Good harvests lift Gen X

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

For many grain growers aged in their 30s, the current season is the best run in their farming lives after doing it tough for a decade or more.

WA farmers are putting the finishing touches to a hat-trick of grain harvests valued at more than $13.5 billion that have given a generation new hope.

Some such as Kalannie farmer Clint Stanley have only shared in one of three generally good seasons across the Wheatbelt but it has been enough to give his young family a big boost.

Mr Stanley finished harvesting this week after planting 8000ha of wheat on the back of about 120mm of rain in March.

"It looked like a good year, so we planted a few extra paddocks," the 33-year-old said.

As it turned out, about 100mm of rain in July made the difference between a good year and a bad one.

Mr Stanley produced about two tonnes of wheat a hectare, well above his five-year average of 1.2t/ha on a farm that has been in the family for three generations.

"This will be our second best year on record," he said.

"A two-tonne year pays a lot of bills and gives you confidence going into the next two or three seasons with money behind you."

Mr Stanley, who farms with wife Morwenna and daughters Sienna, 3, and Imogen, 1, admitted there had been some anxious moments in getting the crop off.

"The climatic conditions are just so variable that you don't know what you are going to get," he said.

More than 350km south of Kalannie, Peter Hill is still harvesting after what he described as a "pretty good year".

Mr Hill and wife Emily bought their first farm west of Kojonup last year after years of leasing land and share cropping.

The 36-year-old continues to lease land east of Broomehill, runs a contract harvesting business and makes farm machinery.

"It has been a hard road," Mr Hill said.

"The real driving force has been our kids (Brodie, 8, and Mitchell, 5).

"Brodie in particular just loves farming and if he is not farming outside, he is playing a farming game on the iPad.

"It keeps us motivated and pushing ahead."

Mr Hill planted oats, canola, lupins, barley and wheat across 2100ha, with the crops that went in early coming up trumps. The best of barley produced 4.5t/ha and wheat up to 3.5t/ha.

The solid result follows a couple of good years, but Mr Hill said returns were relatively low given the big investment and high-risk involved in grain growing.

"There are not many businesses around where you chuck a million dollars or two at it and hope for the best," he said.

Mr Hill urged the State Government to pay more attention to the sector.

"The Government has put its focus on mining and haven't put enough on agriculture," he said.

"My wife and I have basically gone farming with little help. We haven't taken over a family farm.

"I think the Government needs to shift its focus and recognise that agriculture is going to have a big part to play in the economy."

Three years ago, Muntadgin farmer Scott Stirrat was worried about the future of his farm and the local community after a series of terrible seasons.

Things were so dire that he and wife Lynda were not sure if their children Ethan, 15, Kye, 13, and Cobie, 9, had a future in farming.

A bumper crop to end 2013, an above average 2014 and this year's average result have put Mr Stirrat back on track as he approaches the end of his 30s.

"From a business point of view, we have recovered after four or five bad years in a row," he said. "We just don't want to go back there."

Mr Stirrat finished harvesting 3500ha last week and was spot on his 10-year average of 1.3t/ha for wheat.

His farm did not get a drop of rain after a soaking in August up until harvest. In the end, Mr Stirrat went flat out in his harvester to beat a downpour last week that would have reduced the value of his crop.

"Rain in September is worth a lot of money," he said.

"Rain at this time of year costs a lot of money because the boom spray will have to start rolling to take care of summer weeds and melons."

With harvest all but over, the Grain Industry Association of WA is predicting a 14.18 million-tonne return. It follows 14.52mt last financial year and a record 17mt harvest in 2013-14. Areas such as Mukinbudin, where Co-operative Bulk Handling storage facilities were empty last year, are full of grain this year.

Returns are down in places such as Wagin and south of Corrigin after two bumper crops.

CBH operations manager David Capper said his friends, who returned to farming after school or university, were enjoying their best times despite inconsistent results across the Wheatbelt.

Mr Capper, 34, said they had faced really tough times in the 2000s.

"The last four or five years have given them the opportunity to recover and now not just to recover but to move forward," he said.

"They are talking with more confidence about the potential for a good decade in farming."

Mr Capper said family farms remained the core of the industry in WA.

"There are some really good corporates out there doing a fantastic job, but the backbone of the industry is still the family farm," he said.

Mr Capper said the tragic fires near Esperance had cast a big shadow over the entire industry as it pushed to get the crop in and ready for export.

CBH is working with growers in the Esperance port zone to wrap up harvest as soon as possible after heavy rains in the wake of the fires.

It is looking for customers to take wheat that would not meet normal market specifications.

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