MILDURA and surrounding regions are being hampered by the lack of appropriate economic freight infrastructure.

This is one of the key findings by the National Farmers Federation (NFF) in its recent report, Regional Development Precincts.

Ouyen Inc. chair Scott Anderson was not surprised by the NFF report.

Mr Anderson said over the past few decades horticulture has expanded dramatically, particularly upstream. In recent years dryland farming had also seen a boom in export hay and big volumes of grain were now being exported in shipping containers.

“Unfortunately, rail infrastructure in Sunraysia and the Mildura Rural City Council (MRCC) LGA has not kept pace,” Mr Anderson said.

In 2018 Ouyen Inc. organised a Department of Transport meeting with stakeholders.

It was described as a resounding success, and the department issued a report highlighting the need for a new shipping container intermodal rail facility in the region, which is how the Sunraysia Mallee Port Link started.

“Last year Ouyen Inc engaged GHD Advisory to undertake an in-depth business case for the Sunraysia Mallee Port Link and it highlighted some big numbers,” Mr Anderson said.

“By 2023, the MRCC LGA and Sunraysia region will produce a massive 1,000,000 plus tonnes of intermodal freight (exported in shipping container) and 80 per cent will go to port by road, needing a staggering 19 million truck kilometres to get it there.

“If the Sunraysia Mallee Port Link were built, it would bring huge economic, social and environmental benefits to the region.”

Mr Anderson gave some examples from the business case of expected outcomes:

• Reduce paddock to port costs, which are high compared to international competitors. They are highest for grains at 27.5 per cent of gross income, and fruit and vegetables at 21per cent of gross value of agricultural production (GVAP), according to Deloitte Access Economics in 2019.

• Move existing jobs from Melbourne’s western suburbs to the state’s north west. Currently millions of cases of export table grapes and tens of thousands of tonnes of export almonds and grain are stored, monitored, inspected and packed into shipping containers in places such as Tottenham, when ideally producers want these functions completed at the point of origin.

• Establishment of a new hay export facility in the Mallee, now regarded as Victoria’s premium export oaten hay growing region. It will create 50 jobs and incentivise farmers to grow a crop type that will assist with changing rainfall patterns.

• Incentivise the resumption of mineral sand mining in northwest Victoria. Iluka Resources stated in a letter it would “assess the economic viability of developing deposits”.

• New opportunities would be created, including the potential to introduce new industries such as green hydrogen production and export.

• Reduce the number of trucks sharing the roads with other users, including families, senior citizens, sporting teams and school buses.

• An efficient rail transport to the Port of Melbourne combined with Mildura’s location on the east-west road transport corridors, would provide the region with a huge potential for new value adding, manufacturing and distribution activities.

Mr Anderson said the ultimate aim of the Sunraysia Mallee Port Link was to have an open access regime where no one entity had a monopoly over rail.

“You wouldn’t put an airline in charge of an airport and that same principle needs to be kept in mind here,” he said.

“It is for that reason that the project needs government involvement. “This will attract the maximum amount of freight onto rail, including that freighted by the road transport operators who Ouyen Inc have worked closely with.

“Investment in intermodal rail facilities by local government has already happened at Horsham (Dooen), Wodonga, Shepparton, Warrnambool (and soon Ballarat).

“They apply a common set of principles; support their farmers and exporters, promote jobs and economic prosperity while making roads safer and cutting carbon emissions, and they also get involved in infrastructure development that would not otherwise happen.”

Mr Anderson said although the Sunraysia Mallee Port Link is a project for the whole municipality, in his view MRCC had left what is primarily its responsibility, to a volunteer group, Ouyen Inc, to drive the project so far without providing support.

“Let’s not forget the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that farming in most of Australia may not be viable if the planet continues on its current climate change,” Mr Anderson said.

“It mentioned that this alone should be a ‘wake up’ call to our municipal leaders to do everything they can to encourage the reduction in carbon emissions.”

In the lead up to the 2020 MRCC elections, Mr Anderson said that majority of the councillors were in favour of making the Sunraysia Mallee Port Link a ‘Future Ready’ project and would support a financial contribution to ensure it comes to fruition.

“That was requested again last year at a council forum in May, followed by letters, more meetings and a lot of information provided. Unless support is forthcoming soon, the project is at risk of falling over,” he said.

Mr Anderson said he hoped Mildura councillors would stick to their commitment and undertake initiatives this month, with a sense of urgency