Death knell for durum

30 Jan, 2010 01:00 AM
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 Peter Maisey: saddened by the demise of durum.
Peter Maisey: saddened by the demise of durum.

AS Peter Maisey watched the last of his Calingiri wheat fill up the bins on his farm last week, the Dowerin farmer must have been wishing it was his beloved durum wheat that was being taken off instead.

Last season was the first time Mr Maisey failed to put a durum crop in after 10 consecutive years of persevering with the high protein grain, which is the main ingredient used in making pasta.

He sowed his first durum variety, Tamaroi, in 1998, with high hopes of establishing a new and lucrative industry for WA graingrowers.

Boosted by promising pioneer research work carried out by Agriculture and Food Department researcher Wal Anderson, Mr Maisey helped spearhead a group of fellow durum enthusiasts who could see the potential of developing a local industry for the crop.

The lure was understandable. All the boxes appeared to have been ticked for durum: the grain was fetching high prices, far more than APW; there was a need for alternative crops for particular farming systems; and there was a need to spread risks and increase profits.

"I believe durum is a much better food than bread wheat because it has higher protein," Mr Maisey said.

"With so much demand for pasta, and premium prices for durum, we had hopes of establishing a factory and mill in Dowerin to process the grain into pasta.

"It would have been a great initiative, providing employment in the town and opening up a marketing option for growers.

"We did our homework, we costed it out, and tried to find a market."

But today, many years on, the durum dream appears to have dissipated into dust, much like the chaff blowing about the field bins in Mr Maisey's paddocks.

Mr Maisey said the wheels had fallen off because of a number of factors, including a lack of marketers as well as the availability of improved varieties.

"Farmers have stopped growing durum because there is no one to sell it to," he said.

"The AWB used to sell durum, and always at a premium over APW, but now that there is a free market, it can pick and choose what it wants to sell.

"Last year it appeared reluctant to sell durum out of WA.

"Agracorp also seems to have sold only a minimal amount."

Mr Maisey said the durum scenario was symptomatic of the bigger problem that grain market deregulation had caused.

"No buyer appears game enough to move into these niche markets, and it's not just durum, but other minor crops such as field peas, chickpeas, faba beans, and the like," he said.

Mr Maisey said he was disappointed that, two years on from deregulation, there was no innovation in marketing.

"Given the lack of interest shown by buyers, I think the question also needs to be asked as to why there is no direct involvement in grain trading," he said.

"For example, what's preventing the use of buyer-to-grower contracts?

"Why don't companies deal directly with the growers?

"They could make contracts with growers to deliver agreed volumes, preferably on an area-based agreement rather than tonnage-based.

"This is because in WA it would be difficult for a grower to commit a fixed tonnage, but with area arrangements, at least the processor knows it will get whatever is yielded from the area sown.

"What's also stopping overseas interests from buying up WA farms and getting their food for cost of production?"

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