Australia's grain farmers pray for rain

May is the month when Australia's wheat farmers hold their hands and pray for rain.

Good falls in the next few weeks could produce bumper harvests and turn around the fortunes of grain growers blighted by six years of meagre returns, dpa reported.

The state-funded Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) is predicting the most valuable wheat crop the country has produced: 26 million tons, worth a record 8.6 billion Australian dollars (8 billion US dollars).

Full grain silos would be the tonic the troubled sector has longed for. Farmers won't be able to pay off all their debts, but they will be able to show bankers that agriculture is still a fair bet.

Phillip Malone, 52, who works a family farm near Gulargambone in the south-east grain belt, has had it so bad that he employs only one worker when five years ago he had eight.

"The hardship I've had over the last couple of years I wouldn't wish on anyone," he said. "They say that getting your sons and daughters to take over the farm is the same as child abuse."

Malone, who used to run sheep on the property but has changed to cropping because that's where the money is, reckons that three good years would be needed to get the family finances back to where they were.

It's a view borne out by the Bureau of Meteorology, which says recent good rains in some areas don't mask a trend reflected in the closure of 30 per cent of farms in the past 20 years.

"The combination of record heat and widespread drought during the past five to 10 years over large parts of southern and eastern Australia is without historical precedent and is, at least partly, the result of climate change," the bureau said in a statement. "Several years of above-average rainfall are required to remove the very long-term deficits."

Of the 130,000 farming families, around a quarter are receiving government handouts. The government has put up the money to finance the exit of 1,000 farmers but there are few takers so far.

"We don't see a vacant landscape as the answer," National Farmers Federation chief Ben Fargher said. "We've been doing a lot in terms of environmental sustainability on farms."

At agribusiness powerhouse Auscott's 15,000-hectare farm outside Moree the cotton fields stretch to the horizon. But the drought has cut cotton production by 90 per cent and this year the biggest cash crop will be wheat.

"We are expecting one of the biggest grain harvests this year, but we are still struggling to make a profit," said general manager Harvey Gaynor.

Auscott is as high-tech as you can go. The sowing is satellite assisted and the furrows are laser levelled. Soil moisture probes across half of the property that is irrigated are there to transmit measurements that make sure not a drop is wasted.

"Our yields have doubled over the last 20 years for the same amount of water," Gaynor said. "Our main strategy is to reduce our core area of irrigated land."

Like farmers up and down the Murray-Darling river system, Auscott has an allocation of water that it can use - if there is enough water in the system. Some farmers with allocations trade them rather than grow crops.

Auscott, which is US owned, is always in the market for water but has yet to go through a season where trading one of its licences made more sense than using it.

Like most people on the land, Gaynor is convinced that the sector can cope with climate change.

"Assured water: that's what we don't have now, and what we will have to manage without," he said.

ABARE has warned that climate change could shave 10 per cent off agricultural production within 25 years. By 2050 output could be down by 19 per cent, and Australia, currently a leading exporter of wheat, beef, sugar and dairy products, could slump in the rankings as farmland gets hotter and drier and production declines.

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