A trial to grow fresh produce in the harsh and remote East Pilbara has begun, with fruit trees such as table grapes, peaches and citrus planted in the furnace-like heat of outback Western Australia.
Known as the heart of the Pilbara, iron-ore laden trains traverse the mining town of Newman’s surrounds, pumping the lifeblood of the nation’s economy.
But there are hopes a three-year trial to grow fresh produce in the outback town could signal change.
Politicians, community leaders and traditional owners gathered at Martu Farm to welcome the start of the trial to test if the inland and elevated area of Newman would be suitable for producing high-value temperate crops.
The trial is part of the $5.9 million Transforming Agriculture in the Pilbara (TAP) project that has been examining soil and water resources in the region for potential horticulture, fodder and field crop production.
If successful, it could mark the beginning of the first viable industry producing fresh fruit in the Pilbara.
Fruit orchards in the desert
Project manager Dr Chris Schelfhout said the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development had been looking for areas in the Pilbara that could sustain fruit production.
“We looked at some climate data in the Pilbara and recognised that areas like Newman, [being a] long way from the sea, is quite elevated and does get quite cold in the winter months,” Dr Schelfhout.
“We had a theory that its climate might be suitable for growing crops that require those cold temperatures to go through a period of what’s called vernalisation, [meaning] they go into dormancy and obviously as the temperatures warm up, they come out of that dormancy.”
“We’ve tried to select varieties with a lower chill requirement.”
Table grapes, stone fruit such as nectarines, peaches and plums as well as citrus trees such as navel oranges, Valencia oranges, mandarins, lemons and limes crops have so far been planted.
Dr Schelfhout said testing at the site revealed the red-pindan soil was suitable for horticulture and a groundwater bore would ensure a reliable water supply for orchards.
“It will be quite exciting when we’ve got some Pilbara peaches. I’m reasonably confident some of these trees will have some fruit next year.”
Minister for Food and Agriculture Alannah MacTiernan said Newman had a better chill factor than Carnarvon, a known horticultural area in the Gascoyne region.
“The real challenge is to see if it works in real life,” she said.
Ms MacTiernan said another advantage would be a year-round supply.
“In Carnarvon, the Ord and the West Kimberley, we can produce counter seasonally,” she said.
“That helps West Australian horticulture supplying to national and international markets because many of the large retailers require a year-round supply, so if we can take advantage of the fact that we run the full length of the continent here in Western Australia and have growing right up the state — that’s going to increase the opportunities for everyone.”
Dr Schelfhout said varieties of fruit such as flame seedless table grapes were carefully selected in the process to be used as indicator varieties.
He added the trial could expand across the Pilbara but having the orchards relatively close to population centres was key.
“Here in the Pilbara, whether that’s Newman or Tom Price, as horticultural crops are labour intensive, [having] access to that labour is important,” he said.
Dr Schelfhout said having a reliable refrigerated freight system was vital in exporting fresh produce.
Diversifying industries in the Pilbara
Dr Schelfhout said working with elders from the Martu fellowship has inspired the possibility of cultivating bush tucker and native foods.
Shire of East Pilbara president Lynne Craigie said job opportunities outside of mining in Newman were few and far between.
“This could be what we need to change that. This could be something going forward, that could employ Martu people and other locals who don’t particularly want to work in mining.
“It’s fine to say mining is the big industry in the Pilbara, but not everybody wants to be a miner.
Ms MacTiernan said the State Government was getting behind TAP.
“We’ve got an agenda to diversify our economy — we’ve got an agenda to increase our productive agricultural output,” she said.
“The Pilbara, in particular, has become in an economic sense quite resource-focused and one dimensional as oil and gas, iron ore and lithium [industries].
“We also know that the southern half of the state is drying and fortunately this area, the north of the state, is not been subject to the same drying factor from climate change.
“If anything, we’ve got a slight increase in rainfall, so we want to explore the opportunities that might exist here.”
Benefitting the Martu community
The Martu are the traditional owners of a large part of central Western Australia, where the Great Sandy Desert, Little Sandy Desert and Gibson Desert meet.
Martu people from remote communities of Jigalong, Parnngurr, Punmu and Kunawarritji often travel hundreds of kilometres to Newman for greater opportunities.
Darrien Rogers, a 24-year-old Martu man who is undergoing a traineeship in horticulture at Martu Farms, said working on country meant a lot to him.
“[It] means a lot, going out back to community, seeing all my family and relatives and helping them,” he said.
“I would like to see more Martu people doing a traineeship and working around town, in our own community.”
Martu elder and Mr Rogers’ grandfather Jimmy Williams said he was proud of his grandson.
“We want to see more of our … Martu people being involved and working together. Because a lot of our boys here, they need to be trained, they never been doing that before,” he said.
“For us, we knew the station life, we know what work is. But these fellas, they don’t.”
Horticulturalist Quentin Larose has been training Mr Rogers to run the farm as a nursery.
Originally from France, Mr Larose said working in Newman as a horticulturalist was a completely different experience.
“Believe me, trying to grow stone fruit over 50 degrees is going to be very interesting to see,” he said.
“The weather is different, the soil is different, the way the rain is coming is different. I personally learn every day as well.”