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9 December, 2020

How Queensland is uniquely positioned for export opportunities

WITHIN 36 hours of being picked, produce from Queensland’s Darling Downs can be in the market and ready to be sold in Hong Kong, Singapore and London.


Emily Coggan of Coggan Farms.
Emily Coggan of Coggan Farms.

WITHIN 36 hours of being picked, produce from Queensland’s Darling Downs can be in the market and ready to be sold in Hong Kong, Singapore and London.

The speed of airfreight means people overseas can often eat fresher, leafy Australian greens, than most of us here.

It only takes an eight-hour plane trip for Lockyer Valley lettuce, for example, to reach Singapore, whereas in Australia it could be up to a 24-hour road trip before it hits shelves.

This month’s issue of The Rural Leader sat down with Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise’s Food Leaders Australia General Manager Bruce McConnel to discuss how Queensland is uniquely positioned to take advantage of overseas markets with thanks to the private investment by the Wagner family in building Wellcamp Airport near Toowoomba and how the rest of the state could position themselves to take advantage of these markets as well.



Shell’s QGC Emerging Exporters Program, delivered by TSBE’s Food Leaders Australia, is now in its third year and has recently seen another six businesses within the Western Downs start on the journey into export markets.

These six businesses in the 2020 cohort are Coggan Farms, Devon Court Stud, Fraser Valuers, Janke Australia, Morrissey & Co and Rangeland Quality Meats.

The Emerging Exporters Program over the last few years has had some fantastic wins with regional businesses able to grow their business, increase staff, and take their produce to international markets.

“Prior to the Emerging Exporters program there was no one providing a service to help businesses think critically if export was for them,” Mr McConnel said.

“It’s not just about food – the program helps businesses take what they are really good at and offer it to the world. We have got an ag machinery business looking to grow outside of Southern Queensland and a valuation firm looking to take that service overseas in this round.

“It is about finding great opportunities internationally, creating a really strong footprint domestically and making sure when they go to export, they are as strong as possible to do that.”

Previous cohort participants have been successful in breaking into the international export market and have provided exciting opportunities to further diversify the region and expand supply of local products into new markets.

Participants like Four Daughters Premium Black Angus successfully export to China and Riverbend Pork Group export to markets in Asia.

The 2020 cohort are looking to diversify their markets and navigate their way through the complexity of doing business overseas through the support of Shell QGC’s Emerging Exporters Program, with the aim of developing the companies for export and assisting with their journey over the 12 month program.



While Food Leaders Australia is based on the Darling Downs, they have a vision of taking whatever is truly worthwhile to the rest of the state and country.

But Mr McConnel explained, their hands-on approach to helping develop businesses, means being ready at a moment’s notice and on the ground in the region to help.

They work with other clusters across Australia including the Food and Fibre Gippsland organisation and had conversations with the Central Highlands and Atherton Tableland about opening up the state to new opportunities.

“During COVID we’ve seen a massive amount of produce leave Wellcamp Airport,” Mr McConnell said.

“Previous to COVID a lot of produce went under the feet of passengers out of Brisbane.

“But we are seeing mangos from the north coming to Wellcamp and heading to Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as avocados and produce from the Southern Downs.

“While there has been reduced passenger flights, the international export business has actually been higher.”

Mr McConnel said the Wagner’s investment to build Wellcamp Airport was the catalyst for Darling Downs businesses to look at export and expansion.

“We now have investors wanting to build here because of the airport – there’s the ability to set up processing plants and bring in more jobs and opportunities.

“It’s the bigger elements that come with this including the Inland Rail meaning grain and bulk commodities can be processed right beside the airport.

“There will be a lot more investment in food processing – ready made meals – and Toowoomba has a large population that can provide the workforce which means it is really unique.”



Mr McConnel explained it wouldn’t just be “the big boys” taking advantage of the flow on effects – farmers within three to four hours of Toowoomba will have their produce processed closer to home, which will mean less in freight costs and a higher farm-gate return.

“Farmers are already looking at the first thing that happens to their product after it leaves the farm and realising, they can invest in it themselves,” he said.

“We are already seeing some really great examples of this including Story Fresh  – their on-farm processing operations offer an integrated seed-to-salad supply – all they started doing was shredding their produce and the consumer can buy it as a ready-made meal.

“With connectivity and infrastructure comes new opportunities such as the company looking to produce medicinal cannabis in the area from field-grown hemp – there’s so many more new industries to allow for diversification and it’s too early to see what the real opportunities will be.”



While other regions look at Toowoomba and start thinking “wow we should build an airport” Mr McConnel said he does not believe we will see another new airport in Queensland. 

“We are very unique, in Queensland we already have three international export airports – Brisbane, Cairns and Toowoomba,” he said.

“New South Wales only has Sydney and Victoria only has Melbourne.

“For other regions to capitalise on the benefits of the export airports, infrastructure needs to connect the airports to where the food is being produced.

“We can’t have too many airports. To make a plane work it needs to be full both ways, most airports can find some export but if a place like Gladstone for example, wanted to start exporting, the plane would probably be coming in empty and it would be more economical to send the produce via road freight to Brisbane to be exported.”

Mr McConnel said the reason it works in Toowoomba is because product can land outside a curfew, there is less congestion and is close enough to service Sydney.

“The key for Toowoomba was an investor ready to play the long game,” he said.

“Brisbane and Wellcamp airports announced they were building a runway at the same time; it took about 18 months for Wellcamp to finish there’s – it was years later Brisbane completed their second runway.

“Wellcamp has been built for seven years now and it will be interesting to see what happens after COVID, but in the long-term airports need passengers to survive.”



To find out more about international opportunities, visit


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