Farmers finally get some good news

CONFIDENT smiles are starting to break out on what for the past three dry years have been dour faces among farmers in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt.

While WA’s main grain handler, CBH, is predicting a harvest of more than 13 million tonnes – a record for the State, some are putting the crop as high as 15mt.

Machinery sales are looking positive, global demand is promising and even some commodity prices are heading in the right direction.

Reports from Dowerin and Newdegate field days suggest farmers are buying, the first time they have done more than just kick tyres at such shows for a number of years.

The only real clouds on an otherwise bright horizon are the threat of frosts, crop rust and questions over whether CBH can clear its stockpiles.

There are about four weeks to go before the frost risk will ease and CBH remains confident it can cope with the storage and handling of the bumper harvest.

Although generally not considered a great season, last year was not as bad for some because of the rainfall pattern. Areas that normally receive high rainfall received ideal rainfall while other areas received poor falls.

According to the BankWest Benchmarks Survey, designed to help farmers assess how they performed against their neighbours, the top 25 per cent of WA farm businesses posted profits of $187 a hectare in 2002-03, up from $165/ha in 2001-02.

About 40 per cent of the farms covered in the survey – in inland areas – made a loss for 2002-03.

According to the Motor Trades Association, the feedback from farm machinery dealers indicates that there is a lot of positive activity in the market.

Tractor and Machinery Association CEO Vin Delahunty said this year looked like “being a good year for machinery full stop”.

“What’s coming up looks extremely promising and that’s good, because the last two years in WA have been plain awful,” he said.

Mr Delahunty said he attended this year’s Dowerin show and came away heartened.

“Farmers went there to research and buy and they haven’t done that at a field day for a long, long, long time,” he said.

According to TMA figures, sales of tractors with engines producing more than 90 kilowatts, costing about $250,000, have been rising in WA for the past two years.

However, it was the sale of combine harvesters, which usually sell for about $500,000, that rose most dramatically. In 2001-02 only 165 were sold in WA while in 2002-03 that jumped to 431 – more than anywhere else in Australia.

BankWest chief manager WA country Jim Watson said the feeling in the regions was positive, even though things could still go wrong.

“Besides those things such as frost and rust, I would have to say everything is tracking towards a bumper year,” he said.

“We’re seeing people show a lot of interest in new farm sales. The machinery dealers are having a good year. Grain storage equipment is also in demand.”

WAFarmers president Colin Nicholl said the next four to six weeks would tell the story of this year’s harvest.

“But the prospects are extremely good at the moment,” he said. “If everything goes well we could end up with a 15 million tonne harvest.

“There are some concerns about CBH’s ability to handle and store the harvest. While the crop is on the stalk it is vulnerable to weather damage.”

CBH CEO Imre Menchshelyi said it was working closely with AWB to ensure its shipping program was met. “That should cap our carryover position at 1.5 million tonnes,” he said.

Mr Menchshelyi said CBH’s Geraldton Port terminal would be shut for six weeks due to upgrade work on the port’s loaders but should be reopened by October 15.

“In the Esperance zone we face a potential challenge in managing the current carryover in combination with the expected large harvest in the southern grainbelt,” he said.

“Our Esperance operations staff are rising to the task and focusing on strategies to receive the grain and maximising quality and efficiency for growers.”

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