Kate, Mitch, Melinda and Linton Brimblecombe of Moira Farming. The family has planted cotton on their Forest Hill property for the first time in 22 years.
Kate, Mitch, Melinda and Linton Brimblecombe of Moira Farming. The family has planted cotton on their Forest Hill property for the first time in 22 years.

First cotton crop planted in Lockyer Valley in 22 years

COTTON has been planted in the fertile Lockyer Valley for the first time in more than 20 years as farmers look for new options to remain viable after years of unforgiving drought.

For the Brimblecombes, it is a return to familiar ground with cotton a part of the family’s “DNA”.

Industry pioneer Alan Brimblecombe planted the first crop in Forest Hill in 1959 and was later appointed as the foundation chairman of Cotton Australian.

Cotton is planted at the Brimblecombe's Forest Hill farm on October 13. Picture: Mark Beutel
Cotton is planted at the Brimblecombe's Forest Hill farm on October 13. Picture: Mark Beutel

The family stopped growing it in 1998 but this week planted a first-year trial of about 40ha with the help of Chris Barry from Cotton Seed Distributors.

Fifth generation farmer Mitch Brimblecombe was only a year old the last time his family had planted cotton.

The Moira Farming general manager said significant strides made in genetic modification over the past 20 years has made it a possibility once again.

“They’ve put in four replications of four different variety trials and a dryland trial as well,” he said.

“It will be really interesting to see how different varieties compare with each other. Next year we’ll plant the best one.

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“We went away from cotton at Forest Hill because there wasn’t any genetically modified stuff.

“There weren’t any genes in the cotton to prevent insect pressure.

“They had to spray the cotton about 15 times with chemicals. The community disagreed with spraying so much and it wasn’t economical because you had to spend so much on spraying.”

The mixed-cropping operation also grows vegetables including carrot, pumpkin, onion and broccoli, as well as barley and lucerne, across the valley and in Kalbar.

Growing cotton nowadays is a vastly different proposition for 23-year-old Mitch, who took over the family operation two years ago, than it was for father Linton.

They will be assisted by Cotton Growers Services from Dalby.

“Monsanto and Bayer have introduced three-gene cotton, so they’ve genetically modified it with three different modes of action,” Mitch said.

Alan Brimblecombe in 1997.
Alan Brimblecombe in 1997.

“If a caterpillar eats the cotton, the caterpillar dies.

“We only have to spray it once or twice for other insects.

“So it’s phenomenal technology. The sprays for the other insects are very soft chemicals which is what we use on vegetables anyway.”

Salty water from underground bores will be used to irrigate the crop, which should be ready to be picked in April.

Just like other growers across Queensland, drought has forced them to be creative.

“At the Forest Hill farm we haven’t been able to catch any freshwater to grow our normal vegetables in the last two years and even before that it’s been very minimal,” Mitch said.

“That farm has been running at a loss.

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“We have a good underground bore water source at Forest Hill. However, the water is a bit salty and you need a salt tolerant crop to be able to use that.

“We’ve found barley and beetroot and lucerne (has been successfully grown with the saltier water) and we hope cotton can as well.

“Once we prove cotton can handle that water it could be a way forward in the future at Forest Hill for us to be able to make that farm profitable and sustainable during times when the dams are empty.”

Mitch estimated water consumption would be between five and eight megalitres a hectare, which was comparable to corn and irrigate sorghum and lower than what was needed out west.

Moira Farming general manager Mitch Brimblecombe.
Moira Farming general manager Mitch Brimblecombe.

It is especially exciting for his grandfather Alan, who has so far kept out of the way to let him get on with it.

“He just wants to see our business and our farm succeed and anything to make it succeed he’ll be proud of,” Mitch said.

“I think cotton has got a special place in his heart and I think he can see it has potential.”

Linton said Toogoolawah farmer Mark Cowley, who picked his 14ha cotton crop in June, served as their inspiration.

It was the first cotton crop in the nearby Brisbane Valley in more than 60 years.

“I guess it’s a matter of necessity,” Linton said.

“We’ve still got to put food on the table and after so many years of drought, our water options are limited.

“It’s part of our DNA I guess.

“Mitch has reinstated all the bores. I had actually decommissioned them. In my career I built dams to supply the farm.

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“I thought that would be enough but this drought has proved otherwise.”

Neil Schimke of Schimke Farms just last week planted a 16ha trial crop in Gatton and helped the Brimblecombes with their planting.

It is the first time the family, who have been farming in the Lockyer Valley for four generations, have grown cotton on their property.

He manages the large-scale lucerne and hay operation across 162ha in Lake Clarendon and Gatton.

“We were looking for a summer rotation crop,” he said.

“We’re happy with our (current rotation crop) corn. But we’ve pulled away from the vegetables because every crop does take water.”

Mr Schimke was hopeful of above average summer rainfall after planting four different varieties through Cotton Seed Distributors.

“I think we’re in a good situation and a good location to push good yield in cotton,” he said.

“We have high fertility soil here and because we’re on smaller acres than what is on the (Darling Downs), I think we can sort of spoon feed our water compared to a flood irrigation system.

Gatton farmer Neil Schimke.
Gatton farmer Neil Schimke.

“We’ll be busy with our hay in summer and if the cotton has got the water it can kind of look after itself.”

The 36-year-old, who works alongside dad Col and brother Kyle, had just purchased a new John Deere MaxEmerge planter and tractor for their corn.

An investment of about $880 for six cotton plates was enough to get it ready for a new purpose.

“We have our irrigation infrastructure suited for corn also, so they hold hands if we were to go rotation year after year for corn and cotton,” he said.

“It’s pretty good how it fell into place.

“We’re just trying to see which will work best and of course, you’re in business to make money so it’s going to be interesting to see water use, chemical use and the end result for time.

“We’ll just ride the wave and see.”

Read more stories by Lachlan McIvor here.