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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Tom Plevey

Farmers in north-west NSW race against time as wall of flood water heads their way

Collarenebri farmer Will Ricardo surveying his canola at his farm
Farmer Will Ricardo surveys canola at his farm in Collarenebri, NSW, which is bracing for one of the biggest floods it has ever had Photograph: Supplied

The Collarenebri farmer Will Ricardo has been working around the clock to strip his canola but says it is a race against time as a “wall of water” is heading his way from Moree.

“We’ll probably get half of it off and the rest will probably just float away with the flood water,” Ricardo says.

The canola only accounts for a fifth of Ricardo’s cropping in the region west of Moree. He will not be able to get his 5,000-odd hectares of wheat and barley off before the flood hits.

“In the next couple of days we’re probably about to have one of the biggest floods we’ve ever had. It’s heartbreaking. But that’s just what the season has brought us.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Agricultural, Fisheries and Forestry said it was too early for hard data on the damage bill from the most recent floods.

“In the worst flood-affected areas, we have seen production losses of winter crops, horticulture and dairy production. We expect there will be extensive damage to farm buildings, fencing and roads,” the spokesperson said.

“While the damage will reduce the value of production across many states, national food and agriculture production will be supported by close to record production expected in South Australia and Western Australia.”

The rising cost of fertiliser, fuel and herbicides over the past 12 months has exacerbated farm crop losses due to widespread flooding in the eastern states, increasing the financial pressure on farmers.

Fertiliser costs were high because the price of urea skyrocketed due to a global shortage combined with competition with the transport industry. Urea is a key ingredient found in the diesel ­exhaust fluid AdBlue and a large component in fertiliser.

That meant farmers were now looking at an expensive wet harvest, which was slow and hard on equipment.

Ricardo believed he stood to lose “north of $5m” due to the flood damage. He cannot recall the exact amount spent on fertiliser, but had spent nearly $500,000 to top up his fields.

“To use that fert and potentially not see any return is shocking.”

Despite this, Ricardo counted himself lucky, as others had “probably lost 100% of their crop”. He was grateful for what little canola he could silo. Some farmers in his area stood to lose up to 80,000 hectares of wheat.

Irrigation paddocks unable to clear local tail water
Irrigation paddocks unable to clear local tail water, with fields remaining three-quarters under water six days after rain. Photograph: Tony Lockrey

The water heading towards Ricardo was coming via Moree, one of New South Wales’s prime farming towns growing wheat, barley and cotton. That region had been hit by flooding over the past week.

Tony Lockrey, a Moree agronomist, has been trapped at home in at his property since the floods hit.

“It’s a lot worse than I thought,” Lockrey said.

“My estimate off the desktop was probably a 15% loss of crop volume [in the district], but there’ll be a bigger loss than that – and the quality of that crop remains to be seen.”

Wheat paddocks under Gwydir flood water
Wheat paddocks under Gwydir flood water. Photograph: Tony Lockrey

After a flyover in one of his clients’ helicopters, Lockrey estimated that 80-90% of crops were still harvestable east of the Newell Highway, but only 40-50% to the west.

Lockrey said the district was probably 20% down on last year’s crop volumes due to the disaster.

“But spending more on it because we had much dearer input cost for everything: fuel, fertilisers, herbicides. We’ve put more fungicide on crops than last year, and that’s a factor of the wetter finish of last year.”

Lockrey said the year required a lot of nitrogen to grow a crop – “it was the dearest urea we’d ever seen”.

It is not just northern NSW that is affected. Dave Davies, a business bank executive for NAB in north-east Victoria, says that while its too early to survey the damage yet, some of his agriculture clients will be seeing lower yields on the back of higher-priced inputs.

“We’ve got clients who believe their grain production could be down 50% on last year,” Davies said, “and it costs you 50% more per hectare to grow it.”

While Victorian farmers were not hit with flooding last year, the positive outlook for the season tempted many to plant a bumper crop.

“Last year, Victorian crop production was very sound, they had a very positive seasonal outlook.

“But obviously [this year] the input costs were significantly higher.”

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