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Harvest contractors face dismal season with drought having a knock-on effect across eastern Australia

Angus Verley, Monday September 10, 2018 - 14:58 EST
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Bruce Estens says this combine harvester will stay in the shed this season. - ABC

What is expected to be a dismal grain harvest for large parts of eastern Australia is not just bad news for farmers — it will also hurt contractors who rely on good seasons to stay in business.

Some harvest contractors fear they won't even get their machines out of the shed, with large parts of Queensland, New South Wales and northern Victoria facing grim conditions.

Even contractors in parts of Victoria's Wimmera, where conditions are better, are facing a wipe-out, because they rely on work further north.

Broken harvest trail

The harvesting of winter crops typically starts in central Queensland in September and ends in southern Victoria in January.

Many harvest contractors take advantage of this by starting their machines in Queensland and following the harvest south.

One such contractor is Horsham-based Bruce Estens, who has been in the game for three decades and has never seen such poor conditions so widespread across the eastern states.

"We're being ravaged, just like the farmers," he said.

"It's pretty ugly. This would be rivalling what I saw in 1994, when I took headers straight from Emerald to the Western District."

Mr Estens said there was some hope in the Moree region thanks to a big rain in late August, but it was a different story in the Riverina.

"It's totally gone, it's wiped out," he said.

"I've been harvesting for [a farmer] in the Barham Echuca area for 22 years and this is the first time I won't put a header on that farm."

Mr Estens usually harvests up to 25,000 hectares, but this year expects to harvest as little as 6,000 hectares.

"But that could be an extremely optimistic number," he said.

Grim outlook for contractors

Mr Estens said, as an established contractor, he would be able to weather the storm, but was concerned about how others would fare.

"A lot of the younger contractors will get zero, they'll cop a real hiding," he said.

"Last year wasn't a very good year either up north and now they've got a wipe-out, so there'll be a lot of contractors in a lot of trouble I think.

"You've just got to run as skinny as you possibly can, watch every expense, hope you don't have big trouble with your machinery and just salvage what you can out of this year and wait for next year."

Grain grower facing no harvest for the first time ever

John Douglas, who farms at Caldwell between Barham and Echuca, typically employs Mr Estens to harvest his 1,000-hectare crop — but not this year.

"My harvest contractor, I had to tell him a couple of weeks ago it's looking like he'll harvest nothing here," he said.

"We're putting sheep on our crops because they're wilting back and dying, so we're trying to utilise that while we can.

"We've only had between 50 to 60mm of rain for the growing season, so there's no way it's going to form seed. I think it will die before it gets to that point."

Mr Douglas said it was the worst season he had ever seen.

"I have never been faced with zero crop, even back in 1982 and through the Millennium Drought we still seemed to have something to harvest," he said.

"The budget's taken a massive hit. I haven't really done all the numbers yet — but I know they'll be bad."


© ABC 2018

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