Agriculture, forestry and fishing

The growth of Northern Territory's (NT) agriculture, forestry and fishing industry is a useful indicator to reflect economic activity in the NT's regional and remote areas.  It has important linkages to other sectors of the economy, including retail and wholesale trade, manufacturing and transport. In this section, analysis is provided on activity and production for live cattle and buffalo exports, as well as other livestock products and exports, horticulture, fisheries and forestry.

 Infographic showing GSP Infographic showing persons employed Infographic show percentage of NT workforce

Economic contribution | Contribution to employment | Agriculture | Horticulture | Fisheries | Forestry | Explanatory Notes

Economic contribution

The agriculture, forestry and fishing industry is a significant employer and source of  economic activity in regional and remote areas of the Northern Territory (NT). The industry has important linkages to other sectors of the economy, including retail and wholesale trade, manufacturing and transport.

In 2017-18, the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry contributed $735 million in real terms to the Northern Territory’s (NT’s) economy. As a percentage share of gross state product (GSP), the industry contributed 2.9% in 2017-18, above the 10 year average of 2.3%. The industry’s output can, however, vary significantly from year to year due to changes in production as well as seasonal conditions, and changes in global and domestic demand for NT commodities.

Map 1: Northern NT Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing1 (click to enlarge)

Map 1

1  This map is produced from various sources. Department of Treasury and Finance cannot guarantee the accuracy, currency, or completeness of the information. To be used as a guide only.
Source: Department of Treasury and Finance; Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries

Contribution to employment

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) employment data for the NT’s agriculture, forestry and fishing industry can be highly volatile due to the small sample size of the labour force survey, particularly in regional and remote areas. In 2018-19, employment in this industry increased by 2.7%. The agriculture, forestry and fishing industry accounted for 1.4% or 1,793 of the total resident workforce in the year, below the 10‑year average of 1.8%. Since then, recent data shows the employment in this industry decreased to 1,654 persons in the year to August 2019, representing 1.3% of the total resident workforce.

Nationally, employment in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry increased by 1.6% to 332,787 people over the same period, however the proportion to total national employment remained unchanged at 2.6% of the national workforce.


Live Cattle

The cattle industry is important to the NT economy, with the industry generating expenditure on cattle transport, stock feed, wages, port charges and demand for services such as quarantine inspection and veterinary requirements. In turn, this provides significant employment opportunities, particularly in regional parts of the NT, along with substantial export income, which supports regional economic growth.

The live cattle industry in the NT consists of live cattle exported internationally and interstate. In 2018, about 580,654 head of live cattle were exported interstate and to overseas markets (Chart 2). This was an increase of 44.9% (179,958 head of cattle) compared to the previous year, which was driven by higher interstate live cattle movements to Queensland and a return to long-term international live cattle exports to Indonesia. International live cattle trade figures do not include NT cattle exported through ports outside the NT.

International Live Cattle Exports

The NT exports live cattle to a number of countries, most of which are located in Asia. Indonesia is the NT’s largest overseas destination, accounting for 79.5% (216,634 head) of live cattle exports in 2018 (Chart 3). Other significant overseas export destinations for NT cattle include Vietnam, which accounted for 13.0% (35,342 head), and Malaysia, which accounted for 2.9% (7,848 head).

In 2018-19, international live cattle exports from the NT increased by 1.0% to 237,041 head. The slowdown in growth in cattle exports was primarily due to a lack of rain fall over the NT wet season, higher operating costs and destocking by NT cattle station owners.  During the period, the NT increased live cattle exports to Indonesia (up 11,504 head) and Philippines (up 5,375 head), partly offset by decreased exports to Vietnam (down 4,166 head).

In 2018-19, live cattle exports to Indonesia increased by 6.4% to 190,199 head. This, however, remains well below a recent high of 251,232 head in 2014 due to the high cost of breeding cattle in Indonesia through Australia and Indonesia’s 5:1 feeder-breeder policy and competition from low-price substitutes. In response to high prices for Australian cattle, Indonesia allowed the import of frozen buffalo meat in 2016 as a substitute for low value beef products. In May 2018, Indonesia issued permits for 100,000 tonnes of frozen buffalo to be imported, which is equivalent to 500,000 head of live cattle, or about half of Indonesia’s total cattle imports.

Steady demand from Vietnam has supported live cattle trade out of Darwin, and is now the NT’s second largest live cattle export destination. However, exports to Vietnam have reduced recently due to increased competition   from India and the United States . In 2018-19, live cattle exports decreased by 12.8% to 28,450 head and below the record 63,999 head reported in 2015.

Declining cattle prices and a depreciating Australian dollar against the Philippine Peso has resulted in trade to the Philippines resuming in May 2018, with 9,954 head of live cattle exported in 2018-19, up 117.4% from the previous year.

Interstate Live Cattle

In 2018, the number of NT cattle sent interstate increased by 46.9% to 308,371 head. This was mainly driven by an increase in live cattle exports to Queensland (up 91.4% to 183,460 head), Victoria (up 93.3% to 28,251 head), Western Australia (up 34.5% to 32,117 head) and New South Wales (up 10.6% to 11,657 head), which was partly offset by an decrease in exports to South Australia (down 18.7% to 52,886 head). Parts of Queensland emerged from years of drought, which led to increased demand for NT cattle in 2018. Drought conditions in the Barkly region in the Territory, and the loss of cattle in northern Queensland due to widespread floods and Cyclone Trevor in early 2019, are expected to increase interstate cattle movements from Territory in the near term.

Queensland remains the NT’s largest interstate live cattle destination, accounting for 59.5% of all NT cattle transported interstate. South Australia was the second largest export destination, with a share of 17.2%.

In 2018, the number of live cattle sent to the NT decreased by 15.1% to 160,146 head. The majority of live cattle imports to the NT were from Queensland, which accounted for 81.1% (129,886 head) of interstate imports. The remaining live cattle came from Western Australia (26,543 head), South Australia (3,285 head), New South Wales (377 head) and Victoria (55 head).

Other Livestock

Boxed Beef

In August 2018, boxed beef production in the NT ceased following the closure of Australian Agricultural Company’s (AACo) Livingstone abattoir outside of Darwin. This was mainly due to high cattle prices, falling demand and a tightening in supply.

However, production is expected to recommence in the third quarter of 2019 with the re-opening of Central Agri Group’s Batchelor abattoir plant.


Other livestock production in the NT is dominated by crocodile production. NT crocodiles are highly valued for their skins, which are used in the production of high‑end market fashion accessories such as handbags, belts, shoes, wallets, jewellery, entire skins and other fashion items. Australia accounts for 60% of the global trade in saltwater crocodile skins.

In 2017-18, total revenue from the NT’s crocodile industry was about $23.7 million, an increase of $0.7 million (or 2.8%) from the previous financial year. Stricter grading standards were introduced in 2016-17, leading to a greater quantity of crocodile skins being classified as lower grade skins. Around 63.5% of this revenue was generated from the production of first grade skins (Chart 4).

Under the Crocodile Wildlife Trade Management Plan 2016‑2020 (WTMP), the NT Government plans to reduce regulatory red tape and provide certainty around quotas. The WTMP supports the growth of the industry by allowing an annual harvest ceiling of 90,000 viable eggs and 1,200 animals a year, doubling the number of saltwater crocodiles that can be harvested from the wild.


Live buffalo is an emerging export market for the NT which has been showing signs of strong growth in recent years. However poor rainfall during the northern wet season, increased competition from India, and higher operating costs in 2018-19 have resulted in buffalo exports from the Port of Darwin decreasing by 34.8% to 6,690 head in 2018-19, below the four year average of 7,370 head (Chart 5).

Since Indonesia lifted its suspension of live buffalo exports from Australia in early 2017, the nation has become the NT’s largest importer of live buffalo, accounting for 44.6% of total exports (2,186 head) in 2018-19. The second largest importer of live buffalo is Vietnam, accounting for 32.7% of total live buffalo exports (2,186 head) in 2018-19. Malaysia resumed live buffalo trade in mid-2016, importing 1,036 head from the Port of Darwin accounting for 15.5% of all overseas live buffalo exports from the NT in 2018-19.


The NT horticultural industry is comprised of fruit, vegetables, nursery products, turf and hay. Almost all production is sold interstate. According to the NT Farmers Association, the value of horticulture production in the NT was estimated at $251 million in 2017, declining by $2 million compared to the previous year in current terms. The total value of horticultural production for 2017 comprised of:

The NT mango industry accounted for 44.9% of the total value of farming production. In 2017, mango production in the NT increased by tonnes 33.7% to 39,700 tonnes compared to the previous year. The total value of mangoes sold increased by 27.7% to $112.8 million. This change could be attributed to favourable weather conditions compared to above average temperatures in the previous year. Production of melons decreased by 18.4% to 46,000 tonnes, and the total value decreased by 16.5% to $42.0 million in 2017.

Threats to Horticulture production

Listed below are various exotic plant pests and diseases found in the NT which are currently impacting on Horticulture production for commercial fruit and vegetable growers:

For more information, visit the Plant diseases and pests information page on the NT Department of Primary Industry and Resources (DPIR) website.


Crustacean production in the NT is dominated by prawns and mud crabs. Fish production largely comprises snapper, barramundi and mackerel. Aquaculture in the NT is primarily related to pearls and barramundi, with a small contribution from aquarium fish and spirulina production (the latter is used as a human diet supplement and a feed supplement in the aquaculture, aquarium and poultry industries). Reported data is the most recent available to date.

As of February 2019, the commercial fishing industry had more than 200 commercial fishing licences, 190 registered fishing vessels and harvested about 5,500 tonnes of fish and marine life each year. There was commercial activity in 15 different wild harvest fisheries.

In 2016‑17, DPIR reports the estimated value of wild caught fish in the NT increased by 17.9% to $37.3 million (excluding prawns), with aquaculture products increasing 40.5% to $34.4 million.

The Northern Prawn Fisheries (NPF) reports the number of prawn catches in northern Australia, in the area between Cape York in Queensland and Cape Londonderry in Western Australia. The NPF produces four common commercial species of prawns including white banana prawns, tiger prawns, eastern king prawns and endeavour prawns. The weather and ocean conditions, particularly the level of rainfall during the wet season, are very influential on the productivity of the fishery especially for banana prawns.

In 2017-18, NPF reported   the total catch of prawns in the NT was about 2,187 tonnes, down from 3,832 tonnes the previous year due to poor weather conditions and lower prices. This comprised approximately 1,107 tonnes of banana prawns, 858 tonnes of tiger prawns, 220 tonnes of endeavour prawns and 2 tonnes of king prawns. Following a record catch of banana prawns (2,070 tonnes) in 2016-17, there was a 46.5% decline in the total catch of banana prawns in 2017‑18. Similarly, the total catch of tiger prawns decreased by 42.6% in 2017-18 (Chart 7).


There are currently three plantation forestry projects in the NT. Plantation forestry is becoming an increasingly important industry and is currently the second largest production land user in the NT after cattle grazing, with more than 49,000 hectares of the NT currently used to produce forestry products in managed plantations.

Acacia mangium plantations are being grown for woodchip exports on the Tiwi islands. The forestry is managed by Midway Limited on behalf of the Tiwi Plantations Corporation on Melville Island, and is an important source of income and employment for the Tiwi community. A total of 196,603 tonnes of Acacia woodchips were sold from the Tiwi Islands in 2017-18, with a total export value of around USD$11.0 million.

African mahogany is being grown in the Douglas Daly and Katherine regions by African Mahogany Australia, and is the largest plantation estate of this species in the world. It is being grown for a high‑value, sawn timber market, which includes veneer boards, floor boards and feature grade timber. These rotations are in mid-rotation but have a standing value of $100 million.

Indian Sandalwood plantations are also grown in the Douglas-Daly and Katherine regions for oil and pharmaceuticals. All sandalwood plantations in the NT are still too young to be harvested and will not mature for more than a decade.

Explanatory notes

The analysis is based on estimates from surveys undertaken by DPIR, information from a survey undertaken by the NT Farmers Association in 2017, as well as preliminary data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on the value of agricultural commodities produced.

Caution is advised when interpreting annual changes in the value of production for commodities reported in this chapter. This is due to changes in the scope and coverage of producers in the survey, changes in the level of detail on commodities reported by producers, large percentage changes from a small base and one‑off weather events occurring in the NT and adjoining states.

For more data on agriculture, forestry and fishing, refer to DPIR's website.