Scent of suc­cess in san­dal­wood farms

The Kim­ber­ley is now a key source of the tim­ber, writes Jo Stud­dert

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Landmarks -

WHAT’S the most valu­able tim­ber on the planet? In­dian san­dal­wood, and it is grow­ing in Aus­tralia in the Ord River Ir­ri­ga­tion Area, cen­tred on Ku­nunurra in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s east Kim­ber­ley Re­gion.

In fact, the ter­ri­tory has the largest san­dal­wood plan­ta­tions on earth.

The prime heart­wood of the tree will bring over $ 100,000 a tonne.

For 30 years now the Ord River has been dom­i­nated by sugar cane farms, but th­ese are van­ish­ing and it looks as though the sugar mill will close this year. Wa­ter draws the plan­ta­tions. Nearly one quar­ter of the Ord River Ir­ri­ga­tion Area’s 16,000ha is now un­der san­dal­wood trees, the plan­ta­tions gen­er­ally be­ing held in man­aged in­vest­ment schemes which ac­com­mo­date long- term in­vest­ments. The trees take 15 years to ma­ture.

In­dian San­dal­wood is grown for its oil con­tent, which is used in per­fume and in­cense.

The Frank Wil­son, chair­man of Trop­i­cal Forestry Ser­vices ( TFS), one of the main san­dal­wood grow­ers, says the oil is a base fix­a­tive in up to 70 per cent of the world’s fine per­fumes such as Chanel No 5, Sam­sara, Miss Dior, Opium and Must de Cartier.

It is also a tra­di­tional base in soaps, toi­letries, cos­met­ics and has a large Asian use in in­cense and joss sticks.

The oil is par­tic­u­larly prized in In­dia, where na­tive stocks of wild san­dal­wood are nearly ex­hausted, so pres­sure is on to find re­li­able, long- term sup­plies, says Frank Pea­cocke, at val­uer Her­ron Todd White’s Dar­win of­fice.

Aus­tralia has a na­tive ver­sion of the tree but it’s oil con­tent is only about a quar­ter of its In­dian rel­a­tive, al­though it is grown com­mer­cially in West­ern Aus­tralia.

Terry Roth, from HTW in Dar­win, says In­dian san­dal­wood first went into the Ord about eight years ago and the big play­ers are TFS, In­te­grated Tree Crop­ping and Plan­ta­tion Trop­i­cal Tim­bers.

Michael Clark, mar­ket­ing man­ager of In­te­grated Tree Crop­ping, which vies with TFS as top san­dal­wood grower each year, says san­dal­wood trees are hemi- par­a­sitic, be­ing un­able to sur­vive alone un­til they ma­ture, so the trees are planted be­side hosts onto which the san­dal­wood suck­ers un­til it can sus­tain it­self.

ITC has about 2000ha of In­dian san­dal­wood around Ku­nunurra.

‘‘ We first planted in 2000 and have in­creased our hold­ings ev­ery year since. We will con­tinue to ex­pand there,’’ Clark says.

Its not sur­pris­ing, then, that there is heavy de­mand for the land. HTW say val­ues in the Ord are push­ing be­yond $ 10,000 a hectare ( in­clud­ing wa­ter) with most of the de­mand from san­dal­wood grow­ers who have paid up to $ 1400/ ha to lease land when they have been un­able to buy enough for their needs, al­though Roth says the av­er­age price tends to be about $ 1000/ ha.

TFS first planted In­dian san­dal­wood in the Ord in 1999 and now has one of the largest plan­ta­tions in the world, own­ing and man­ag­ing more than 900ha of the Ord’s san­dal­wood, with ac­cess to a fur­ther 775ha for new plant­ings un­til the end of 2008, mak­ing it ‘‘ close to the big­gest or sec­ond­biggest land­holder in the Ord val­ley’’.

One of the big­gest re­cent Ter­ri­tory sales was of ‘‘ Kingston Rest’’, a 6600 ha prop­erty south of Ku­nunurra, which TFS bought for $ 18.05 mil­lion.

The prop­erty, Roth says, has its own dam of 60,000 me­gal­itres — about 15 per cent the size of Syd­ney Har­bour, and had been used for graz­ing and grow­ing hay.

What was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing about the pur­chase was that it was the first big sale for an In­dian san­dal­wood plan­ta­tion out­side the Ord’s bound­ary: all pre­vi­ous san­dal­wood plan­ta­tions have been en­tirely within it.

‘‘ It is the wa­ter,’’ Roth says. ‘‘ San­dal­wood grow­ers will be in­ter­ested in any land up here with re­li­able wa­ter.’’

Growth in­dus­try:

San­dal­wood seedlings are tended at the Trop­i­cal Forestry Ser­vices at Ku­nunurra

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