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Australia prepares for bumper harvest as rain boosts NSW winter crops 300%

Mostafa Rachwani
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Australia is preparing for a bumper harvest after one of the worst droughts on record with New South Wales leading the way, predicting a 300% year on year increase.

Fuelled by above average rainfall between March and August, winter crop production in the state is predicted to rise 49% above the 10-year average to 2019-20.

It means Australia’s overall production will increase by 60% year on year, raising hopes that the industry will drive the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery.

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The wet winter has helped drag much of the state out of prolonged drought, with the Department of Primary Industries saying “much of NSW is well positioned for longer-term recovery.”

And that has meant farmers are expecting a spectacular winter harvest this year, with Dr Cheryl Kalisch Gordon, senior grains and oilseeds analyst at Rabobank echoing a forecast for huge gains.

“The current range of forecasts put the tonnes of all winter crops to be up over 300% year on year for NSW. For Australia’s overall production, the expected year on year increase is about 60%.”

Gordon said the state is expected to produce around 14.5m tonnes of winter crop this year, compared with 3.3m tonnes and 3.2m tonnes in the two previous years.

The major winter crops usually include wheat, barley and canola, with rice and cotton farms also benefiting from the rain.

According to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (Abares), the boom harvest will amount to the second biggest winter crop in a decade.

Brett Hosking, chairman of Grain Growers, thought the rainfall was a lifeline that couldn’t have come soon enough for some farmers.

“There were growers last year who didn’t have a grain of crop on their farms, and this year they’re looking at above-average yields, which is really exciting. It’s incredible turnaround, really. From zero to hero.”

It is an outlook shared by Gordon, who said things were looking very bleak for many farmers across NSW were it not for the rain.

“In NSW, especially in the areas worst hit by the drought, this will be the first cashflow they’ve had since 2016-17. So this is critical for getting their businesses back on track.”

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“It was a very make or break time for some farmers, very desperate.”

Only 2.6% of the state is still currently in drought, according to the department, with just over 30% still considered “drought affected”.

Areas in western NSW, including Broken Hill, as well as far northern NSW and areas around the far south coast, officially remain in drought according to the department,

Farmers also doubled the areas planted in 2019-20, with over 6m hectares covered in the state.

Although the rains have brought palpable relief, Hoskings was cautious about how long the recovery will take, saying it could take years for farmers to completely get back on their feet.

“One of the things about drought is you never fully recover from them. But in terms of getting their cashflow back into a reasonable position and paying down some of the debt accrued, they’re probably looking at three or four years.

NSW recorded its wettest winter since 2016, with the state’s rainfall 5% above the historical seasonal average.

And with the Bureau of Meteorology predicting more rainfall in the coming months, farmers are hopeful of a permanent turnaround.

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The recovery has fuelled Australia’s grain production to its highest level since 2017, with NSW accounting for 60% of that increase, according to Abares.

Much of the rainfall was concentrated in central NSW, with areas of central-western NSW beginning to emerge from drought conditions.

Areas in far western NSW continue to be affected by the drought, with many having not seen consistent rainfall for years.

Although heavy rainfall lashed the region over the weekend, causing flash flooding, there is still a need for widespread rain to generate long term improvements.

With a La Niña event expected in the coming months, bringing with it widespread and consistent rainfall, farmers are optimistic that things can continue to look up.

Hoskings echoed that excitement, saying that the rains could produce a domino effect for farmers, with one wet season improving the yield for the next, creating a cycle of improved harvests.

“Our growers, with the farming systems they use here in Australia, are really good at conserving that moisture within the soil and saving it there for when there is a crop there growing.”

Abares said that although the sector’s recovery is on track, the gross value of production won’t actually change, due to falling prices and global economic uncertainly from Covid-19.

Forecasts have also been affected by Australia’s deteriorating trade relationship with China, and by falling international demand.

Abares executive director, Dr Steve Hatfield-Dodds, said these issues are going to offset the sector’s recovery.

“These developments will hit the sector’s exports significantly, with falling commodity prices, reduced livestock product exports and grain stock rebuilding expected to shave 10 per cent off the value of agricultural exports, which are forecast to fall to $43.5 billion in 2020–21.”

But that hasn’t dented the optimism in the industry, with Hoskings excited about the role farmers can play in Australia’s post-pandemic economy.

“I think we in agriculture have this real opportunity to play a role in the economic recovery from Covid. It’s quite exciting, I think, for our growers and it’s something they’re really looking forward to as well.”