It’s been some 15 years since I lived on a farm. I have become citified, my mother would tell you. A ‘yuppie’, in my father’s language.
It’s true. I feel at home in big cities, not in the bush. But whenever I return to the family farm, the memories come flooding back. For many people sights and sounds invoke memories. For me, it is the smell of the bush.
The smell of a diesel engine finally silent after 12 hours on the go. Freshly baled lucerne hay. Morning dew and the dry air of a summer sunrise. All these things bring back memories of my specialty, night shifts on the round baler, and the satisfaction of a finished paddock, job well done.
More than anything else, though, I remember the different smells of rain. The smell of an approaching storm rolling down the valley. The smell of rain on 40 degree schoolyard asphalt. Or the smell – it only lasted 30 seconds – of the first drops of rain bounding off a dry dirt paddock.
The reason the smell of rain stayed with me is because our livelihood depended on it. It could bring joy – the smell of a drought breaking before your nose – or heartache, as tens of thousands of dollars worth of hay rotted in the paddock.
For most of 2010, farmers in Australia’s eastern states have been rejoicing at the smell of drought breaking rains. For 10 years they have suffered the worst drought conditions in living memory. This year, it has rained, and rained, and rained, to the point where dams that many thought would never be full again are at capacity.
At the moment Australian Crop Forecasters are holding firm with their forecast of a 23.9m tonne wheat harvest this year, up about 10% on last year’s crop. With Western Australia only producing half last year’s 8m tonnes, the eastern states are expecting a bonanza and, even better, prices are also the best they have been in years. With many family operations taking on substantial amounts of debt to survive the past decade, 2010 was shaping up as the bumper season everyone so desperately needs.
If that is to happen, they need the rain to stop. Now.
Too much rain at this time of year makes it impossible to operate harvesting machinery without getting bogged. Contract harvesters begin the season in Queensland and Northern NSW and work their way south. They are already more than two weeks behind where they are supposed to be.
Worse, ready-to-harvest wheat that gets too much rain can become ‘shot and sprung’. This is when the grains germinate while still on the stalk, reducing its value from something like $280 a tonne to $100 per tonne, if you’re lucky.
Combined with a forecast wet November, all of the anecdotal evidence is pointing to a serious downgrade of the national harvest. That will be bad news for Graincorp and AWB. For our farmers, the smell of another failure is the last thing they need.
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Forager Funds is a boutique fund manager specialising in a value investing approach. We offer an ASX listed Australian Shares Fund as well as an International Shares Fund both aimed at delivering returns for long term investors.