camps, when the mill, plants and farms become operational, those 750 – 1,000 workers will come with their spouses and children into a town of around 280 people currently.

“That is a huge expansion which will change the social fabric and bring opportunities for businesses wanting to service the increased population.”

The expansion will bring opportunities for businesses wanting the service the increased population.

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These projects are a promising start to an area long identified as key to advancing Australia’s north. The CSIRO classified the Gilbert River catchment, which Georgetown sits in, as ideal for agricultural development thanks to its soil type and water supply.

The scheme is not without its critics though with the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Society questioning its feasibility and sustainability. Some locals joined in when evidence emerged that IFED was considering an amendment which would double their water allocation.

IFED is keen to emphasise its environmental credentials, highlighting plans to recycle cattle manure as fertiliser, use crop waste as feed and generate power through ethanol and bio energy.

For Attard, the focus is on opportunities and delivering the logistical resources necessary to make the projects run smoothly.

“We are now in the process of hiring an urban planner who can co-ordinate resources for all the projects, keep the locals informed and explain the issues in the corridors of power in Canberra and Brisbane to make sure it all works.”

“Local land prices have yet to reflect the area’s potential with only a few speculative purchases to date.”

“But we are encouraging local businesses not to start spending money yet but have plans in place to expand so we don’t see an IGA come in over the top and grab much of the potential.”