Corrigin farmer welcomes rain after devastating Wheatbelt fires

By Shannon Beattie
Updated April 12 2022 - 11:13am, first published April 10 2022 - 11:00pm
Corrigin farmer Luke Hickey and his family has welcomed good rainfall in recent weeks which has helped kickstart their seeding program and put moisture back in the soil after the fires.

THEIR year started with devastation as fire ripped through more than 85 per cent of their arable land, but after some much-needed rainfall, the Hickey's seeding program is back on track for a normal start.

They farm about 20 kilometres from Corrigin and when the wind changed on February 6, the fire front started heading straight for their property.

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Some quick thinking, including ripping up the ground around the shed and workshops to slow the flames, meant that no infrastructure or machinery was lost.

However the Hickeys did lose much of the bush around their land and barely a paddock was left with stubble.

Dealing with the scorched earth left the family thinking long and hard about how they wanted to approach the upcoming season, especially since from October until the last weekend of March, they had only received 3.5 millimetres of rain.

Luke Hickey - who farms alongside his father and Shire of Corrigin president Des, wife Phoebe and mum Sue - said with absolutely no subsoil moisture or stubbles, the paddocks were incredibly fragile.

"With everything being really dry, I didn't want to seed anything before it rained," Mr Hickey said.

"Partly because I was worried about wind blasting, but mainly due to the really high potential of furrow fill.

"That would mean instead of canola trying to come up from one centimetre, it instead has to come up from two inches (5cm) and likely wouldn't survive that."

The Hickey family's paddocks were left in a fragile state after the recent fires in the region.

With no rain on the horizon, it looked like the Hickeys would be waiting a while before being able to start their season.

However that all changed when rainfall from ex-Tropical Cyclone Charlotte doused the farm with some very unexpected moisture.

Earlier this week the Hickeys had received 77mm of rain since March 27, including two big falls of 34mm and 30mm on March 30 and April 3 respectively.

Having only anticipated 10-20mm, they were on a mission last week to get their seeding equipment ready and after a very quick turnaround, they had sown 160 hectares of canola by Saturday.

After another 30mm of rain on April 3, the Hickeys had to pull up for a couple of days before they resumed seeding canola which makes up about 25pc of the overall seeding program.

"Last year the opportunity arose with Seroja (cyclone) coming through to get seeding started by April 5 and after getting the canola in we stopped for two weeks before we got going again," Mr Hickey said.

"This year is now looking pretty similar to last, so we'll get the canola in but won't start doing any oats until the end of the month and after that it'll be normal plantings with wheat and barley to finish."

Along with the canola, the Hickeys will seed 35pc to barley, 25pc to wheat and 15pc to oats for grain and export hay.

The big change for the year is that they won't plant any lupins for the first time in more than 40 years.

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The reason is simple - there's no stubble left to help manage disease.

Rain is welcomed after the fires

That's just one of the myriad of impacts the fire has had on the farm and while they're grateful they escaped major damage, the effects are definitely still being felt.

Along with the burned paddocks, the Hickeys lost a lot of fences, the occasional water tank and about 400 tonnes of oats stored in grain bags.

Looking at the paddocks themselves, it's hard to put a number on what the losses might be.

Wind erosion has played a part, although luckily towards the end of March the wind started to die down, but topsoil has been lost as a result.

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"It's hard to measure what level of nutrients might have been lost from the top soil blowing, but we're not getting too down about it as after the Esperance fires in 2015, they grew very nice crops," Mr Hickey said.

"Obviously, you don't want to lose your stubbles and topsoil like we have and you can't put a price on that.

"But mainly it's just the time - we've spent the past six weeks now just doing clean up when we should be able to do other jobs."

While the recent rain has been welcome, it did throw a spanner in the works as the Hickeys initially thought they would have until at least after Easter before they started seeding to get some of those jobs done.

Those jobs include burning the tree heaps left over from the recent fire, preparing the rest of the paddocks and seed cleaning now that they've finalised the paddock plan.

They will resume those tasks after the canola is planted, with the rest of seeding not being until the end of April.

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While there aren't too many positives from a disaster like the one the Hickeys and so many others went through, there are a few small silver linings.

While weeds and disease will still need to be monitored, the hope is that the pressure might be off a little bit.

Mr Hickey said while he might not be using less chemical, he suggested its use would be a bit more lenient and they that might also save on fungicide.

"You can't let it get you down," he said.

"You just got to move on with it, there's plenty of jobs to do so I've just been focusing on the task in front of me.

"Everyone deals with it differently obviously, but you have got to move on with it and you set yourself goals and try to reach them."

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