Warm spring key to salvation

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian
CBH York manager Kim Saunders celebrates the end of the record season.
Camera IconCBH York manager Kim Saunders celebrates the end of the record season. Credit: Ian Munro/The West Australian

Nothing short of a miracle.

That is how a senior banker describes the turnaround in this year's WA harvest.

NAB State head of agribusiness Andrew Clark said yesterday that the Wheatbelt was on a knife edge five months ago but had made an incredible comeback.

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There are now 15.1 million tonnes of reasons why widespread rural foreclosures will be avoided and that adds up to happy farmers and happy bankers.

Mr Clark, who is on the board of the Rural Financial Counselling Service, said the record harvest would boost balance sheets, give farmers hope and lift communities.

"In July a lot people were extremely worried about the outlook," he said.

"It is always a difficult thing to judge but I reckon in many cases we were a couple of weeks, or possibly less, off having an absolute disaster.

"I'm no expert but I don't know how much longer the crop could have survived without rain."

But the rain arrived just in time and what followed was perfect weather for the vast majority of the Wheatbelt.

Department of Agriculture and Food WA grain industry director David Bowran said crops had been incredibly resilient in the face of a very dry start to winter.

"We had some of the lowest rainfall on record across the south-west corner in June and normally that is the wettest month," Dr Bowran said.

"That extended into July but from then there has been a dramatic turnaround.

"We saw in most areas, not all, well above-average rain into August and September and that is the critical end of season when you have to have water for grain filling."

Temperatures up to 2C above normal gave crops rapid growth and early flowering. There was virtually no frost and the weather smiled on the harvest.

Most farmers had conditions that maximise yields, and virtually no problems.

"I've heard of farmers with whole farm averages of 4.5t/ha for wheat and that is exceptional," Dr Bowran said.

"The comment I hear is that we could average 2.9t/ha for wheat overall and that will break every record."

He said the season reflected the best possible outcome from an emerging trend in Wheatbelt weather patterns.

The rainfall pattern mirrored almost exactly the average change over the past 15 years - dry in May, June, July and closer to normal or above in spring.

WAFarmers vice-president Tony York said the record harvest showed just how far WA grain growers had come in a generation.

"It is remarkable what rain can do and how much a plant can recover," he said.

"But it also shows how skilled we are as an industry because, if we had a beginning to the season like this one in 1980, there is absolutely no way we would have been able to produce this kind of turnaround. Our skill level and management finesse have really helped."

Mr York, who is racing to finish harvest before Christmas on 10,000ha at Tammin with brother Simon, said that in his 40 years farming he had never seen such a dramatic change in fortunes.

"Our business has a substantial debt and I know our bankers are just as excited as we are," he said.

"We don't have our backs to the wall but we have significant debts and a lot of short-term carry-on finance because of recent poor years.

"Our main priority is to firm up our finances."

Mr York and his brother bought two new harvesters costing more than $600,000 each at the start of year and the investment is paying off given the size of the harvest.

"It should be a great Christmas for the Wheatbelt and we are all grateful that the roller-coaster season we had has finished on such a brilliant note," he said.

Mr York, Mr Clark and Dr Bowran all stressed that some farmers had missed out on the record harvest, including those in districts on the edge of the northern and eastern Wheatbelt.

Mr Clark said the RFCS continued to help farmers who needed support in difficult financial situations.

He hoped farmers who prospered this season took the chance to pay off debt.

"In banking we are going to see significant payback, which has got to be good for the industry," Mr Clark said.

"The season farmers have had and some of the yields are fantastic.

"It is giving people the confidence to continue farming and it is going to allow other farmers to make a dramatic difference to their financial position.

"They will be able to consolidate and improve the ongoing viability of their businesses, there is no question about that."

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