Snow in the NT? That’s cotton littering the Stuart Highway near Katherine and locals aren’t happy

In the blistering hot Northern Territory you could be forgiven for thinking an inexplicable phenomenon is taking place.

At first glance there appear to be soft white piles of snow on the stretch of highway between Darwin and Katherine.

But it’s far from freezing and there’s a very simple explanation — it’s cotton and it’s causing turbulence.

“What we are hearing loud and clear from Territories is they don’t think it’s a good look, first and foremost,” says Mitch Hart, the NT manager of conservation group, Pew Charitable Trusts.

“But more than anything it’s a breach of trust.”

A road train loaded with cotton bales travels down an outback highway.
Road trains carting cotton have been traveling from the Top End to Queensland for processing.(ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

Last year, industry heads vowed the harvests from what is hoped will become the Top End’s cornerstone crop, worth billions, would be covered and concealed.

But road trains carrying thousands of dollars’ worth of exposed bails from the top of the Northern Territory to a processing plant in Dalby, Queensland, have become a common sight.

Earlier this year Northern Cotton Growers Association president Bruce Connolly told the ABC Country Hour that enveloping the bales would “be ideal”, but small amounts would always escape.

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Cotton industry vows to cover loads on NT roads

“It doesn’t become an issue from one year to the next because it’s a natural fiber — it rots away during the wet season”, he said.

Mr Connolly added that a 20-year-old government study found the likelihood of the plant growing like a weed was “minimal”.

“If they do grow, we as a farming community jump on them, we grab them and we physically pull the plants out of the ground,” he said.

The burgeoning cotton industry made a comeback in the Territory a little more than three years ago using the genetically modified Bollgard 3 variety developed by Monsanto.

The variety is resistant to the pests that partly caused the collapse of northern cotton in the 1970s.

Since the industry’s return, worries over water, irrigation and land clearing have increased amid scrutiny in southern drought-plagued cotton regions.

“There are some old studies that say things will be OK, but Territorians want to know [what will happen if] the current strains of cotton that are being grown in 2022 – that are a game changer, apparently – run into waterways,” Mr Hart said.

A man in a hat and branded polo shirt sits on a rock in bushland, holding a piece of cotton.
Robbie Friel wants to see a viable cotton industry blossom in the Territory, but the spillage is causing concern.(ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

‘We know it grows’

On Jawoyn country, which stretches across 50,000 square kilometers north-west from the town of Katherine, Aboriginal rangers are spread thin maintaining the land.

“Carbon farming and burning is done with helicopters, because [rangers] can’t get right across the whole land as it’s so big,” Jawoyn Association chair Robbie Friel said.

The traditional owner stressed he was all for growing industries in the NT, but the unknown was a concern.

“We are already tackling gamba grass,” he said.

“We don’t really want to have to be tackling another invasive plant that could potentially be spreading and getting out of control.”

A smiling, bearded man in a work shirt and hat holds a tiny baby.
Jeremy Trembath, pictured here with his newborn, runs a small cattle and vegetable farm on the outskirts of Katherine.(ABC Katherine: Roxanne Fitzgerald)

On a small cattle farm on the edge of Katherine, producer Jeremy Trembath, has doubts about the industry’s steadfast stance that the cotton strewn across the highway will disintegrate.

“We know it grows—that’s a fact,” he said.

“We’ve seen from the seeds that drop on the side of the road that it grows … various people can back that. I definitely can.

“You can ask any agronomist around the place — everyone knows it produces a viable seed you’re trying to grow healthy crop.

“The cash is essentially the bowl and the seed, so why wouldn’t it germinate?”

On top of that, Mr Trembath labels it “an eyesore”.

“It’s like, do you like graffiti around town? Sometimes it can be some really nice graffiti if you’re that way inclined, but let’s just say it’s not natural,” he said.

“It’s not something that’s been around for time immemorial — it’s introduced.”

A man in a hat and a blue shirt leans against a cattle fence.
Paul Burke says the industry is committed to covering loads when the processing plant opens.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Gin delay and safety issues

This week Northern Territory Farmers Association chief executive Paul Burke told the ABC that the protein-rich cotton was not surviving on the side of the road because it was eaten by native animals and cattle.


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