Australia's northern-most wheat farm flourishing near Cape River despite the odds


Wheat is the life-giving crop that brings us staples such as bread, pasta and even beer.

It is most often associated with places like Victoria, South Australia and the appropriately named wheatbelt of Western Australia.

But one family is pushing the boundaries of wheat, and challenging a few long-held beliefs along the way.

The Penna family is growing the northern-most crop of wheat in Australia, at Pentland on the banks of the Cape River in north Queensland.

Seventeen years ago Dominic and Maree Penna took a gamble on water security and bought Glen Houghton Station, to plant potatoes and wheat.

At the time, the station had 20 hectares under irrigation. It now has 404 hectares under centre pivots after completing a three-year expansion project.

The wheat is grown for stubble to plough back into the soil, ready for potatoes on the next rotation.

"I basically don't grow wheat for the grain, it's like a by-product," Mr Penna said.

"The stubble … gives us a nice organic matter and it leaves your soil nice and friable for potatoes."
Making the most of everything produced

The grain is sold locally to stock feed suppliers and feedlotters, and the potatoes are sent to Snack Brands Australia in Sydney.

"It's sort of been in the family for a while," Mr Penna said.

"Dad's had these markets and we've sort of inherited and kept the tradition going with the agronomist buyers in Sydney."

Pentland is not a traditional irrigation area, and Penna Ag is the only large-scale operation.

While the property is on the Cape River, the property does not draw water from the river itself, but from an aquifer.

    "A big risk we had was in the underground water. If you can't see it, you can't trust it," Mr Penna said.

It has proven reliable and is replenished when the river runs, although Mr Penna said even when it did not run, it did not deplete in a hurry.

The couple has put in five "fairly good" irrigation bores, and they do most of their cropping in winter so they preserve a lot of water.

"We only use it for a productive crop, we don't waste it. The biggest risk coming here was the cold temperature because we get a lot of frosts," Mr Penna said.

"But [17 years on] we're still here growing potatoes, so it can't affect us too much."
Beef and hay also grown

The Pennas also run beef cattle and bale up to 5,000 bales of hay a year.

"Any waste hay goes into the weaners and then we use oversized potatoes that come off the potato grading line in the shed, chop them up into smaller pieces, and mix them with hay and supplements and feed them back to the cattle," Mr Penna said.

"So nothing gets wasted."

Last year they sold all their male cattle early through the saleyards.

Traditionally, fat cows go straight through to the meatworks and they send a few live export.

"But I try and steer away from that. I feel like it's exporting jobs a bit. They go to the saleyards and get put on a boat, there's no feeding," Mr Penna said.

"I think cattle should be fed in Australia and turned into bullocks so there's more farmers on the ground, growing grains and other crops to finish cattle in Australia."


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