“We’re the single biggest port for hardwood chips being exported, in the world,” says Port of Portland chief executive Jim Cooper.
It is a claim that can only be fully appreciated when standing atop one of the 40-metre mountains of blue gum woodchips that are waiting to be shipped from the port on Victoria’s south west coast.
For many Australians, the blue gum is a species of disappointment, from the individual farmer caught up in one of the infamous failed investment schemes of the late 1990s, to the hundreds who lost jobs at doomed paper mills.
But those trees that were not ripped out in bitter frustration have continued to grow for the past 15-odd years and, for the companies that bought plantations up, the blue gum is finally living up to the hype.
In the 2014/15 financial year, 2.65 million tonnes were shipped out of Portland.
“We’re looking at that increasing into the low three million tonnes this year,” Mr Cooper said.
“It’s going to go up even further than that, into the high three millions, and we’re expecting it to stay up there through to the mid 2020s.”
In response to the extra volume, a second ship loader is being built at Portland’s port, along with other new equipment to facilitate movement.
A bulldozer works 24 hours a day, spreading load after load at the top of the woodchip mountains.
Forestry companies are advertising for dozens of truck drivers.
“One big trucking company, Port Haul, is currently looking for 60 new truck drivers in the next two months,” Mr Cooper said.
A part of the blue gum bust of earlier years was flailing demand for quality paper products in Australia’s biggest export market, Japan.
“Japan’s population is very old, it’s ageing and shrinking,” Mr Cooper said.
“A lot of people have personal devices now and they don’t need as many pamphlets and catalogues in letterboxes anymore.”
But as Japanese demand started to dwindle, China stepped up.
“China has peaked in its building phase of new apartments, for people moving from the country, but it’s moved into a consumption phase,” Mr Cooper said.
“They are now clearly the biggest buyers in the world and they need high quality woodchips because they’ve been putting in brand new paper mills in China.”
Six of the biggest Green Triangle forestry companies have formed a partnership to try to lure a new processor into the region.
They will receive much higher margins if the woodchips are processed locally.
But Mr Cooper was not concerned the companies’ success would affect the port’s income much.
“There are some scenarios where, if there’s processing here in Australia, that our exports will go down because the wood is actually processed and then used here,” he said.
“But with the volumes we’re producing, there will still be a lot to export.
“Australia cannot consume that much, in terms of wood pallets or biofuel, that it would soak up all of the woodchips that are going out for export.”