Regional Australia goes from mining boom to dining boom

With new air links to Asia, farmers set to produce record $64b worth of food and agricultural products this year

For farmers growing fruit and producing beef in the plains around Canberra, the closest airport for sending food directly to Asia has long been in Sydney, which is a three-hour drive away.

But last September, Singapore Airlines began flying four times a week from Canberra Airport to Singapore. These flights mark Canberra's only regular international service and join a crop of new air links connecting Asia to regional Australia.

With farmers spread across the country  - often in remote  areas - the growth of these services is helping many to tap into Australia's plan to become Asia's "food bowl", by delivering products such as milk, lettuce and meat, fresher and more quickly.

According to the Capital Airport Group, which owns Canberra Airport, growers, seafood suppliers and abattoirs around the region have been looking to use the flights to transport to Singapore and beyond.

"There is considerable potential for perishable exports from the wider regional catchment of around one million people… including meat, wool, fruit, vegetables and seafood," the firm's managing director Stephen Byron told The Straits Times.

Fuelled by growing demand from Asia, Australian farmers are expected to produce a record A$60 billion (S$64.2 billion) worth of food and agricultural products this year, due to increase to A$100 billion by 2025.

This so-called food boom is helping to boost the economy, which has suffered from the end of a decade-long mining boom.

To address the growing appetite and spending power from Asia, international air services have begun to pop up across the country.

Singapore Airlines said the new service between Singapore, Canberra and Wellington in New Zealand was being used by local producers to  transport their goods "from the Canberra region to the world".

"We expect the volume, type and frequency of cargo being carried out of Canberra to increase over the coming year," said a spokesman.

Other regional centres are also starting to fly direct to Asia.

In southern Queensland, the inland city of Toowoomba now has a Cathay Pacific weekly freight flight to Hong Kong.  The flights started in November, operating from the privately built Wellcamp Airport.

A local meat supplier, Oakey Beef Exports, has been using the flights to deliver chilled meat from a plant, which is just a 20-minute drive from the airport, to high-end restaurants in Hong Kong.

Mr Pat Gleeson, general manager of Oakey, which belongs to Japanese-owned NH Foods Australia, said the new flights would allow supplies of fresher chilled products, rather than frozen meat, to be sent by sea or via other airport hubs.

"The cattle can be slaughtered on a Monday and be on a shelf in Asia on Friday," he said.

"It is giving us a lot of opportunities... We would like to do shelf-ready, retail-ready beef."

Announcing the Hong Kong service late last year, Wellcamp Airport said the flights would help farmers and food manufacturers in Queensland reap the benefits of Australia's new free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea.

Local farmers had expressed interest in transporting a range of perishable items, including lettuce and nuts, airport spokesman Karen McKinley told The Straits Times.

In the island state of Tasmania, farmers are also set to benefit from additional flights to Asia to export products such as cherries and milk.

The state's main airport in Hobart is undergoing a A$40 million runway extension, due to be completed by early next year. Exporters say they plan to charter freight flights to Singapore or Hong Kong during the harvest months.

A Chinese firm which last April bought Australia's largest and oldest dairy farm - Van Diemen's Land Farms in Tasmania - plans to export about 10 million litres of milk to China, starting this year.

The firm, Moon Lake Investments, has signed a deal with Qantas to load 50,000 litres of fresh milk from Hobart to Ningbo, marking the state's first regular international freight flights.

A Qantas spokesman said the airline was "on track" to start flights in the first half of this year.

NSW Farmers, which represents farmers in the state of New South Wales, said that improved regional air services were "increasingly important as Australia moves from the mining boom to the dining boom".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2017, with the headline 'Regional Australia goes from mining boom to dining boom'. Subscribe