Agriculture, forestry and fishing

Outlook

The value of the Territory’s agricultural output is expected to decrease in 2021-22, reflecting lower live cattle exports and the impact of labour shortages. The sector is forecast to grow over the outlook period, reflecting new investment in horticulture and aquaculture, and new crops coming into production.

In 2020‑21, the Territory agriculture, forestry and fishing sector accounted for 36% ($924 million) of GSP and 18% (2,400 people) of employment. The agriculture industry’s contribution to GSP is expected to decrease in 2021‑22 with the high price of Australian cattle and restricted supply due to restocking in northern Australia constraining livestock exports. Production of horticulture and aquaculture goods is expected to be positive through 2021-22, although challenged by the ongoing labour shortage.

The outlook for 2022-23 is more positive, with above-average rainfall in 2021-22 in southern parts of the Territory and low to average rainfall across the remainder leading to improved growing conditions in some areas, and investments in new crops and expanded aquaculture capacity contributing to growth in production.

Record fuel and fertiliser prices present significant downside risks through higher freight and production costs. The outbreak of lumpy skin disease, a viral disease that affects cattle and buffalo, in South‑East Asia is also a serious threat to the northern Australian cattle industry, and there is no vaccine currently approved for use in Australia.

Recent trade agreements including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and Australia-United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement have the potential to improve access to markets in the Indo-Pacific and UK, respectively, for Territory agricultural products. Strong horticulture prospects exist over the outlook period including developments at Singleton Station for large-scale irrigated cropping.

Live cattle

The Territory’s live cattle exports are expected to decrease in 2021‑22 due to reduced demand from COVID‑19 outbreaks, high Australian cattle prices flowing through to international markets and low herd numbers in the Territory after several years of downsizing. With above-average rainfall in southern parts of the Territory and southern states, pastoralists are expected to focus on rebuilding their herds throughout 2022, reducing the level of available stock for interstate and overseas exports.

With a second year of favourable weather conditions, domestic live cattle prices have continued to climb to historic highs as farmers rebuild their herds during a national shortage. In February 2022, live export feeder steer prices out of Darwin reached a record high of $5.55 per kilogram live weight, up by $1.35 per kilogram from the year before. A high domestic price could negatively impact the supply of cattle to international markets. There is high uncertainty around the future trajectory of cattle prices due to climate variability with March 2022 reporting low rainfall despite strong conditions in the beginning of the year.

Indonesia is the Territory’s largest live cattle export market, accounting for 84% (196,865 head) of cattle exports in 2021. India is Australia’s major competitor in the Indonesian beef market, with its lower quality and cheaper priced frozen buffalo meat. This competition, along with higher Australian cattle prices and the Indonesian Government’s policies to achieve self-sufficiency for major commodities, including beef, continues to have an impact on Australian live cattle exports.

Live cattle exports from the Territory decreased by 14% in 2021 (Chart 17). The decline reflects decreased live cattle exports to Indonesia, Vietnam (16,654 head) and the Philippines (6,070 head) by 12%, 42% and 55%, respectively. This was partly offset by increased exports to Malaysia (8,765 head) and Brunei (6,752 head).

Over the past few years, lumpy skin disease has spread through South-East Asia and disrupted live exports. In March 2022, lumpy skin disease was detected in Indonesia, raising concerns it could spread to northern Australia. A widespread outbreak would significantly impact Australia’s live cattle and buffalo exports, as well as hides, meat and dairy products. Border restrictions would likely be introduced, which would disrupt interstate and intrastate movements. In response to the threat, the Commonwealth has announced $61.6 million to boost biosecurity for northern Australia. The Territory Government is also providing about $2 million of additional funding per annum for broader biosecurity measures.

Chart 17: Annual number of live Territory cattle overseas exports, by destination

Chart 17: Annual number of live Territory cattle overseas exports, by destination

1  Other comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Egypt, Timor‑Leste and Thailand.
Source: Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade

Live buffalo

The export of live buffalo is a small industry in the Territory with further growth potential. The high price and low stock of live cattle has made live buffalo a more attractive Territory import for South‑East Asia. Indonesia is the largest export destination for Territory buffalo, accounting for 61% (6,560 head) of total buffalo exports in 2021, followed by Malaysia at 20% (2,185 head). This was largely offset by a 94% decline in Territory buffalo exports to Vietnam (from 3,994 head to 251 head) (Chart 18). Overall, buffalo exports were at elevated levels in 2021, with most major export destinations reporting stronger demand. Despite increased overseas demand, the industry is not expected to see any significant increase in production due to the challenges of harvesting wild buffalo.

Chart 18: Annual number of live Territory buffalo overseas exports, by destination

Chart 18: Annual number of live Territory buffalo overseas exports, by destination

Source: Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade

Other livestock products

In December 2020, production ceased at Central Agri Group’s meat processing facility in Batchelor, and did not resume operation until July 2021. According to data from the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, overseas beef exports from the Territory declined from 875 tonnes in 2020 to only 146 tonnes in 2021. Conversely, due to the increased competitiveness of buffalo products, overseas buffalo meat exports from the Territory increased from 133 tonnes in 2020 to 185 tonnes in 2021. Beef production is expected to remain at current levels in 2022, with higher freight prices to move cattle, labour shortages and limited local supply constraining processing. The outlook for beef production is also expected to remain the same in 2023 as the northern herd rebuild continues.

Australia accounts for 65% of the global trade in saltwater crocodile skins, with about two‑thirds farmed and exported by the Territory. Of the remaining third farmed interstate, the majority of eggs and juvenile stock are sourced from the Territory. Revenue from the Territory crocodile industry increased by 2% to $24 million in 2020-21. The global market experienced an oversupply of crocodile skins in 2019-20, followed by retail disruptions due to COVID-19. Although demand for the high quality skins remains strong, there is still a surplus on the second grade market that is putting downward pressure on prices. Revenue is forecast to increase by 29% to $31 million in 2021-22 as world markets continue to recover.

Horticulture

The outlook for horticulture production is positive for 2021-22 and 2022-23, with favourable weather conditions over 2021 underpinning growth for the rest of 2022. Despite this, there are several external factors that present significant downward risks to the sector. Due to rebounding demand and the Russia‑Ukraine conflict, fuel prices have increased to record levels, which will significantly raise the cost of freight. Rising energy prices have also increase the price for synthetic fertilisers and is expected to impact future yields as farmers ration supplies during critical growing periods. Labour supply continues to be a challenge with fewer backpackers than before COVID‑19, and higher labour overheads to accommodate workers. To partly alleviate the labour shortage, the Commonwealth is developing an Australian Agriculture Visa program in consultation with industry to support recruitment in the industry, with Vietnam being the first country to sign a memorandum of understanding. The new visa will supplement the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, which allows Australian businesses to hire workers from 9 Pacific island countries and Timor‑Leste.

Mango production accounts for a large proportion of the Territory’s horticulture sector (about 60% of total value, excluding forestry). Output is strongly influenced by seasonal conditions, and the value of production is influenced by demand and prices in southern Australian markets. Despite solid rainfall in 2020-21, production has been mixed amongst different varieties, with decreased yields of the popular Kensington Pride variety but increased production of Calypso mangoes.

More than 50,000 mango trees have been planted in the Darwin and Katherine regions since 2018, and are expected to take 4 to 5 years to mature. The net impact on production from these plantings is expected to be minimal due to the scheduled replacement of older less productive trees. Beyond the forecast period, there is the potential for new, more productive varieties to enter the market. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade is currently testing 3 new varieties of mango that have a higher yield with the same inputs and are expected to extend the production window compared with existing varieties. Market testing will be critical to the success of any new and more productive varieties that are developed. Additionally, research, development and extension projects funded by the Commonwealth are improving the productivity and profitability of Territory mango growers.

Melon farming is the second-largest horticultural activity in the Territory. Though numbers are yet to be finalised, melon production has reportedly improved in 2021, despite COVID-19 outbreaks on the east coast affecting demand from hospitality businesses. Domestic demand is expected to grow in 2022 following the general easing of restrictions across Australia, with access to a secure and skilled agriculture workforce being vital to support this increase. International exports of melons were trialled in 2021, which may lead to new markets over the outlook period.

There are several additional new crops under consideration that are expected to increase the value of horticulture production over the outlook period. Among the emerging horticultural crops in the Territory are dragonfruit, jackfruit and rambutan. As part of the Commonwealth’s Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia and AgriFutures Australia’s projects, research is being conducted to explore product diversification options and new production systems that will improve resilience of the tropical fruit crops to the Territory’s extreme weather events.

Kakadu plums are a native bush food harvested within Kakadu National Park, Maningrida and western Top End, and sold on the expanding traditional medicine and health food markets. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade, in collaboration with Thamarrurr Development Corporation, is developing procedures for commercial propagation of better quality plants to support commercial production of this high value crop.

The Territory Government and a commercial entrepreneur in the Top End are conducting a 3‑year project to grow greenhouse ginger in Darwin. Currently, the Australian ginger industry is valued at $32 million at farm gate (wholesale value for farmers) and production is concentrated in Queensland.

Broadacre crops

Cotton production is a quickly emerging industry in the Katherine region, with over 3,000 hectares harvested in 2021, up from 1,000 hectares in 2020. Currently, up to 6,000 hectares of cotton is expected to be harvested in 2022, growing to 40,000 hectares by 2025. Studies suggest the value to production from the cotton industry could grow to be $200 million per annum within 10 years, providing direct investment and employment opportunities, and supporting growth in the pastoral industry with a high protein feedstock as a by-product of the harvest. A grower-operated cotton gin in the Katherine region is expected to be operational in 2022, which will scale up with increased production. The collaboration between the Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade, Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia, Grains Research and Development Corporation, Cotton Research and Development Corporation, and 14 industry partners has explored the potential for broadacre cropping across the Territory, with cotton and peanuts identified as prospective commercial crops for expanded production. Industrial hemp production is also being evaluated through projects funded by AgriFutures Australia.

Peanut production at commercial scale has continued in Central Australia. Trials of native rice cultivation commenced in November 2020, with 3 different species being grown at the Territory Government’s Coastal Plains Research Farm and Charles Darwin University’s Casuarina campus. The trials and research focus on producing high value grain that can be grown by Aboriginal communities and enterprises.

Map 4: Territory agriculture, forestry and fishing

Click on map to enlarge

1  This map is produced from various sources. Department of Treasury and Finance cannot guarantee the accuracy, currency or completeness of the information. To be used as a guide only.
Source: Department of Treasury and Finance; Department of Industry, Tourism and Trade

Forestry

The outlook for the forestry industry is generally positive, noting the longer‑term nature of the activity means the economic return takes many years to realise. There are currently 42,000 hectares of plantations in the Territory that are expected to produce an average of $100 million per annum over the next 10 years. In January 2022, changes to Commonwealth’s Emissions Reduction Fund’s methodology allows carbon credits to be collected for both new and existing plantations in the Territory, which may lead to more investment in this industry.

Trees from the Acacia mangium plantations on the Tiwi Islands are being harvested and sold on the international woodchip market. Due to reduced demand and supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19, production fell from 122,000 green metric tonnes (GMT) in 2019‑20 to 23,000 GMT in 2020-21. Despite this, production is expected to rebound strongly in 2021-22, with 40,000 GMT already exported in the second half of 2021.

African mahogany is grown as a high-value timber in the Douglas-Daly and Katherine regions. The trees have a rotation of between 18 to 25 years, with the first harvest expected in 2025-26. In 2020, the net present value of these trees was estimated at $390 million.

Indian sandalwood is grown in the Douglas-Daly and Katherine regions, and used to produce high value oil and pharmaceutical products. The trees are currently in mid-rotation and will not realise the bulk of their value for another 3 to 4 years.

Fisheries

The outlook for fisheries production in the Territory is positive, reflecting a recovery in fishing stock following another year of favourable weather conditions.

In 2020-21, production from wild harvest fisheries increased by 2%, reflecting growth in offshore fisheries. Both wild barramundi and mud crab production are affected by environmental conditions, and after several years of below-average rainfall, 2020-21 and 2021-22 were favourable wet seasons. Mud crab production is expected to rebound in the short term while wild barramundi numbers will not recover for another year.

The gross value of aquaculture production increased by 12% to $53 million in 2020-21, reflecting growth in barramundi, pearling and other smaller aquaculture development ventures. In the short term, aquaculture production is not expected to increase significantly due to several projects still under development.

Seafarms Group initiated a project review of Project Sea Dragon, a US$1.5 billion aquaculture project in northern Australia that aims to produce over 150,000 tonnes of black tiger prawns each year. Seafarms Group remains committed to delivering on the promise of Project Sea Dragon, however the review found the Project cannot proceed in its current form. Therefore, Project Sea Dragon will be suspended pending:

  • a successful farming pilot, which is expected to take up to 3 years to complete and assess the outcomes
  • refinement of other key project elements, for example further development of the breeding strategy
  • availability of sufficient funding.

Humpty Doo Barramundi is the Territory’s largest producer and distributor of Australian saltwater barramundi. The company is investing to significantly expand production capacity, supported by NAIF loans. After completing stage 1 of its expansion, the business secured a second NAIF loan of $24 million for stage 2.

Territory Government agribusiness development

There are several projects and opportunities mentioned in the Territory Government’s 10-year Infrastructure Plan that focus on developing the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector in the Territory. Priority projects include the Katherine Logistics and Agribusiness Hub, the Keep Plains Agricultural Precinct, the Wildman Agricultural Precinct, the Gunn Point Development Precinct (which includes intensive agriculture), an improved regional road network and developing a infrastructure to increase export opportunities.

A co-designed Agribusiness and Aquaculture Strategy has been developed in 2021-22 by industry, Aboriginal land councils and the Territory Government. This strategy is due to be launched mid 2022 and will provide overall strategic direction to the growth of these industries over the next 10 years. An implementation plan will be collaboratively developed with industry and Aboriginal land councils in 2022-23 to ensure the actions contained in the strategy are progressed.

In the 2022-23 Budget the Commonwealth committed $301 million towards the first stage of the Darwin Region Water Supply Infrastructure Program, which includes returning Manton Dam to service and pre-construction for the Adelaide River Off-Stream Water Storage project. Consistent with the findings of the detailed business case, investment in additional water supply will support a range of industries across the Darwin region including new agricultural development.

Land developments

In 2020, the Territory Government released expressions of interest for 3 large-scale agricultural land developments: the Keep Plains Agricultural Development (total area of 67,500 hectares with up to 15,000 hectares suitable for intensive irrigated agriculture); Wildman Agricultural Precinct (26,000 hectares); and Larrimah Agricultural Precinct (5,700 hectares). Collectively these developments provide an opportunity to significantly expand the Territory’s agricultural production area and opportunities for new investment in a wide range of high value crops, including mangoes, bananas, melons and forestry, and broadacre crops such as cotton, sorghum and chia.

Another prospective region in Western Davenport is Singleton Station, which has been identified as having the potential to produce up to 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes per annum of various crops. This is further supported by a 30-year conditional groundwater extraction licence granted to Singleton Station in April 2021, although the decision is currently under judicial review. There has also been interest in further expanding the Douglas Daly region, with opportunities for several pastoral properties in the high rainfall zone to further develop land for intensive agriculture and horticulture production.

For the latest data on the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, refer to the Territory Economy website.