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Bumper harvest on the cards so why are farmers so nervous?

Tim Fookes, Wednesday September 9, 2020 - 19:27 EST
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Central West farmer Diana Fear said the wet season set regions up well for a bumper wheat harvest, provided there wasn't a late frost or heavy rain. - ABC

As farmers across central west NSW prepare for what could be one of the best harvests in years, any mention of a late frost or heavy rain is weighing on people's minds.

It is not an unusual sight to see crops more than a metre high as rain-soaked paddocks flourish after three years of drought.

When the first big rains came in late February, some farmers rushed out to plant crops.

Some of those early plantings have suffered from frost damage in August, and farmers remained aware of the potential another cold snap or heavy rain could have ahead of harvest in coming months.

"After the last three years of virtually no rain it's very exciting for all the growers in the district," said Ootha farmer, Diana Fear.

"It's all looking lush. You can't believe how quickly we've gone from having bare dirt to now having paddocks full of crops."

"Wheat will be the mainstay for farmers, as well as canola, pulses and barley, but this year is about consolidating after the drought.

Mrs Fear said while people had their fingers crossed for a big harvest, it relied on favourable weather conditions.

"We need a dry period around November and December, so the crops can come out quickly," she said.

"The longer the crops are in the ground, anything can happen."

While frost posed a risk, the forecast of a wet spring also caused concerned due to the risk of paddocks turning to mud and heavy farm machinery being bogged.

The closure of some state borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic was an additional factor some producers were monitoring, due to a lack of seasonal workers available during harvest.

Bumper crop outlook

The latest for Australian farmers.

Nationally, almost 48 million tonnes of grain is expected to be harvested this season, 20 per cent above the 10-year average 40 million tonnes.

NSW was forecast to lead the charge with wheat production expected to be 10.3 million tonnes in the next year, 58 per cent above the 10-year average.

Condobolin wheat farmer, Jake Worland, said the exceptional seasonal conditions had set producers up well.

"It looks unreal, we've had plenty of rain which has made conditions ideal heading into harvest in October," he said.

"We haven't had crops as good as this for four years and a lot of farmers have a big hole to fill to catch up."

"We're having some issues with fungus, so have spent a lot on fungicides and sprays this year."

"It's been so moist this year that we can't get on the crop and have to spray from above using an aeroplane!"

As well as concerns over flooding rain in coming months, Mr Worland had noticed some minor frost damage to some of the early planted wheat tillers.

Some farms in the Condobolin and Tullamore regions recorded 85 millimetres of rain in 2019.

Already, in 2020, more than 500 millimetres had fallen, filling dams and allowing lakes to begin to fill up again for the first time in four years.

Some irrigators had pressured water authorities to increase water allocations from lakes in the hope of adding to the rain that had fallen.

Financial drought

A forum in Condobolin this month heard from farmers who were trying to access drought recovery loans and grants offered by the NSW and federal governments for restocking and building infrastructure.

While a Rabobank quarterly survey of primary producers this month found farmers in NSW the most positive in the country about improved business conditions in the year ahead, the financial pressure for some remained.

Lachlan Shire Rural Financial Counsellor, Susan Kelly, said coming out of drought could often be the hardest part financially.

"The demand for loans has kicked up another level since it started raining," Ms Kelly said.

"People need to restock and replant, and with the prospect of a wet harvest period that could affect the long term cashflow of a farming business."

Ms Kelly said two years ago, the region was drought-stricken, with constant dust storms and trucks laden with hay travelling through.

"The people in these western communities tend to be positive, even in the most adverse of circumstances," she said.

"But there is still real financial pressure on some of these farming families. It's not all happy days yet."

Business bounces back

Retailers across central west NSW noticed increased consumer confidence as the rain fell.

The Condobolin Business Chamber said there had been an increase in weekend visitors from across NSW, due to COVID-19 restrictions limiting the ability to travel out of the state.

Nearby at the small community of Tottenham, the town's cafe recently reopened after closing during the drought.

Owner of the Tottenham Rural Trading store, Roger Brodin, said business had increased by 70 per cent since the rain started falling in February.

"We started in drought, then it rained, and it's turned into a really good year," he said.

"While there have been some issues getting stock in due to the pandemic, we've been selling a lot of sprays, as well as fencing supplies, lamb markers; you name it."

"Farmers around here are optimistic, but there's still a way to go before you get the grain in the silo, but so far so good."


© ABC 2020

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