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Mallee tree harvest halted by poor government

Keith Wilson runs a sheep and wheat farm in the heart of the wheatbelt of Western Australia. He planted more than 700,000 mallee trees in the hope of selling them to the State Government for electricity generation. Source: ABC News

“I was led to believe that after about five years when these mallee trees matured, that we would be able to move forward with this and there would be a facility in place for us to be able to harvest the trees,” he said but this has not eventuated.

“At the end of the day, the lack of government support and what they said they would do has actually been two different things,” said Wilson.

Over the past decade, successive governments have thrown support behind the biofuel industry, starting with a pilot processing plant in Narrogin.

Western Power began operating the plant in 2002, proving it was possible to generate power from mallee trees.

Farmers were encouraged to take part and the Government even handed out some trees for free. But the trial ended a few years later and the plant has since been gathering dust.

David McFall from the Upper Great Southern Oil Mallee Growers Association said a lack of government support is holding back the industry.

“We know we can grow the trees, there’s been a lot of R&D, and we’ve got the harvesting and handling systems in place to support the downstream.”

More than 30 million mallee trees have been planted across the state in recent years, half of which are within the South West and Great Southern regions.

The trees can help farmers reduce wind erosion on their properties and lower the salinity of the soil. It also diversifies a farmer’s income stream from being solely reliant on crops or livestock, particularly if seasons are dry.

McFall said the growing trials have proven that mallee trees will grow and survive in most climatic extremes, making them the perfect fit.

But if the trees aren’t regularly harvested they start causing problems for growing crops and could force farmers to start ripping the trees out from their properties.

“They cause weed problems and use up moisture, because they’re using more land, they also reduce the productivity of crops,” Wilson said.

McFall said that is already happening.

“We are seeing a lot of farmers express frustration and we are seeing them push the trees to the blade,” he said. “It’s the last thing we want changing, it’s quite a significant shift in culture to adopt a tree based farm integrated system, we don’t want to reverse that.”

The biofuel industry falls across three different Western Australian State Government ministries – environment, agriculture and forestry. And farmers like Wilson say that creates a bureaucratic mess.

Agriculture minister Ken Baston knew little about why the industry had failed to eventuate. He said farmers wouldn’t be compensated for the costs of removing the trees from their land.

The Environment Minister Albert Jacobs said his ministry is taking the lead role on the issue. He released a statement saying the development of a new industry is difficult but the Government continues to support research into mallee trees for biofuel.

However, Wilson said that’s not good enough for those who have invested in the industry.

McFall said that re-opening the plant would not only give farmers a place to sell their trees, but bring multiple benefits to the region and help reverse the population drift away from the country.

“You’re looking at only about 10 permanent jobs at the plant, but you’re also looking at a lot of services to facilitate this, you’re looking at a lot of transport industry engagement, nurseries and planting contractors,” he said.