Australia - Bad weather set to wipe billions off value of crops

24.11.2021 153 views

Bad weather across the country is downgrading the quality of one of the largest forecasted winter crops on record.

Favourable seasonal conditions led the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences’ (ABARES) to predict in September that total agricultural production would surpass the $70bn mark for the first time, but experts say Australian crops could lose billions in value due to weather.

As the Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology declared a La Niña weather event in the Pacific on Tuesday, farmers are already feeling the effects first-hand.

Richard Heath, the executive director of the Australian Farm Institute, said the forecast would “definitely” come in lower than predicted.

“It’s been extraordinary weather all around the country, all the cropping areas have received very untimely rain.”

“The fact that it was a cool temperate spring had added to the crop yields being so good, but the flipside is now we’ve gotten into the harvest period and the La Niña is really expressing itself and we’ve gotten all this rain,” Heath said.

Brett Hosking, chair of Grain Growers and a farmer at Quambatook, said the economic losses would be significant, “possibly tens of millions”.

With flood waters still moving and forecasts for significant rainfall still to come, he said it was too early to be able to provide a more exact estimate of the losses.

Some growers have avoided rainfall, as summer rainfall events tend to be isolated storms that may impact one grower and not another one, Hosking said.

“Growers call it storm lotto,” he said.

Andrew Whitelaw, an analyst at Thomas Elder Markets, predicted the economic loss was likely to be in the billions of dollars and described the situation as “scary”.

Whitelaw said previous wet harvests had typically centred only around one area, but this year’s conditions were unusual in seeing downgraded crops across the country, including NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.

“We were going to produce a massive crop, but the quality of that crop is in decline,” Whitelaw said.

“In Australia we produce high protein wheat which is good for producing human food such as bread and pasta. But what happens when you have a wet weather event over harvest [is] it tends to degrade the protein … changing wheat from being good quality grain to being feed quality grain.”

Andrew Watson, a grain farmer from the Liverpool Plains, said he’d had 105mm of rain since Saturday, which followed 70mm the previous weekend.

Without rain, Watson’s durum wheat crop would have received a premium grade price but the 10% already harvested has been downgraded because of rain. He said the remaining 90% will be downgraded further to feed wheat, if he can harvest it at all – a cut that will cost him approximately $500 a tonne for 3,000 tonnes of grain.

Whitelaw says for a lot of people producing a lower quality crop will be the best-case scenario, as the risk is far worse for those who have had crops completely wiped out by flooding and no income and no insurance to claim for that circumstance.

“For those that had a complete wipeout, you might as well have had a drought. But with a drought you wouldn’t have spent as much money growing the crop,” which this year has been more expensive than usual due to factors such as the higher than usual prices of fertiliser Whitelaw says.

Much of Watson’s unharvested fields are also flooded at the moment.

“It’s not just rainfall, it’s going underwater, having a swim. It’s pretty heartbreaking,” Watson said.

He is also worried for his upcoming summer crop of cotton, which is underwater and will only survive if the water keeps flowing.

Dylan Hirsch, a grain farmer in the north of Western Australia’s wheatbelt, said it had been one of their wettest years on record. While that had generally been positive for growing conditions in the region, extensive damage due to frost had seen farmers lose approximately 35% of their wheat yield and 10-15% of barley.

Hirsch said the quality of many crops “isn’t great to start off with” but farmers are hoping to avoid further rain which would see downgrading occur.

Mark Swift, a cereal and chickpea farmer outside Forbes, says the damage to his crops will be “imminent” from the 50-100mm forecast in the area for the next few days.

Between having a big crop, knowing it’s going to be damaged but not being able to do anything about it, Swift says “it’s just a shit sandwich”.

“The cruelty is we have crops ripe enough to be damaged but not ripe enough to harvest,” he said.

Watson said amid the damage, there are silver linings.

“The flip side is we have water in our dams for irrigation, the current growing summer crops [corn, sorghum and cotton] all have full moisture in the soil so they’ll be growing really well and grass growing for our cattle [means] they’ll all be fat,” Watson said.

A department spokesperson told the Guardian the effect of recent bad weather events would be taken into account in the next ABARES Australian crop forecasts within the next month.

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