Circuit breakers necessary in dry times

31 Oct, 2010 02:00 AM
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It's harvest time and time for inspecting the crop, rubbing out heads to check grain quality. Here Ajana farmers Graeme (left), John and Malcolm Ralph, inspect a crop of Bonnie Rock wheat which will be harvested within the next two weeks.
It's harvest time and time for inspecting the crop, rubbing out heads to check grain quality. Here Ajana farmers Graeme (left), John and Malcolm Ralph, inspect a crop of Bonnie Rock wheat which will be harvested within the next two weeks.

HISTORY is a great teacher.

It's why Ajana farmers like John and Frances Ralph and their sons Malcolm and Graeme, can front up to dry years like 2010, with a smile on their collective faces.

In typical glass half-full fashion, the family sits around the kitchen table in the "board room" and declares things aren't too bad.

John's father started farming in the area, one of the northernmost farms in the WA Wheatbelt, after the Great Depression in the early 1930s and obviously passed on some "survival" tactics to his son.

John took over the farm in 1957 and almost without hesitation, evoked memories of tough years.

"Sixty nine was a bad one, we had the emu plague in seventy six and seventy seven and a drought in 1989," he said. "And we copped a real bad one four years ago."

It's also easy for Malcolm and Graeme to recall the tough years, particularly as they have experienced three in the last five years.

In 2006-07, the family only grew 800ha (2000ac) of lupins of a planned 3600ha (9000ac) program. For their harvest efforts they reaped a total of 10 tonnes which they kept for seed. That season the CBH bin at Binnu was closed with any grain in the area delivered to Northampton.

The following season, 1800ha (4400ac) of wheat produced 540t.

"But two years ago we put in 2300ha (5700ac) and averaged 2.8t/ha," John said. "That season helped us pay the bills."

This year the Ralphs were looking down the barrel of a possible wipeout but a 60mm rain event in August got them out of the proverbial jail.

"We've had 190mm of rain for the year," John said. "Our average is supposed to be 250mm so you can see we've been behind the eight ball all year. "

With the header poised to start taking off lupins, John remains circumspect about how the harvest will go.

"It's hard to say what we'll get," he said. "You start rubbing out heads in the wheat and you get some good grain and some pinched.

"I think we'll probably have some screening problems.

"But overall we should finish around our budget of 1.2t/ha."

The budget, of course, is the bottom line.

"We only spend what we need to spend because you're never sure if another bad year is around the corner," John said. "You've got to operate that way to stay out of trouble when seasons are so variable."

It almost relates to smoothing out the hills and valleys of farming to cope with dry years.

One area the family identified as a "valley" was their sheep enterprise.

"We had to let them go in 2007," John said. "In that year it became of matter of trying to reduce as many costs as possible."

What the Ralphs then started was a chemical fallow system to control weeds.

"With dry seasons, particularly at the start of seeding, stressed weeds don't take up enough chemical so they get a second life during the growing season and you end up with dirty crops," John said. "It has become a major problem with our lupins so we chemical fallow before the following wheat crop.

"It is working well because we're retaining any moisture that's around and generally we only spray once for weed control.

"So we're getting a double benefit of giving the wheat the best chance to yield well and saving a fair bit on chemical costs."

Fallowing has now become part of the rotational program, introducing the type of flexibility that also is reflected in handling the pressure of a dry season.

Moods around the kitchen table can quickly turn sour if circuit breakers aren't introduced.

"We can get a bit stressed," John admits. "But you think of other things and humour plays a big part to keep everybody smiling.

"The boys get a lot of jokes off the internet and it's always good to laugh.

"We also bought a block at Kalbarri (45 minutes west of the farm) and we cart a bit of gravel so that brings in some income.

"And when you're doing that you're not thinking about the farm.

"And when times get tough we do a bit of contract work to help with the cash flow.

"There's also social opportunities with neighbours that prove really great times when everybody is going through a tough spell."

For Malcolm and Graeme, getting off the farm and heading for the surf at Kalbarri releases a lot of tension from the daily work around the farm.

But the concern for Malcolm is not so much the dry season but the future of farming.

"I've been here 21 years and our terms of trade are not getting any better," he said. "If we are to stay on the land, something has to change to provide initiatives for younger people."

John agrees, citing the fact that a lot of young people are attracted to agriculture but with limited or no infrastructure and small profit margins, agriculture becomes a turn-off.

"People talk about the lifestyle but I think that's too glib," John said. "What do you call a lifestyle anyway?

"In reality it's a hard business and while it's a good life, there's a price to pay.

"We haven't got a great deal of social life out here although I'm thankful for the tennis and golf clubs for a bit of social interaction and I do play bowls now and again (at Northampton)."

And what about the chief cook and bottle washer?

For Frances, there is a degree of pride in bringing up two sons, both of whom are still single, which John says "keeps costs down".

And when the boys are away from the house, her "company" is Pixie, the Maltese-Shitzu cross puppy.

"That's her only grandchild," quipped John.

The smile on Frances' face shows there's no argument with her husband's comment.

For more stories on Dealing with the Dry, see the full feature in this week's edition of Farm Weekly.

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