A few kilometres off the main road, not too far from the Murray River in north-west Victoria, soft and fluffy white cotton bolls wobble gently in a vast field.
A cool westerly wind sweeps across the 110-hectare cotton crop, while persistent showers have turned the red Mallee soil into mud. The wet conditions have brought what is a historic harvest to a temporary halt.
This crop, standing in a paddock at Winlaton, about 30 kilometres south east of Swan Hill, is believed to be the first cotton crop grown in Victoria in decades and possibly the first ever commercial-size crop. Those growing it believe it has been a success, and that cotton has the potential to be a ‘‘game changer’’ for the district.
Harvest will be completed as soon as weather conditions allow, and the cotton will then be sent over the border to a New South Wales cotton gin for processing. But until the weather improves the number of huge round rolls of harvested cotton lying on the edge of the paddock – each weighing about 2.5 tonnes – will remain at 12.
The crop has been grown on irrigated paddocks by the agricultural investment company Kilter Rural, on land owned by the superannuation fund VicSuper. Michael Neville, agriculture manager for Kilter, says that although harvest has not finished, he is pleased with how the crop has performed in Victorian soil.
‘‘It’s generally a game-changer for this district and for our portfolio, if we can get it right,’’ he says.
‘‘There’s a lot of people hanging over the fence, having a look. There’s been three or four interested parties that are looking to have a trial themselves this season coming. There’s been a lot of interest, from a lot of people,’’ he says.
He hopes Kilter will be able to increase the size of its cotton crop in coming seasons, and points to other fields where he plans to grow cotton. ‘‘Of the six crops we grow it will be a major influence on that. I’m hoping it can be 20-25 per cent of our cropping area, once we get to about 3500 (irrigated) hectares,’’ he says.
Australia’s cotton industry is based in Queensland and NSW, where it is big business, producing a national crop worth $2.8 billion in 2012.
While the industry is based firmly north of the Murray River, it has gradually pushed further south over recent years. A new cotton gin opened at Whitton, near Griffith, just a few years ago, and another - costing in excess of $30 million - will soon open at Hay in NSW. When the Hay gin opens Kilter plans to send its cotton there.
Mr Neville says evolution is important for agriculture. ‘‘Development funds are hard to get, and you’ve got to have new insights. Agriculture has got to keep evolving like any other industry. So you need new crops, you need new things happening all the time,’’ he says.
Mr Neville’s colleague, Shawn Butters, says it is ‘‘really exciting’’ to have grown the crop successfully. ‘‘What it shows is that people in northern Victoria can invest and they can take on new crops,’’ he says.
‘‘This is the first cotton crop in Victoria, from our reckoning, since 1962 when it was grown at Robinvale,’’ he says. ‘‘Cotton is grown as far south as, say, around about Hay (on the Murrumbidgee River). So there’s no reason that cotton can’t grow in northern Victoria. And we think that with the new varieties of cotton and the new management techniques that cotton has got a big future in northern Victoria.’’
The crop was watered via sub-surface irrigation and used about 10 megalitres of water per hectare. But Mr Butters says, ‘‘We think we can reduce that amount of water in subsequent years,’’ and that eventually cotton will use less water per hectare than other locally grown crops like lucerne and maize.
Adam Kay, CEO of Cotton Australia, says Kilter’s cotton crop is the first commercial cotton crop he is aware of to be grown in Victoria. ‘‘What we’ve seen over the last 30 years is technological advances, breeding better varieties, better agronomic and management techniques and the like that have enabled the crop to move significantly south,’’ he says.
Mr Kay says cotton is grown near Berrigan, in New South Wales, which is about 30 kilometres north of the the Murray River, at a similar latitude to Kilter’s crop near Swan Hill.
Dairy farmer Max Fehring was impressed by what he saw when he toured the Winlaton crop early this year. Mr Fehring, a former mayor of the Gannawarra Shire, said: ‘‘It shows that Australian farmers are very adaptable and highly skilled.’’