One-time cotton farming and processing kingpin Twynam Agricultural Group has become a key investor in an Australian firm hoping to make a big impact on China’s environmentally disastrous addiction to plastic sheeting on cropping fields.
Biodegradable film business, OneCrop, has secured a multi-million dollar investment from the Kahlbetzer family’s Twynam group, which will help fund the rollout of the polymer-based sheeting over about 3000 hectares of Australian cotton country this year – notably in newer, cooler climate growing areas.
Planting rows topped with 450 millimetre-wide clear film enjoy greenhouse-like germination conditions and better seedling vigour thanks to warmer soil temperatures and less moisture loss to evaporation.
Twynam’s investment has also enabled OneCrop to invest in three specially-built Norseman TechniPlant planter and film laying units which will be made available to farmers in Australia.
China has been using plastic sheeting for decades to give cotton, corn and other irrigated summer crops a kick start, but it now has a massive problem disposing of about 2 million tonnes of agricultural film annually.
Burning or burying waste plastic has been common in the past, but the disposal challenge has become huge and film residue is now a widespread problem on Chinese farms.
Soils in the north western cotton province of Xinjiang now contain up to 250 kilograms/ha of toxic plastic fragments.
I believe there is a market for broad adoption of this film which provides a sustainable solution, and a move away from the plastics currently used.
Aside from China, Australia’s burgeoning southern cotton industry is set to be a significant beneficiary of the commercial release of OneCrop’s degradable product this year.
Early evidence from two seasons of trials in Australia, US and China suggested yield gains of about 30 per cent (and up to 50pc) were achieved thanks to better early growth gains under film, particularly in later season growing areas.
Anecdotal feedback also indicated irrigation water savings of up to a megalitre/ha each season were achieved in some of the 30 local and US trial sites.
Water efficiency savings of about 15pc were typically recorded, although they depended on seasonal variances and crop management practices.
The OneCrop film has a paddock life of about 60 to 90 days.
It is made of a combination of starch polymers, super low density polyethylene and oxide degradable compounds.
Chief executive officer, Andrew Logan, said although other degradable plastic films existed, “the trick” was getting a product to stay useful for much of the growing season when exposed to rain, irrigation water, sunlight and soil-borne decomposing forces.
Alternatives have also proven expensive to manufacture because of their high processed corn or potato starch content.
After about three months the OneCrop product becomes brittle and tissue paper thin, breaking down entirely within 12 months with no micro plastic residue remaining.
Twynam, one of Australia’s two biggest cotton growing and processing operations in the 1990s, has not disclosed how much its cornerstone investment in OneCrop is worth, although the young technology company was reportedly seeking up to $20m last year.
Twynam began scaling back its own farmland assets a decade ago, offloading the last of its irrigation properties in April for more than $115m.
That sale of the company’s cropping and livestock holdings Jemalong Station at Forbes and “Merrowie” at Hillston followed the sell-off of such prominent names as “Mungadal”, “Gundaline”, “Cobran”, “Buttabone” and the 14,400ha Colly Cotton business cradle, “Collymongle”.
Twynam had taken ownership of Colly Cotton in 1999, having previously held a 25 per cent stake, but sold off the ginning and marketing operations in 2005, then quit “Collymongle” in 2012 for about $40m.
Much of Twynam’s various surface water entitlements across NSW had also been sold a few years earlier to the federal government, for about $300m.
At the turn of this century the Kahlbetzers’ 430,000ha farming operations made the family one of NSW biggest landholders, with its 10,000ha irrigation area at “Merowie” also an early southern cotton success story.
Group chief executive officer, Johnny Kahlbetzer, noted the company had been an early adopter of film technology, too, after trials on its cropping holdings 10 years ago.
“We have seen great improvements in manufacturing and adoption since then,” he said.
“We’ve been encouraged by the field testing in China and the increase in yield for crops under the OneCrop technology.
“I believe there is a market for broad adoption of this film which provides a sustainable solution, and a move away from the plastics currently used.”
Chinese farmers currently spend an estimated $3.6b on conventional mulch film, equating to 1.45m tonnes of wastage due to its non-recyclable nature,
Mr Logan said Twynam management had also travelled to the US, recognising the scale of the opportunity overseas and in Australia.
“Twynam’s experience and contacts in the agriculture sector, particularly in cotton, makes it the ideal investor for OneCrop as we enter a new growth phase,” he said.
The US, Chinese and Australian markets had an estimated biodegradable film market worth about $6.2 billion, spread over 11.7m hectares.
“Chinese farmers currently spend an estimated $3.6b on conventional mulch film, equating to 1.45m tonnes of wastage due to its non-recyclable nature,” Mr Logan said.
Plastic collection costs of more than $1.3b are also associated with disposing of the waste, but about 20pc of China’s arable land is reportedly recording toxin levels above national standards because of remnant plastic film.
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Mr Logan said OneCrop anticipated early commercial work using the biodegradable product with China's largest cotton grower, who currently farms 600,000ha of cotton under plastic.
“The plastic pollution problem in China is at a critical stage and OneCrop film can start eliminating the need for plastic immediately.”
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