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Spring rains dampen record Aussie crops


By Liv Casben in Sydney
Source: AAP

At 10pm on Tuesday, October 26 a jubilant Oscar Pearse had just started harvest and put a call out for more help on social media.

“Didn’t plan for pleasant surprises,” he tweeted to his nine thousand plus followers, ” anyone with grain trucks who wants a job? Give me a yell.”

The results were better than the Moree farmer could have hoped for.

“It has been an exceptional year … this is a once in a lifetime year,” Pearse tells AAP of what he says is incomparable to three years of recent drought.

“We produced more wheat in 90 minutes of harvesting … than we did in all of 2019.”

Pearse’s enthusiasm is only dampened by the rain hitting across northern NSW.

“There are falls in excess of 60 millimetres predicted off some of the models; that will start having a pretty significant affect,” he says.

Ten kilometres to the southwest, Matthew Madden are also experiencing a “record” wheat harvest.

The mixed crop farmer says high yields and a great price have meant “one of the best years” in his four decades of farming.

But the NSW Farmers Grains Committee member says the perfect storm might be about to hit, caused not just by the rain but the labor shortage too.

“It’s time critical getting this crop off in time,” he says.

“Around the district older people and kids have been relied on to fill in the gaps.”

The reopening of international and domestic borders after COVID have come too late for the 60-year-old.

For a second year running he’s relying on family and friends to take the place of skilled backpackers.

“I’ve got my sister on the chaser bin, I’ve got my friend Tony on the truck, I’ve got my daughters and their husbands come home to help harvest.”

Friend Tony, is Sydney businessman, Tony Halfhide, who earlier this year studied to get his truck license, to help haul up to 420 tonnes of wheat a day from paddock to silo.

AAP caught up with him during another 13-hour day in the name of helping a mate.

“I’ve been head down, bum up since I got here,” he says from the cabin of his semi-trailer.

“It’s a very pleasurable experience and something I would highly recommend to anybody that wants to get out and experience life on a farm,” the 65-year-old says.

Madden says one of the upsides of border closures has been farmers examining how they work and who they employ.

“We’re now looking at tapping into some of the retirees, the grey nomads, who have appropriate skills to be able to do this for a few weeks,” he says.

Yet its essential more workers are used to avoid fatigue.

“If we can run shorter shifts … to avoid running people 12 to 14 hours and running into fatigue problems” he says of something he understands all too well is not sustainable.

Fatigue was partly to blame for his own farm accident 12 years ago when his foot became caught in a piece of machinery leaving horrific injuries.

Harvest in Western Australia, meanwhile, has reached as far south as Esperance, with farmers across the state also reporting record yields.

WA Farmers CEO Trevor Whittington expects it to hit the “holy grail” target of 20 million tonnes.

“Following the wettest and most consistent rainfall across the wheatbelt in 50 years, the state is on track to smash past records,” he says.

But the weather is also fraying nerves.

“The biggest risk now is if the rain keeps coming or the state goes into lockdown and harvest is delayed which risks downgrading to feed grain” Whittington tells AAP.

Tobin Gorey, Agri Commodities Strategist at Commonwealth Bank, says for wheat, barley and canola harvests “it will be a large one Australiawide”.

“It will be among the bigger ones. Good prices, plenty of production, broadly speaking this will be another sweet spot year for Australia … it will be up around the records.”

Gorey says the rain is coming “at the wrong time” for some parts but on the whole, Australia is doing well.

Despite high freight costs and diplomatic tensions with China, Gorey says a global supply shortage has meant it’s “a good time to have a big crop”.

The prediction from Grain Producers Australia is that this years national crop will total around 55 million tonnes, worth about $15 billion.

GPA boss Colin Bettles says results are good.

Yet there has been the stop-start impact of rain in Queensland among other problems.

“Mouse plagues, labour shortages, frost damage in various grain growing regions and sharply rising costs of contract harvester insurance premiums have been some of the core challenges,” Bettles says.

While he’s already stripped his wheat and most of his barley, Madden says he still has chickpeas in the ground.

“It’s a nervous time and the forecast is just not that good.”

“Some very nasty weather coming at us, the worst case scenario is a week of rain which will have some serious consequences for the quality of the crop.

“It could be 10 days before we get started again.”

And that’s when harvest right across the district really kicks in to the West of Moree, when the big operators with huge tonnages start up.

Oscar Pearse can also see some big challenges ahead.

“The next few weeks, the logistics are that it’s going to be very hard for the bulk handlers to keep up, it’s going to be hard to see us being able to get enough trucks,” he says.

“And it’s going to be a real challenge for everyone.”

The perfect storm might just be on its way.

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