It wasn’t really Gourmet Farmer Matthew Evans who inspired me to write about wheat and how we so much take the bread of life for granted.
As you may have noticed, we spent last week cruising around the tiny hamlets of Yelarbon, Talwood and Thallon, part of the south-western Downs grain belt. At Talwood and Thallon in particular, the landscape is dominated by man-made mountain ranges of wheat, pinned down under blue tarpaulins.
This takes me back to my grounding as a young-ish journalist, where I was charged with reporting on the fortunes of graingrowers on the Darling Downs. Now and then I’d write about cotton or market gardening, prowling around the Lockyer Valley looking for stories about crops.
The stand-by headline in those days was ‘Rain boosts crops’, because invariably, the Downs would be in drought and crops suffered as a result. Nevertheless, if the rainfall warranted it, a photographer would be dispatched to capture a farmer in gumboots, jumping for joy in sparse puddles.
So this week I find myself back in familiar territory, perusing the detailed reports prepared by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Science (ABARES).
Winter crop production in Australia was indeed boosted by very favourable seasonal conditions during Spring. Most cropping regions in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia were generally in very good condition at the end of winter. ABARES says in its December report that favourable rainfall during September and October increased soil moisture levels during the critical grain development period. Crop prospects in Western Australia and Queensland were lower due to adverse growing conditions. All the same, Queensland graingrowers think it’s great.
Australia is truly the lucky country among grain growing nations, as it harvests two crops – planted in summer and winter. The latter is harvested between November and January. Winter crop production in Australia is forecast to increase by 76% in 2020–21 to 51.5 million tonnes, second only to the record high of 56.7 million tonnes set in 2016–17. Wheat production is forecast to increase by 106% to 31.2 million tonnes,the second highest on record. Barley production is forecast to increase by 33% to 12 million tonnes, also the second highest on record. Other crops including canola, chickpeas and oats are also doing well.
At times like these I sympathise with relatives of She Who Was Born on the Prairies. Canadian grain growers have a once-a-year opportunity to grow wheat and barley and the crop can too easily fail due to late frost or snow, or if crop diseases like rust drift across the US border.
While the Australian summer and winter grain crops of 2020-2021 are being heralded as ‘the big comeback’, you still need a reliable export market. There has been speculation for months that China will enforce a ban on imported Australian wheat.
The rumours are of course driven by China’s decision to impose harsh tariffs on Australian barley. Bad timing too, with Australian barley production peaking at 11.96 million tonnes, China’s 80.5% tariffs effectively stopped a billion-dollar trade in its tracks. Australia’s barley market was worth $1.5 billion in 2018. But the effects of drought and an effort to diversify into other markets has seen this fall to $600 million in 2019.
Western Australian farmers, who represent almost 90% of Australia’s barley market, did not take long to respond to China’s ban. CBH Group, a farmer-owned grain marketing business, last week sent a 35,000 tonne shipment of malting barley to a new client in Mexico, shipped from the West Australian port of Albany,
Graingrowers president Brett Hosking went to town to buy some fencing materials and also picked up a six-pack of Mexican beer.
He made a video for Twitter to celebrate the deal, which he said came about because of “a lot of work by people in the industry and a lot of coordination”.
“I won’t say it’s the first shipment of malting barley to go to Mexico, but not too many people can remember a cargo going there, so it’s pretty exciting.”
Hosking welcomed the recent $72 million Federal Government export aid package, but said it should be used to address short term concerns for Australian malt barley as well as increasing feed grain opportunities in the region.
“We look forward to working with Government in 2021 to ensure farmers don’t carry the burden of foreign trade matters.”
Rumours of a ban on wheat are less of a worry as China imports only a small fraction of Australia’s $5.3 billion wheat exports. China’s domestic grain growing industry is the world’s largest. It tops the international list of wheat producers, at 131 million tonnes a year. Australia ranks ninth on this list at 20.4 million tonnes.
As any agronomist could tell you, wheat was first cultivated 10,000 years ago and the mortar and pestle method of milling dates back just as far. Clearly, the loaf of white bread you buy in a supermarket for a few dollars is the end product of a highly mechanised and adulterated food chain.
The contrasting example can be found in episode nine of Gourmet Farmer, when host Matthew Evans and agronomist friend Andrew Cook harvested their first crop of home-grown wheat.
Evans said he will probably get 450 grams of flour from every kilogram of wheat, with Cook estimating “about 12 kilos per row”. It’s a small field.
They took the old school approach to separating chaff from wheat (letting the wind blow the chaff away as they transferred the wheat from one large bowl to another). From there, the hand-grown and milled wheat emerged as a 700 gram loaf of artisan bread.
Evans freely admitted to a couple of onlookers that the first loaf of Fat Pig Farm bread cost $200 to produce. They looked suitably shocked.
Meanwhile back in Thallon (between Mungindi and St George), the silos are full and bulk handler GrainCorp is following the long-practiced art of storing wheat in ‘bunkers’. We camped at Thallon’s recreation ground, across the road from the ‘bunker tarps’. Grain is stored on carefully prepared beds on the ground and covered with bright blue tarpaulins. When the time is right, mobile conveyers transfer the grain into rail wagons bound for Fisherman Islands port in Brisbane.
Thallon’s rows of bunkers are so large that from a distance they look like a faraway mountain range (see image above). A spokeswoman for GrainCorp told FOMM the Thallon depot received 273,000 tonnes this season, with its Goondiwindi cluster hiring an additional 40 people at Thallon and Talwood to to help handle the harvest. Currently GrainCorp has a train booked every day for the next fortnight, hauling 1600 tonnes per day.
The Department of Agriculture says Australian wheat exports are forecast to reach around 21 million tonnes in 2020–21, more than double 2019–20 exports. Grains account for about 20% of Australia’s agricultural exports, a $48 billion market. So you can see why the industry would be nervous about the diplomatic spat with China and the trade bans that could follow.
It is especially ironic at a time when growers are getting record prices for grain. And more luck to them – it’s been a long time between (Mexican) beers.
(For an interesting insight into Australian Aborigines’ development of agriculture, read Bruce Pascoe’s book ‘Dark Emu’. Ed)