Growers unite in a quest for quality By BRAD COLLIS

A big jump from pie-in-the-sky to reality": Chris Reichstein (left) with Lee and Steve Graham.


IN THE SOUTH-EAST COR-ner of WA the fields of gold run to the horizon. The properties are large and comparatively new, which is why the area has also tended to be innovative.

There are a number of crop improvement groups through which growers have been on a determined and innovative quest to better understand the whole grains production line - plant breeding through to face-to-face talks with bakers and millers in Singapore, Egypt and Vietnam.

The main driving force has been the region's struggle to be taken seriously as a reliable source of high-quality grain because some of the crop becomes weather-damaged at harvest time. Relative humidity at that time of year forces growers to delay delivery, with the inevitable exposure to late spring rain and storms.

This has led to an ongoing quest to find more robust varieties because it seems if crops aren't being affected by root and leaf diseases, they are being damaged at harvest by inclement weather.

The main crop improvement group is the South East Premium Wheatgrowers Association (SEPWA), established in 1993 with the intention of turning the region into a premium cropping area.

SEPWA has established close relationships with plant-breeding bodies around the country, and any variety that has looked promising for the region, such as Cam, H45 and Mitre, is ran in paddock-size trials by the growers themselves.

Grower trials have become essential because most of the breeding in WA concentrates on varieties for the main wheatbelt region, which is quite different to the south-east.

One of SEPWA's founding committeemen, Steve Graham, says growers have responded quickly to the results of their own trials, although many are also frustrated by the "moving goalposts".

"We'll get a promising new variety, but within a couple of years along comes a new pest or disease, sending us back to square one," he says.

Steve says increased yields are growers' first priority, simply because there's little point in finding a variety with, say, good dough qualities, if it doesn't yield. SEPWA's goal, therefore, is premium quality from high-yielding varieties. "So finding high-yielding varieties that can handle our soil types and climate is crucial."

To hedge against weather damage, the growers through another group, the Esperance Value Adding Group, have been lobbying for a large-scale grain drying facility in the bulk handling system to allow them to harvest early and minimise the weather risk.

The value-adding group was founded after grower Chris Reichstein visited the United States to see what American farmers were doing to increase their stake in other sections of their industries. On his return about 30 growers got together and formed a committee which also included representatives of SEPWA and two other local groups, the Pulse Association of the South East Inc. (PASE) and Esperance Organised Primary Producers (EOPP). It was decided that their best value-adding option was to stop losing value.

The intention, therefore, is to be able to harvest early, get the grain off the farm and have the moisture content lowered once it is in the bulk handling system.

In value chain terms, it would be growers investing directly in the bulk handling system to maximise the value of their product and to establish a reputation as reliable, premium-quality suppliers. This would be the ideal community outcome, but the time it has taken to raise and discuss the proposal is now creating a dilemma for growers who feel they need to act.

"Do we keep striving for this community-wide option, knowing it will benefit everyone, but not knowing when it might happen, or should we look at another privately-owned facility that 10 or 15 growers could achieve quickly?" asks Reichstein. "These are the issues that emerge when you're not making any progress.

"So although growers are looking for opportunities it can be a big jump from pie-in-the-sky to reality."