Lachlan irrigation achiever

Lachlan irrigation achiever

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Serious agribusiness investors must surely be doing their sums over the latest top-drawer listing in the Riverina: the Hillston irrigation powerhouse Sunland Agriculture.

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Serious agribusiness investors must surely be doing their sums over the latest top-drawer listing in the Riverina: the Hillston irrigation powerhouse Sunland Agriculture.

One of the most highly developed intensive farming operations in the region, Sunland Agriculture is the result of 20 years of focused investment and development by Tim and Sally Watson.

Today Sunland is a 1748-hectare (4317ac) aggregation of three farms producing cotton, cereals and vegetable crops in planned rotations, for annual gross earnings averaging more than $2 million.

Having brought the operation to its targeted peak of development, the Watsons are now moving on to other ventures, and have listed Sunland for sale with Elders Riverina.

Billed as a "turn-key investment opportunity", Sunland Agriculture is expected to attract offers of about $50 million when expressions of interest close on July 14.

Much of this will represent the value of the aggregation's hefty water entitlements, comprising 4070 megalitres of groundwater and 10,779ML of Lachlan River water.

All this has been put together since the Watsons - previously sharefarmers and contract harvesters from Deniliquin - bought their first Hillston farm, the 696ha Morants, in 2000.

To this was added the 822ha Lanes Bridge in 2001, and the 229ha Glenmore in 2005, making up the present aggregation which fronts Kidman Way just five kilometres north of Hillston.

Unsurprisingly, given Mr Watson's off-farm involvement as the chairman (since 2018) of Namoi Cotton, cotton plays a dominant role in the Sunland operation, accounting for 67 per cent of all production revenue in 2019. In 2014 Sunland was named the Monsanto Australian Cotton Grower of the Year with an average yield of 12.5 bales/ha, and its yields have since averaged 11.5 bales/ha.

Cereals accounted for a further 14pc of cropping revenue in 2019, with sweet corn and beetroot - both grown under contract to Simplot - making up the balance. Sunland is the largest supplier of beetroot and sweet corn to Simplot, and a new owner is likely to have the option of continuing the contract, now in its 17th year. Other crops grown by Sunland over 20 years include melons, onions, pumpkins, cauliflower, faba beans and sorghum, while the country also offers scope for permanent plantings.

Underpinning Sunland's year-on-year production is its access to reliable irrigation water, particularly the 4070ML groundwater licences which have historically delivered 100pc security.

These licences are supported by a combined 10,360ML extraction limit, enabling Sunland to extract more water than it owns, through purchase of permanent entitlements or temporary allocations.

Some 56pc of the farms' total area is developed for irrigation, of which 600ha is under fully automated centre pivot and 387ha laser-levelled flood or furrow irrigation. The irrigation development on the Sunland farms is augmented by a long-term lease (available to a new owner) of an adjoining 218ha block, Sheridan's, of which 136ha is under centre pivot.

Residential improvements include the main homestead on Lanes Bridge, built in 2004 with five bedrooms, pool and tennis court, two other three-bedroom homes and a four-unit staff quarters.

The extensive infrastructure includes a packing shed, machinery sheds, weighbridge, cattle yards, shearing shed, more than 3000 tonnes of silo capacity and an aircraft hangar.

- PETER AUSTIN

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