Australia's farmers bounce back thanks to rain, high prices and bad times overseas

© Provided by ABC NEWS Fields of gold: Australian grain growers are expected to harvest one of their most valuable crops.  (ABC Mid West WA: Chris Lewis)

In case you hadn’t heard, Australian farmers are on track for an absolute blinder.

After years of drought, a seemingly relentless mouse plague, a bitter trade war with China and the global pandemic, the farm sector is one part of the economy set for record returns.

This year, the value of all that is grown on Australian farms is expected to reach $73 billion. 

Not bad for an industry worth less than $60 billion just four years ago.

So what’s the secret to the success?

Basically, Australia received a lot of rain while a lot of the world didn’t.

A good season across most of Australia means that farmers here are now dusting off their tractors in preparation for what is expected to be one of the largest harvests on record.

Farmers in the drought-ravaged US, Russia and Canada have been less fortunate and poor yields from their crops mean global grain prices are soaring.

So, Aussie farmers are on the receiving end of that double whammy: great weather and high, if not record, prices.

Now, remember grains are about more than just bread and beer — they form a major component in the diet of livestock.

So meat and dairy products are closely linked to the price and availability of grain.

Fortunately, the good seasons of 2021 mean Australian farmers have plenty of grain and grass to help build up sheep and cattle numbers that were decimated during the drought.

Because there are so few sheep and cattle in Australia that means those who are selling livestock are being paid red hot prices.

What about China’s trade sanctions and the pandemic?

China still refuses to deal with a handful of Australian meatworks, while the tariffs it introduced on barley and wine mean farmers and winemakers are missing out on some pretty big deals.

The good news is other countries are filling the void and buying up. The bad news is they tend to pay a little bit less than what China did.

That’s not the whole story though. China remains a massive market for Australian dairy, wool, meat and other produce.

As for the pandemic, it has been swings and roundabouts for farmers.

Fewer people dining out and more people shopping online for groceries has changed the demand for some produce — who knew fewer people would buy berries when relying on click and collect?

But perhaps the biggest COVID constraint has been access to freight and workers.

Closed borders mean Australian farmers can’t get enough people to harvest their crops or shipping containers and cargo flights to take their produce to the world.

Australian farmers are having to work around major logistical challenges, but for the most part the business of growing food remains largely unaffected by COVID-19. After all, many farmers were working from home long before it was cool.

Does this mean I’ll pay record prices at the supermarket?

The government’s economists reckon the worker shortage could see the cost of fresh fruit and veg in Australia rise by about 5 per cent — and they’re expecting much the same as last year.

When it comes to meat it might be better news; there are hopes more sheep and cattle being bred could take the sting out of prices for red meat.

It is also worth noting that almost three-quarters of what is grown in Australia is sold overseas, so farm gate prices often have more to do with what’s happening on the global market, rather than at your local checkout.

Are all farmers set to cash in?

Farmers of cattle, sheep, fruit, nuts, veggies, dairy, wool, cotton and grains are on the receiving end of some historically high prices.

Some farmers are still dealing with drought and the high sale-yard prices make it difficult to buy sheep and cattle — even if there is a luscious paddock full of grass to feed them.

Then there’s the mouse plague which could mean grain — particularly from NSW and Queensland — is downgraded and sold for less than if the mice had not had their way with it.

But for the most part, things are looking good — really good.

Farmers still have a few months to go until this year’s grain harvest is in the silo.

We’ll know more about who gets a share in the good times and if that $73 billion industry-wide forecast is realised then.

How long will the good farm times last?

No one really knows.

For now, farmers are enjoying the rare combination of great weather across a vast area of Australia and strong global demand and prices for all that is grown here.

West Australian grain grower Peter Barneston reflected on the unexpected good fortune of the nation’s farmers.

“It’s just one of those once-in-a-lifetime seasons,” he said.

“Hopefully not once in a lifetime, hopefully, you’ll see a couple more, but so far it’s a once-in-a-lifetime season.”

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