I never expected to find cotton in Victoria. And yet there it was, a news article about the first cotton farm in the state for over 30 years. It is a single crop, but it has been successful. Farmers in the area are paying attention. The cotton is being grown by Kilter Rural, a specialist agricultural asset manager. In other words, investors buy the land, Kilter run the farm. I got in contact with Michael Neville, manager of agriculture at Kilter Rural to find out more. Michael brought me up to speed, revealing facts and statistics so quickly I could barely keep up with my notes.

Kilter are growing Bollgard II cotton, which is genetically modified (it’s the 71BRF variety). The plant is grown to hip height, then prompted to flower. A boll develops from each flower. Within the boll is the burr, which is the cotton fibre and seed. The plants are defoliated before picking so that the harvested cotton contains much less twigs and leaves. The cotton is harvested once the bolls have fully opened.

The harvested cotton is rolled into bales that weigh 2,500kg each. They’re so heavy a B-double truck can fit only 13 bales. Michael told me that Kilter need a 10 bale to the hectare harvest to break even. That’s a lot of cotton. The bales are driven to a cotton gin run by Auscott in Hay, NSW for the next stage of processing. Currently all ginned Australian cotton is sent overseas for spinning. There are no suitable yarn mills in Australia. Michael has some plans on how to change that, but they’re still in the beginning stages so we won’t see the results for a long time yet.

Kilter Rural's cotton field

Kilter Rural’s cotton field

The cotton is irrigated with a subsurface drip. 2016 was the third year that Kilter have grown cotton in Victoria. Their water usage over the three years tells the story of how they’re tweaking what they do. They used 10 mega litres of water per hectare in 2014, and reduced that by one mega litre in 2015. In 2016 they got it down again to 7 or 8 megalitres. The national average is 7.8 mega litres per hectare. Kilter Rural have been able to significantly reduce their insecticide use because of the variety of cotton they’re growing. The biggest change this variety of cotton brings is a significant reduction in insecticide use. The range of herbicides needed has also dropped.

Michael was happy for me to visit the farm, so we drove all the way up to Winlaton, near Swan Hill. Ron Opie, the farm manager showed us around. We arrived a few days before harvest. I’ve seen photos of cotton fields before, but seeing the real thing was different. The cotton was super white and practically falling out of its casing cotton. The plants were shorter, and there was more cotton per plant than I imagined. Kilter Rural grew 240 hectares of cotton this year, and aim to get to 500 hectares eventually.

Ron took us to the edge of the field, where some plants had germinated outside of the irrigation lines. Their growth had been slower, so he could show us a boll in the stages between closed and fully open. If the bolls are slow to open in the field, they use a horizontal bar to tap the cotton buds. This rap is enough to prompt them to release their fruit. At harvest time, a tractor will work 7 furrows at a time. It’s hooked up to GPS so the irrigation lines are unaffected.

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

Cotton bolls at different stages of opening

Cotton doesn’t give Ron many problems, in fact his biggest issue is the irrigation lines. A worm likes to chew through the plastic tubes. Ron’s team have to plug the holes quickly to stop water loss! Kilter Rural rotate crops. There were corn husks on the ground from the previous crop when we visited. They have found that tomatoes grow well after a cotton crop. Ron explained how just before sowing, he’ll allow weeds to germinate. These are then turned into the soil, which gives the crop an advantage on weedy competition.

Kilter Rural participate in the Better Cotton Initiative. They value sustainability in their business and manage over 70 habitat hectares of remnant vegetation in the Victorian Riverina and Murray Fans bioregions. This covers grasslands, woodlands and scattered large old trees. Kilter Rural have also been involved in composting and carbon farming research projects.

This is the longest journey I’ve made visit a farm for this Fibreshed project, but it was well worth the trip. Plant farmers seem to be a different breed to animal farmers, much more laconic and business-like. It was great to meet face-to-face and better understand the work that’s occurring here.

Cotton plant in field, ready to harvest

Cotton, ready for harvest