2014 Season Review – Real Farmer

I’ve started this post over a dozen times in my head. Yet until now I’ve never written it. But 22 hours of flying gives one a chance to reflect over the hectic series of events leading up to me departing for my Nuffield adventure.

A glance over my past few blog posts shows a pretty amazing 2014. Starting out with a trip to Uganda, then a few months gap before being awarded a Nuffield Scholarship and then finding out I’m going to be a dad. All incredible experiences that have and will mold and shape me into a (hopefully) better person. But they were the highlights package. A kind of ‘best-of’ 2014.

The truth is that despite those amazing highlights 2014 was a pretty crap year for me in a number of other ways both personal and professional. The personal things may or may not be ever discussed on this blog but it was a professionally challenging year as well. Challenging because I’ve finally been through my Australian Agricultural initiation. The other young farmers around longer look down on me. It’s taken a while but I feel like a real farmer now.

I’ve farmed through a drought.

2014 was an exceptionally dry one in our area. Because I like data allow me to give some the stats.

  • Rainfall has been recorded in my area since 1887 and our annual average rainfall over this time is 450mm. We often refer to this as the ‘long-term average’.
  • Our 20 year average is about 395mm. We’ve lost 50mm of rain annually over the past 20 years somewhere.
  • In 2014 we had just over 200mm of rain.

This is interesting to me because 2014 ‘decile 1’ rainfall year, meaning it fell within the driest 10% of years in recorded history. It was a drought. My first drought as a farmer.

We started 2014 with a very hot and dry summer. While by the numbers it was one of our driest summers ever, this didn’t cause alarm bells because summer rainfall in our part of the world is erratic. It’s quite normal for us to have hot and dry summers that produce little rainfall.

However a good opening rain in April got us all excited as it meant we were sowing canola into moisture. It would grow straight away! But after our one good rain things dried out. Those few crops that got started on that early rain far out produced anything sown later. A lack of rain delays meant we made good progress with our planting program, even finishing a week earlier than planned. While it was good to feel productive, as it turned out we’d have rather had a delay or two.

Hope was restored in June as our reliable winter rainfall dominant climate kicked it and we did have 2 months of solid and consistent rains. Good production years the previous two seasons meant we were conscious of plant nutrient levels, aware that we’d need to apply plenty of fertiliser to capitalise on even an average season. So the arrival of better conditions meant we hopped into it. Especially with the canola as it requires nutrition earlier in its growing cycle than wheat.

Things were all going well and we were starting to build up soil reserves of moisture until, it stopped. We had our last major rainfall for the growing season on the 1st of August. Throw in some warm sunny weather in September during flowering and grain fill and the crops struggled. Which led to some interesting decisions to make. How much worse  is it going to get?Is it actually better to take the loss on some paddocks and cut them for hay? We did end up cutting some of our wheat to make cereal hay. Not an exercise that was going to lead us to great fortunes, but a move that allowed us to get a complete weed coverage, along with some non-chemical weed control and hopefully set us up for 2015.

Our ‘silly-season’ was a lot more level-headed than normal as well. Only about half of our canola was deemed good enough to windrow and so we finished it early and started our short harvest early. This left us finished harvesting by the middle of December a full two weeks before Christmas. This was the opposite extreme my first harvest back in 2010 when constant and unusual summer rain meant that we didn’t finish harvesting until the 2nd of February.

So I feel like a real farmer. It’s easy to get critical and negative when your years efforts don’t work out as you’d planned and that certainly happened for me during harvest. But you learn how to strengthen yourself and your business in the tougher times not the good. My first drought taught me a lot. But I think I’m starting to enjoy the challenge. Anyone can make money and do well when things are good. The trick is to do it when they aren’t.

Jonathan

Web developer turned farmer. Interests include: my faith, my wife, technology, cricket, farming, ice cream & world events.

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