OPIUM poppies are unlikely to be the remedy for all farmers’ woes in the Ballarat region.
But it has potential to be part of the cure.
Pharmaceutical company GSK is one of three trialing the crop in Victoria, with a number of test sites including one at the Powell family farm in Clarkes Hill.
With legislative changes and further research, Ballarat could join Tasmania as one of the world’s leading commercial opium-growing regions.
Results to date are promising.
Davies and Rose agronomist Andrew Powell is managing a trial on his father Con’s property.
“We were approached from a contact of mine to have a trial site through an intermediary,” Andrew Powell said.
“I was pretty excited really. It is potentially a high cash crop and a great opportunity for the area. We hoped they’d do well.
“The main thing is it is a mild climate. They are trialing them all over the state for that data. The way other crops are grown in the area, it is similar to Tasmania, so I understand it should be quite suitable.
“As Tassie has proven, they are a great break away from potatoes. If the yields are good and the alkaloid content is good, which is what they are tracing for in drug manufacturing, then it has potential.
“So far, they’ve grown OK but there is quite a lot of agronomy to go into it yet. It will be challenging to grow. Trials are easier to manage than broad acre.”
Tasmania provides 50 per cent of global requirements for opiate raw materials.
The legislation to allow the growing of commercial opium in Victoria has passed the state lower house and is waiting for the upper house vote.
GSK is confident the legislation will pass through the upper house with bipartisan support.
The trials have been occurring in secrecy to date and will continue with the appropriate level of security.
Their potential for farmers is to add another crop rotation in with existing crops, particularly potatoes.
“Opium poppies still need water but they aren’t as labour intensive as potatoes,” Mr Powell said.
“It could be part of a potato rotation. Potatoes can be grown in a paddock once every four or five years, and poppies are about the same, so they are compatible.
“It all depends on the federal government. Tasmania has tried to put a five-year moratorium on the crop not to be grown outside of Tasmania.
“There is a lot of security. The public liability is the big issue. The main thing is to keep the sites secure and provide education.”
While optimistic about Ballarat region’s suitability for growing commercial opiates, GSK general manager Steve Morris urged patience.
“It is our intent to be commercialised within five years (but) it will depend upon those trial outcomes,” he said.
“Any new crop is going to take a while if it will grow. These things do take time and we’re concerned to make sure they will get the correct science.”