Embracing cannabis

Diversification the key to a greater Shepparton
North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer
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MEDICINAL BENEFITS: The Shepparton facility will not only cultivate and process the cannabis it will also manufacture medicinal products from the site.

PREVIOUSLY known for its fruit growing, dairy and cropping, Shepparton and the surrounding area is looking to diversify and take advantage of gaps in the agricultural market.

This is positive news for the Greater City of Shepparton in the light of other areas declining.

With recent news of the closure of Nestle, Tongala, and the loss of 106 jobs, and the uncertainty regarding SPC Ardmona, it is heartening news for locals to see other areas of industry develop in the region.

Belief in Shepparton as an agricultural region remains strong as new companies and industries renew interest in the area and pledge millions of dollars towards start-up projects for the shire.

Adding to the already impressive agricultural scape is Cannatrek and its approved 178 hectare medicinal cannabis facility, that will not only cultivate cannabis but process the product and manufacture medicinal cannabis as a clean, green, therapeutic product.

Billed as one of the world’s largest facilities, the $160 million production plant looks set to position Cannatrek as industry leaders in Australia for medicinal cannabis, and lucratively positions Shepparton as an ideal environment for the high-growth industry.

When completed the facility will create 400 jobs a year for the local region, and produce annually 160 tonnes of medicinal cannabis, providing a huge boost to the economy with significant knock-on effects in the Shepparton region.

Operating out of a glasshouse similar to those used for herbs or tomatoes, the significant difference with the 160,000 square metre facility is the high level of security required for such an undertaking and the adherence to specific state regulations and requirements placed on cannabis production.

Having secured the planning permit and satisfied all regulations, Cannatrek hopes to have the facility constructed and functional by 2020.

The decision by Cannatrek to choose Shepparton is in part a tribute to the huge success of the council-inspired Great Things Happen Here campaign, and its spin-off Great Things Grow Here.

“It was incredibly exciting how the Cannatrek opportunity came about,” Greater Shepparton mayor Kim O’Keefe said.

“We were showcasing Shepparton and caught the company’s attention.

“Maybe they hadn’t thought of Shepparton, or maybe it was at the back of their minds.

“However, it is a region of opportunities, with the council supporting both new and established businesses to be both efficient and sustainable, and Cannatrek recognised our commitment and the possibilities and decided to invest in the region.”

The $2 billion upgraded irrigation network and the fertile land and great climate, as well as Shepparton’s reputation as a national transport hub with good infrastructure and support and freight services, also enticed Cannatrek to commit to the city.

Cannatrek is just one of the more recent projects to invest in the area, encouraged by the regional city’s commitment to its agricultural and horticultural heritage.

“The council has a strong approach to protecting agricultural land for that investment in the future,” Colin Kalms, manager of building and planning at the Greater Shepparton City Council said.

“Investors need that guarantee that if they’re investing in a packing shed or a cool store or a glasshouse, if they’re investing that significant money, the council is not going to undermine that investment by allowing residential developments to encroach on their farmland.

“From a strategic planning perspective, the city is consistent in not breaking up land for unnecessary sub-divisions, nor approving rural dwellings on small lots, which ultimately create long term legacy issues and affect people’s opportunities – who may not immediately be wanting to use the area for farming – but will in the future impact their ability to expand.”

Conscious of its title as ‘Food Bowl of Australia’ and its role in providing 25 per cent of Victoria’s agricultural crop, the region has taken a stance on preserving agricultural land attempting to avoid the issues numerous other municipalities are grappling with.

Rural lifestylers, particularly on the fringe of Melbourne, are purchasing land that was previously used for farming and ultimately taking it out of the equation and forcing existing agricultural enterprises to relocate due to the encroaching urbanisation.

Shepparton is keen to avoid this situation and has developed a progressive and supportive policy to encourage agricultural and horticultural businesses to the region.

“We do our due diligence in protecting agricultural land,” Cr O’Keefe said.

“Our planning processes are strict, but they are fair to everyone, and within that we are mindful of protecting agricultural land.”

Indicative of the success of this policy, is the investment in enterprises in areas like Lancaster and Tallygaroopna.

La Manna Premier Group has invested in Australia’s first retractable roof, hydroponic gourmet tomato farm in Lancaster, and are currently in stage one of a three stage project spanning 25 hectares.

Aussie Pride Produce has invested significantly in Tallygaroopna with a hydroponic set-up growing lettuces contracted to one of the major supermarkets.

Weribee based Velisha Farms have expanded their horticultural business to Shepparton, impressed by the affordable land, availability of water and the access to wholesale markets.

After generations farming in Werribee South, the high cost of land and the urbanisation of the region made Shepparton very appealing as an area to grow their local and export business.

With Shepparton’s commitment to its farmers and active support of their enterprises, the region is attracting significant investment and interest.

“We are very open to any opportunities that may present themselves in Greater Shepparton, and our considerations are broad and diverse,” Cr O’Keefe said.

From the federal government’s $7 million commitment to a Murray cod fish farm in Shepparton to a local free-stall dairy farm being able to expand its milking herd from 2500 to 4900 head of cattle, the region continues to champion the agricultural industry.

Meatworks Australia has also registered interest in the region, proposing to build a $30 million abattoir in the Gillieston region with plans to process 18,000 sheep a week.

With a lack of abattoirs in the Goulburn Valley forcing farmers to process their sheep in Kyneton, Stawell and Ararat, the proposed abattoir could be a needed addition to the Shepparton economy.

However, with concerns regarding odour, dust, noise and bio-security, the Shepparton Council and the Environmental Protection Authority are yet to approve the facility.

With protection of agricultural land the council’s primary objective, Shepparton has also commissioned additional reports from agricultural experts regarding any potential bio-security threats posed by the abattoir and whether it is an appropriate use of agricultural land.

Previously a dairy farm with fodder and grain production, the 158 hectare property is a significant agricultural property, and is surrounded by similar enterprises and as a result the proposed abattoir has generated significant concerns and objections.

However, this is all part of the process for a region currently experiencing such a boom in development and investment.

With such a clearly defined mission statement protecting and encouraging its agricultural and horticultural industry, it is no surprise that start-ups like
Cannatrek choose Shepparton to grow their enterprise.

“And the beauty of Cannatrek coming to town,” Mr Kalms said, ”is that cannabis resonates, and other investors think about their diverse projects, and they consider Shepparton.”

“And Shepparton is very open for business,” Cr O’Keefe said.

More farming news and stories can be read in the October, 2019 print edition of North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer or click here to access digital editions.