Don't write off the Yilgarn

Don't write off the Yilgarn


Agribusiness
The spraying gear is ready and Marvel Loch farmer Romolo Patroni is looking forward to a good year. "Just give us the rain," he said.

The spraying gear is ready and Marvel Loch farmer Romolo Patroni is looking forward to a good year. "Just give us the rain," he said.

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IT'S a telling observation by Marvel Loch farmer Romolo Patroni that there has only been one year he hasn't paid tax.

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IT'S a telling observation by Marvel Loch farmer Romolo Patroni that there has only been one year he hasn't paid tax.

And that was during the drought of 1969.

It's not surprising then that he finds suggestions by some industry bodies that his farming land should be converted to pastoral land, downright insulting.

The obvious inference is that the outskirt areas of the eastern Wheatbelt are not viable for crop and livestock operations.

The taxman, however, would not be convinced.

"There is an attitude about this area and some people don't appreciate the millions of dollars of investment farmers have put into the district over the years and the millions of dollars worth of production that has been achieved.

"We just can't walk away from all this, it's not that simple.

"We're told to sell up, but who is going to buy the farms.

"There is a future here and you've got good farmers wanting to keep going.

"Cropping and stock have been tried and true since the 1930s.

"We just need rain and it will come because historically we've grown good crops and produced good sheep on average annual rainfall of 11 inches (275mm) and the rain records haven't changed much when you look back over the records."

History records the first crop grown in the Southern Cross district was in 1907 but Romolo proudly points to the mainly European settlers who developed new land blocks in the 1940s.

"They started out with nothing and set the foundations for future generations," he said.

"My dad and mum started here in 1949 and I came back from school after my Junior Certificate (equivalent of Year10) at the age of 16 and started farming."

A reasonable crop was produced that year with fairly good years following until the 1969 drought.

"I remember in 1963 when we copped 650mm for the year and rust was a big problem," Romolo said.

The long-term wheat average on the 10,500ha 'Lincol' property is 1.2t/ha with the odd good year between 1.8t/ha and 2t/ha.

"Two tonnes is our best result," Romolo said.

"But we budget on a tonne."

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the property carried 5000 Merinos and the Patronis featured prominently at the annual Elders Merredin Special Sheep Sale.

In 1987, at the July sale, the family set a State and Australian record price of $65 a head for a draft of 480, 1986-drop, August-shorn wethers.

The next year they sold 451 1987-drop, August-shorn wethers for $100.20.

This was the extract on the sale report in Elders Weekly:

"The Patronis are the first breeders in the Wheatbelt to achieve in excess of $100 per head for wethers at auction".

The sheep were described as "big-boned, free-growing sheep with medium quality wool that averaged 21-22 microns of Seven Oaks bloodline."

And this excerpt of the Merredin sale report in Farm Weekly in 1995 read:

"Thumping big Seven Oaks-blood orange tag wethers offered off-shears by well known sheep producer PR Patroni, Marvel Loch, were well sought-after and returned a massive $41.40, the same price as orange taggers in full wool."

These days Romolo has scaled back to 1500 breeding ewes and last year cropped 2000ha (about 5000ac), averaging 0.5t/ha.

"It was our second worse result since 2003 but we still paid tax," he said.

"We've scaled back a bit because it's just me (with casual help) on the farm and my wife Jane is a school teacher in Southern Cross.

"The kids have gone their own ways."

Romolo will front up to this season with the same positive attitude he has every year.

"We do the budget in March and we stay flexible," he said.

"I've got enough seed, chemicals and fertilisers for 4000ha but there's no commitment yet."

But when the rain comes, the program will be wheat – Clearfield Stiletto, Mace and some Wyalkatchem, which is being phased out.

"The Clearfield Stiletto has been a real breakthrough for us and suits our purpose," Romolo said.

"It's a 110-day wheat, you can always depend on good grain size and it's an APW with few screenings, between 1.5 and two per cent.

"It gives us options to control weeds with late starts while the Mace gives us a bit of premium pricing as Hard."

Romolo also will establish some oats for sheep feed.

The size of the property is conducive to sheep and cropping with rotations operating on five years, depending on soil types and summer rain," he said.

"Over the years we used cypress and Geraldton clovers to build up the soils to run more stock and this gave us options of wider rotations.

"Spray-topping is done in August, September or left for a spring fallow and paddocks ear-marked for cropping are heavily stocked.

"We don't have a weed problem per se because with the wide rotations, the sheep take of most of the weeds in conjunction with the spray-topping.

"We don't have any resistance issues and we're still using 2,4,D for radish but we mix up the chemical groups.

"It's just essential we keep on top of weeds."

Anzac Day generally marks the start of the program and more often than not it's dry sowing.

"I've been dry sowing since I can remember because we don't have a big weed problem," Romolo said.

"And some of our best crops have been sown dry."

For now, it's a waiting game to see what Mother Nature has in store.

The critics of farming the fringe areas of the WA Wheabelt will no doubt continue a sometimes erroneous mantra of not throwing good money after bad at struggling farmers.

Sure, mistakes have been made.

Do you blame farmers for buying new machinery or banks willing to lend the money?

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

From Romolo's perspective, good management of finances is a must for dryland farming.

"We're fortunate we don't carry any loans," he said.

It's a throwback to advice his father gave him: "If you have to borrow money for a nail you probably don't need the nail".

"We were taught to live within our means," Romolo said.

"So we're careful with our finances and we use what we have to our best advantage."

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