Weather swing from drought to flood wipes out Australian crops

Highlights

Successive deluges this week have ruined many harvests.

In the long, thin shire of Warren along the Macquarie River in western NSW, hundreds of farmers are waiting for the flood surge predicted for Sunday afternoon that will ruin their grain crops.

”Some have barely started to harvest and it was such a good crop, to get so close to being able to strip it is catastrophic,” says the Warren mayor, Rex Wilson, one of the lucky few in this 10,700 square kilometre shire who has not switched from sheep to wheat.

The hope for growers of a bumper crop brought by generous rainfall in the eastern wheat belt is gone.

In a cruel farewell to a decade of drought, successive deluges this week have downgraded wheat quality from premium to stock feed and in some cases wiped out crops across the eastern states.

Cherries have been ruined as rain split them in Young, grape-growers are spraying to fend off powdery mildew in the Hunter and at Harden, Nerolie Gebhardt is among many sheep farmers fighting to get flystrike under control with chemicals.

”Fly-blown sheep are a bit like meat left out on the kitchen bench. They strike into their wool because it’s wet and you can’t get to it,” she says.

”It’s the full-on cereal boys the rain’s hurt the most,” says Graham Blatch, whose barley fields at Molong, 35 kilometres west of Orange, have telltale black tips.

”The breweries don’t like that. It will be knocked down to feed,” he says.

Many Macquarie Valley farmers who put in an expensive wheat crop to recover from the 2002-08 drought thought this year’s would be ”a beauty”, Wilson says.

”This is not a bunch of farmers whingeing again. This is just nature. No government is to blame. You can’t point the finger at anybody. It’s just cruel, that we’re about to strip a fantastic crop and down comes the rain and it won’t let up,” he says.

”The quality is going down with every rainfall … What happens to the crop is it is shot and sprung. It sends out little shoots an inch long coming out of each grain. It’s strange to see a crop which has a green tinge to it because of shooting.”

Some crops at Cowra and Grenfell have gone underwater, wiping them out, according to the NSW Farmers Association grain-growers’ committee chairman, Mark Hoskinson, who wants price protection for those who can harvest.

His association has asked the federal government to underwrite a funding pool it wants set up to ensure that Australia’s crop of lower-grade grain does not flood the world market, depressing the price and compounding the disaster, he says.

Coonamble Shire Council has estimated that the rain has cost the district’s farmers about $40 million in lost revenue due to grain downgrading.

”I have a property north of town in the flood zone and a few crops will be wiped out,” says a councillor, Don Schieb, a stock and station agent.

Crops in the area have been ready to harvest for the past two or three weeks, but the contractors needed to strip them are stuck in the state’s north, either bogged or delayed by the slowness of harvesting on wet soil, Schieb says.

”We have headers stuck from Queensland to Victoria and everywhere in between,” says Ralph Gebhardt, a contract harvester who last week returned to his Harden farm because it was too wet for his machinery at Lake Cargelligo, about 400 kilometres west of Sydney.

The eerie summer sight of the headers’ beams moving rhythmically up and down paddocks at midnight has all but disappeared. The daily window of time in which the wheat can be harvested at a moisture content of 12.5 per cent or below, as demanded by grain buyers, has shrunk. The wheat gets too wet just after dark, Gebhardt says.

Three men farming in a straight line north of Sydney are fatalistic about the rain’s rule over their lives.

Hugh Simson, whose farm Red Bobs 40 kilometres south of Gunnedah was cut off by floodwaters this week, says it would be at least a fortnight before he could harvest his pasta wheat. It will be slow.

”When it is like this, the crop falls over, so you end up taking all of the straw instead of just the heads. It slows it down. You are taking too much material through the machine,” he says.

He has harvested all his canola and barley and half of his bread wheat, and is not too concerned.

A stone’s throw south at Merriwa, Dennis Nutt was ready to start harvesting his 300 hectares of wheat when the rain started on Sunday, delivering 85-120 millimetres.

”Our crop is down to stock feed now,” he says. ”If we get another inch of rain tomorrow, that will probably be the end of it.”

South of Dennis Nutt’s spread, John Drayton, owner of Drayton Family Wines, says that the 50-75 millimetres his Pokolbin area received this week on top of two to three months of high rainfall means tackling humidity-loving diseases before the harvest just seven weeks away.

The quality?

”It’ll be the best wine since the last vintage,” he says.

The source article Farmers say goodbye drought, hello flood was published December 4, 2010 by Sydney Morning Herald .

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