TWO thirds of grain growers say their returns are no better - or are worse - than they were before the export wheat industry was deregulated seven years ago.
A national survey of grain-only and livestock and grain producers, typically harvesting 1000 tonnes to 3000t annually, has also found the jury was still out on whether today's extra buyer competition had been a helpful development for busy croppers.
"There's more competition for farmers to sell to, but most responses about the deregulated grain market environment tend to lean more towards the negative," said survey co-ordinator with specialist agricultural market research business KG2, Robert Woods.
Concerns about more marketing risks and "more paperwork and confusing selling options" were among the key factors causing unease among farmers.
The KG2 research found only 27 per cent of growers believed their total grain returns were better than they had been when the wheat export single desk existed, while 49pc said they were the same and 17pc believed the deregulated marketplace had cut their earnings.
Unsure about market's impact
Sydney-based Mr Woods said 7pc of respondents were unsure about the current market's real impact on returns, partly because the number of marketers and marketing choices had increased significantly, making selling options more confusing.
He said grain growers felt more people were playing in the marketing space as "middlemen", potentially taking "a piece of the pie which previously came back to the farm".
About 13pc of respondents also highlighted concerns about the current grain marketing environment being more risky, prompted in part by occasional reports of marketing companies going broke or being particularly slow to pay for grain purchases.
Some insolvencies in the past few years have had significant flow-on consequences across the trade, leaving other smaller grain merchants without income and also facing bankruptcy.
Yet despite southern Australia bearing the brunt of several notable grain company failures last year - including South Australian-based Sapphire Grain which traded in four states, and Victoria's Convector Grain and One World Grain - the survey found farmers in Victoria were less inclined to be concerned about the risks in today's grain industry.
Mr Woods said KG2's survey of 450 growers stripping more than 500t annually was prompted by similar research last year focused on the rapid increase in on-farm storages, which reflected growers' desire to have more control over their grain selling options.
Marketing options clouded
However, that research also found while growers could be more selective about when and how they sold after harvest, it was not always easy to work out the best marketing option.
This probably explained why farmers were increasingly likely to feel the need "outsource" today's marketing decisions to brokers or other specialists.
"After rigorously fine-tuning and recording their crop chemical and fertiliser and other agronomy needs, they run out of time and energy to adequately deal with the complicated market options available," he said.
The findings on post-deregulation returns attracted similar responses Australia-wide, regardless of a farmer's harvest volumes or enterprise, although SA producers were more uniform in their belief that grain earnings had generally not changed greatly.
"In many respects there were some surprises for the grain trade - industry players clearly need to do a better job defining the benefits they offer growers," Mr Woods said.
He said 60pc of farmer respondents agreed there was more competition to buy their grain, but 11pc of them felt their returns were less, and 15pc believed "more middlemen in the market are reducing my returns".
Almost 10pc were confused by today's selling procedures and options and 5pc resented the extra paperwork associated with trying to market grain for a fair return.
As something of an indicator of a preference for straightforward marketing options, the most popular sale decision tended to be cash on delivery, or cash payments for sales made after grain had been temporarily stored at harvest.
However, respondents highlighted up to 13 different marketing strategy options for their wheat, barley, canola, sorghum and pulse crops, with NSW having the most choices and buyers.
Mr Woods said 31pc of farmers made selling decisions at least six months before harvest, while 19pc of decisions were made on a week to week basis and 10pc on a monthly basis.
About 10pc of growers were not sure about, or not committed to, any specific selling timeline.