PEANUTS HAVE marched into irrigation areas across northern Australia over the last decade - from the Rockhampton hinterland in Central Queensland south to the Darling and Western Downs, the border rivers and Wee Waa and Bourke in NSW.
Well-grown crops of irrigated peanuts, 5-6 tonnes a hectare, at up to $850/tonne with premiums - rival and even outperform cotton in gross margins. Irrigation farms, collectively totalling between 3,000 and 4,000 hectares, now supply around a third of the national crop and the bulk of the highest quality nuts.
(The dominant industry processor, Peanut Company of Australia (PCA), says it can pay such prices - 100 per cent more than is paid for 'Farmers Stock' peanuts in China, Argentina and the USA - because of its superior Quality Assurance programs. PCA technical manager Kevin Norman says the QA programs provide consumers with higher quality peanuts than international competitors.)
Peanuts will return as a major crop in the Northern Territory next year, with PCA backing developments around Katherine, which should produce around 20,000 tonnes of nuts within 10 years.
Demand outstripping supply
According to Mr Norman, the industry has been expanding for the last decade into areas with irrigation water, suitable soils and climate, and the Northern Territory around Katherine has the best mix of all three in abundance.
"Markets are expanding for all types of peanuts and, partly because of poor seasons in our traditional dry land areas, the increase in production hasn't been able to match that market growth," Mr Norman says.
"Peanuts are a summer crop in Queensland but the Northern Territory will be a winter production area, which will help us better utilise existing infrastructure at times of the year when it is under-utilised now.
"There will be a considerable freight cost with Territory peanuts, but that will be offset by the savings we will generate in more extended use of our plant and the greater volumes we will put through the system.
Efficiencies bringing down costs
"We also know of Queensland peanut growers who are thinking about establishing farms in the Northern Territory, potentially moving their plant between growing areas to produce two crops a year."
Peanuts lost acreage to sugar cane on North Queensland's Atherton Tableland in the 1990s, but price prospects for sugar are so low right now that some cane land north is expected to return to nuts.
A similar, much larger trend is expected in the coastal cane country of the lower Burnett, around Bundaberg. Two farmers grew peanuts there this season but PCA says there are genuine prospects of that figure increasing to 100 next year because returns from peanuts are so good relative to sugar cane.
High oleic peanuts: shelf life and health benefits
To gild the lily, peanuts' already healthy image will be boosted further with the release onto the Australian market of high oleic peanut products, which also have longer shelf life - by as much as four and even 10 times.
Mr Norman says high oleic peanuts will have their first noticeable consumer impact in snack food and confectionery, because their nut contents will retain freshness much longer. Peanut butter will benefit the same way, keeping its quality for longer once opened.
Studies have shown the high oleic peanuts, with their improved chemistry, rival olive oil and red wine in cholesterol-lowering properties and health attributes. University studies in the USA have shown that eating just a small handful of peanuts four times a week may reduce the incidence of heart attack by up to 50 percent.
PCA has a program of introducing and evaluating peanut genetics from around the world, and it seems to have paid off with the University of Florida bred, high oleic variety S095R, which comprises about a quarter of the current season crop and may make up half the harvest in 2003.
The national 2000-0 I peanut crop topped 45,000 tonnes. The current season may not reach that figure because of irrigation water shortages in some areas, extreme summer temperatures and, once again, poor rainfall in the Burnett district, which normally has some 8,000 hectares under peanuts.
Mr Norman says most markets for peanuts continue to grow, with the premium-priced ' nut in shell' , peanut butter and confectionery showing strongest growth. The niche market for satay sauces is going extremely well, while the snack food market remains relatively stable.
Program 2 Contact: Mr Kevin Norman 07 4162 4402
North, South, West