Time for a date?

p2236-dates-van-Holthe-1By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

“The development potential within the date industry is huge,” announced Primary Industries Minister Willem Westra van Holthe at the AZRI farm in Alice Springs today.

 

Provided you have a lot of time, he should have added – and water.

 

How long does it take for a date palm to grow fruit?

 

“That’s probably a technical question that the department would be able to answer.”

 

How many electoral cycles?

 

“Pretty cynical question … well, I don’t know how many years it takes,” said Mr van Holthe.

 

The answers are: The first fruits grow after about five years, and then it takes at least another 10 until a palm becomes profitable, according to Bob Williams, of the department’s Plant Industries Group, who was traveling with the Minister.

 

There are just two commercial date farms in the NT and only 50 hectares of dates nation-wide, according to a media release from the Minister.

 

AZRI has 200 palms. The mature ones – age 20 years onwards – produce 100 to 150 kilos a year and the current farm gate price is around $10 a kilo.

 

The palms each need 700 litres of water a day. Despite the current heated debate about water, Mr van Holthe – in town “committed to advancing the horticulture industry in Central Australia to tap into new, lucrative markets,” not just dates, and intent on “investing heavily in land, soil and water resources” – was caught out on The Centre’s water supply.

 

Said the Minister: “Of course, there are limited water resources … we want to make sure that we get the very best we can out of [this] resource.

 

“We want to make sure that the development matches the water availability in the Alice Springs region.”

 

What is the percentage of total water consumption used for agricultural purposes at present, and what is the percentage he envisages being used?

 

“Couldn’t tell you.”

 

How much money will be spent on the discovery of new water resources and what areas are involved?

 

“The government has committed significant resources across the NT. $2m is allocated to a brand new drilling rig [to be used across the NT] so we can de-risk commercial investments.”

 

How many exploration wells will be drilled in Central Australia in the next year?

 

“Talk to Water Resources. They’ll know the answer, I’m sure.”

 

PHOTO: Mr van Holthe (at right in the picture) with AZRI technician Glen Oliver.

 

 

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5 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Matty
    Posted May 21, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    Thank goodness for Alex Nelson whose encyclopaedic memory of people and events that shaped the Centre over the last 50 years always brings insight to these articles.

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  2. Fred the Philistine
    Posted May 16, 2015 at 8:20 am

    As I have said, another white elephant. As of today in Woolworths you can buy dates at $1.90 a kilo. Not much profit for growers.

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  3. Posted May 13, 2015 at 11:03 am

    The potential of establishing a date horticulture industry in Central Australia was the dream of Frank McEllister, the senior horticulture research technical officer who worked here from late 1965 until he passed away in June 1992. The ironically named “Dahlenburg Experimental Area” (Ian Dahlenburg had almost nothing to do with dates in the Centre, rather he was the pioneer of the table grape industry at Ti Tree) was established by Frank McEllister in the late 1980s. The large trees now on the site were planted by Frank and other horticulture staff in September 1989.
    These palms comprise varieties chosen from around the world after Frank had travelled overseas (California, Israel, and north Africa, during 1986 as I recall) to study date horticulture industries in these regions. He became convinced that Central Australia was suitable for commercial date horticulture, worth several tens of millions of dollars annually. To speed up the process of variety testing and selection, the palms now growing at AZRI were propagated by tissue culture in London, the resulting plants then transferred to a nursery in Hervey Bay in Queensland for observation under quarantine, before finally arriving at AZRI. Unfortunately there was a heavy mortality of these young palms during this time.
    Departmental flowcharts for the large-scale development of the horticulture industry in Central Australia from the mid 1980s onwards clearly show that the date trial was anticipated to produce results by 1994/95, with commercial expansion of the industry to commence the next year. Those varieties of dates at AZRI which proved suitable under local conditions were intended to provide the cuttings for establishing commercial plantations. Hand in glove with this program was a time-table for exploration of water resources suitable for horticulture production, especially the Wiso Basin (notably, this program excluded water resources at the Rocky Hill borefield for this purpose, as it was reserved for Alice Springs future water supply, especially in light of the NT Government’s announcement to proceed with the development of the Undoolya subdivision in July 1987. Frank McEllister informed me of this at the time). All of this was supposed to be underway some two decades ago, and if it had proceeded as originally intended, presumably the Centre would be approaching full scale commercial production of dates (in addition to other horticulture crops) worth many millions of dollars to the local economy by now.
    So what happenened? First, the “recession we had to have”, which crippled the finances of the NT Government, leading to widespread suspension and cancellation of numerous research projects (amongst much else) announced by the NT Government’s Expenditure Review Committee in April 1991. Simultaneously, Frank McEllister became ill, and died from cancer on June 6, 1992. With him went the passion and the vision that had been at the core of the NT DPIF’s research effort in the Centre for the development of horticulture that reached its peak in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s never regained the same priority again, and much of what’s being announced by the NT Government today is simply a regurgitation of what was being envisioned a quarter of a century ago.

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  4. Heckler
    Posted May 12, 2015 at 10:36 am

    Plus capital, location and workforce. How about CLC / Centafarm for the capital investment and Ali Curung for the other two?
    CLC has already supported one white elephant there, so it should be a simple matter to grow another and double their “success”.

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  5. Fred the Philistine
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    I would say it’s going to be another white elephant. One would think olives would do better.

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