Fleur Porter

Farm: ‘Riverside Ajana’

Region: Ajana, North East Agricultural Region, Western Australia (110 km north of Geraldton)

Commodity: Wheat, canola and lupins

Farming area: 12,000 hectares (8000 cropping)

Rainfall: 308 mm average per year

Email: fleur.grieve@bigpond.com

Phone: 0402 112 155


"Any slight variation in temperature or even a slight decrease in rainfall will affect our ability to grow broadacre crops here.

So we’ve done some long-term planning about our business and whether doing what we’re doing is the way to go."

Fleur Grieve, 2012

Photo: Claire Tyrrel, The Countryman and The Geraldton Guardian


See what Fleur has to say about:


Farming in a low-rainfall region

Riverside Ajana is our farm business. It’s on about 30,000 acres [12,000 ha].

A bit over a third is remnant vegetation and the remainder is arable land that we use for cropping wheat, canola and lupins.

We have a share farmer that does our farming business. He produces the crop and we get a certain percentage.

He’s our best risk management tool ever because he pays to put the crop in and if he makes money we make money. If he doesn’t, we don’t, but we didn’t put any money in.

The reason we have such a big cropping program (8000 ha) is because we’re in such a marginal area.

Our average yields are probably a lot lower than farms further south with a lot less land. It can be quite variable—for wheat, we probably get a maximum of 2 tonne/ha in total. But some paddocks might be 1 tonne/ha and others 2 tonne/ha even with similar inputs.

My mum and dad are still owners of the farm property and are involved in some of the main management decisions.

Dad still works for the share farmer for nothing. He just likes to drive the big machines during seeding and harvest. So we’re all involved.

We’re the third most northern farm in this locality and the last farm going east. Then it becomes pastoral country where it’s too dry to grow crops. We are very marginal.

Our average yearly rainfall is about 308 mm.

We’ve kept records here since my family started here. I’m the fourth generation. Rainfall records over that time are really variable. For example, 1984 was our 2nd driest year ever and 1985 our 2nd wettest year ever. So there’s a certain amount of natural variability on the farm.

More recently, the 2 years of drought in 2006 and 2007 have impacted the farm the most. Then followed the best season we’ve ever had—the most amount of grain produced from this land ever was delivered in 2008 [see Table 1].

Table 1. Yield from Fleur’s farm between 2006 and 2009

YearHectares plantedTonnes delivered
2006 8000 500
2007 6000 1100
2008 6000 10000
2009 6500 7200

2009 was probably an average year. We had less than our average rainfall but it all fell in the growing season which allowed us to produce reasonable crops.

And in 2010 and 2011, when a lot of the state didn’t do well, we got the rain just when we needed it and the crop ended up being good and the income was good.


Wheat crop, November 2009

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Sowing dry

We tend to always seed around the same time and to seed dry rather than wait for rain. We always start around Anzac Day in April and we’re done by mid June.

But the season break seems to be later so we’ve had a couple of quite late starts.

Going into May this year [2012] we hadn’t really had any rain and some people I spoke to were really despondent. Then it rained and they were all okay.

But a lot of people got caught out. There was a lot of canola that people had to re-seed because the seed’s germinated slightly and then not actually come up.

I saw people re-seeding really late—what I would consider to be really late. When I see that, I wonder how they’re making their decisions.

We didn’t sow canola this year.


Bob Porter (Fleur’s dad):

It’s a hard one, knowing whether to sow or not. It’s getting to the stage now, if we haven’t had summer rainfall we say maybe we won’t put the crop in.

But if we don’t put it in, we always get a good winter and we miss out… it happens every time, I can guarantee it.

And if you don’t put your crop in, you don’t get any income; you could get more debt. It’s a very hard one to work out.

Where we live, working up against the climate, we put it in regardless and hope it’ll rain. If it doesn’t, we put it in dry. Usually we get a return. We’ve survived all these years.

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Educating people about the environment

We run a nature-based farm tourism venture on the property.

Why? Because it was a work opportunity for me. Because we had a beautiful place and wanted to show it to people. Because we value the environment.

But our main purpose in this business is environmental education. We want to give people the opportunity to hear about the bush and its natural values.

We operate from the existing housing on the farm and use the existing remnant vegetation and waterways for tours and activities.

We get a variety of people through, including international tourists, especially in September for the wildflowers. But the bulk of our visitors are from WA. We get a lot of through traffic—people heading further north, stopping overnight. We used to have a busload of backpackers come in 4 nights a week for an overnight stop, but that’s eased off a bit now.

We can sleep up to about 50 people. We also do big functions.

Some people have a funny view of farmers and what they’re doing, so it’s really good to be able to show them that it’s quite different to that in reality, and that most people do actually have that connection to their land. They do have that connection to place and it’s important to them. And they don’t want to live out in the middle of a dust bowl. They want to live in an environment that is beautiful and that supports them in what they’re trying to do.

After about 8 years the business is paying for itself, which is cool. So we’ve been able to employ someone to manage the day-to-day business and the marketing and I focus on the financial and administrative side.

Wildflowers abound among the remnant vegetation

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Taking climate change into account

We’ve got 15 km of the Murchison River running through the property and it flooded a few years ago to the highest level we’ve ever seen. The water touched the homestead which had never happened before.

My Dad has been here 68 years and had never ever seen that and he didn’t believe that that would ever happen until it did.

That flooding is linked to extreme events such as more cyclonic rainfall. It brings more erosion, more silt into the river, the floodplain doesn’t work as effectively, and there’s a lot more runoff because the vegetation’s not there.

It also feels like it’s getting hotter. Summer has always been hot and harsh in my memory of it. But my dad would say that it seems hotter and harsher.

And this year [2012], winter is like spring. Blowflies are turning up. Things are flowering. Dad planted everlastings out at his house in Northampton and they’re all flowering in July. He had to water them. They would normally be flowering in August.

Normally we get all our rain in winter. But we’ve had really sunny warm, long, dry winter days this year, one after the other, and a lot of the crops haven’t been well established and got their root systems down.

Any slight variation in temperature or even a slight decrease in rainfall will affect our ability to grow broadacre crops here.

So we’ve done some long-term planning about our business and whether doing what we’re doing is the way to go.

There are management decisions associated with not cropping. If you’ve got big cleared paddocks that you’re not cropping, there’s potential for weed problems and erosion if they bear off. So there are a lot of things to consider about the impact of climate and the long-term effect for us.

I listen to my dad and his historical perspective. It took him a lot of years, just living, surviving and working, to see how removing livestock improved the vegetation. He started doing landcare on the farm in the 1980s. He notices different plants growing and we talk about whether that’s to do with landcare or whether it’s a bigger issue of climate change.

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Fleur discusses how the changing climate affects her property and decision making

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Back in the 1960s we had livestock here. The farm got rich on the sheep’s back and that was primarily where we got our income from—merino sheep.

My dad was actually the ‘sheep man’ and his brother was the ‘cropping man’. Dad’s a really passionate person and gets really involved in whatever he does so he was into artificial insemination and breeding, he had special rams and he was an active member of the Australian Merino Society.

About 15 km of the Murchison River runs through the property and it was used for watering sheep.

But you could never catch the sheep from there so Dad fenced it off and put watering points out for the sheep.

The river area started to recover naturally and after a time it had improved so much that he said there’s no way that sheep could ever go back in there.

Between then and the 1980s he gradually got rid of all the sheep.

He had built up a really good flock of sheep that had really good wool. So for him to make the decision to get rid of his sheep is quite an amazing thing to do.

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Planting trees

We’ve planted 130,000 oil mallee trees over 2 years and have another 100,000 due to go in. We’re also planting eucalypts.

They’re planted in alleyways so our controlled traffic can fit between the alleys.

There is that conservation notion behind it but there is also definitely the option of storing carbon.

There are a lot of organisations that want to plant trees for you and then hold the carbon rights and we couldn’t see the point of doing that.

If there is going to be a possibility of a source of income, we would want to hold the carbon rights ourselves and store carbon with trees.

We’re not earning from that at the moment, and we may not. But it makes such a difference to the landscape. It’s an aesthetic thing more than anything—people have to live out here.

We also have a lot of remnant vegetation that’s protected and managed. And we pay for that. If you could get paid for biodiversity or that kind of management then that would be a cool thing.

Once we started doing landcare, we started to see the difference it made to the natural environment. The river landscape started recovering. We saw the difference that 15 years made, then 30 years and now its been nearly 40 years.

The recovery is so amazing that you wouldn’t want it to go back to what it was before.

And there are biodiversity outcomes—supporting the bush that’s in there but also all the native wildlife.

We’ve also got the tourism resource which is somewhere beautiful to show people. A paddock filled with alleys of trees has so much more aesthetic appeal.

And it’s just part of having stewardship for your land and making decisions to look after that land.

But part of the reason we have been able to do these things is that we can afford to and it’s been a priority. We are able to make a decision to take a certain area out of production to plant trees.

In-crop alley of young oil mallee trees

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Controlling weeds

Bob Porter (Fleur’s dad):

We had saffron thistle all over our farm when we had sheep. It’s a shocking weed; it grows all over southern Australia.

Sheep don’t eat it; they won’t even go into it. But it’d get in their wool.

In the first paddock that we fenced off from sheep, the saffron thistle started to disappear. I thought it was too good to be true.

I thought the only way to get it off the land was to continuously crop it.

We’ve had a couple of dry years, and I can’t find any saffron thistle this year.

The first place I noticed it disappeared from was down by the river where we had planted lots of York gums. Now you can’t walk along there for meat ants. They’re part and parcel of eucalypts and they love the York gums. They build a nest beside the tree and eat the sticky stuff. It seems they also eat the saffron seeds. They pick the seeds up and take them down their holes. I reckon that’s helped.

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No-till farming, retaining stubble and tramlining

We’ve kept up with the technology and our share farmer uses all our equipment and machinery.

We use no-till farming to disturb the soil as little as possible. And we retain all our stubble to stop erosion and retain moisture.

We’ve also got auto-steer so we’re not wasting resources.

We use tramlining so there’s less compaction of the soil, we use less fuel and it’s more efficient.

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Reducing emissions

We were part of the inaugural Greenhouse Challenge run by the federal government.

It was a really good way for us to look at our business and see, while we weren’t pumping out smoke like some other industries, our business was a polluter too.

And it’s not just the household emissions. The bigger emissions are from the chemical fertiliser, the incredible amount of fuel we use and the massive machinery.

As part of the Greenhouse Challenge we had to look at how we would mitigate our on-farm production of greenhouse gases.

We started to realise that to have any effect we needed to offset what we were doing on the farm before we could start selling offsets to other people.

We have remnant vegetation that we manage and maintain and tree planting has been a long ongoing thing for us.

We’ve planted at least 10,000 trees a year for 10 years or more. And then there are the 30,000 in-paddock oil mallee trees that we planted in the last 2 years and the 100,000 more that we’re planning to plant.

We have a fairly extensive contour system as well and we revegetated a lot of that and a lot of the roadways.

In the tourism venture, we’ve installed solar power to power most of the homestead. We can feed electricity back into the grid and we tell the tourists who stay here about that.

If it gets hotter here—and it can get pretty hot—we need to be able to handle greater demand for electricity. Tourists need air conditioners.

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Using weather forecasts


A lot of our rain is tropical air influx from fronts from the south. They didn’t know that until a few years ago.

Forecasting from the weather bureau over the last few years seems to be getting better.

Long-term forecasting—you can take a bit of notice of it but you wouldn’t stake your life on it. But I think it’s gonna get better. They’ll probably get better at it.

They can be very very wrong too. We’ve got about 6 rain gauges around our place. You can’t rely just on one to know where the rain’s falling. You can go out the back and they’ve had a good rain and there’s nothing—just dust in it—and you might’ve had 5 mm back at the house. Our neighbour never gets the same rain as we get.

Decisions on this farm have been based on the information that comes through on the radio and the Agriculture Department sends out an update which pulls together a lot of climate information. That’s 'Ag Tactics' and it gets sent out regularly during seeding, what the long-term forecast looks like, should you re-seed your canola or should you wait, for example. And they have risk profiles about making those decisions. They are quite useful.

But it’s the same thing as grain marketing—there’s quite an inundation of information.

And I think forecasts still really feel unreliable.

You need really specific information from a good reliable source and you need to be able to trust it and understand it and know that you can look at it and make decisions based on it.

We mostly use the BOM website.

I think farmers need the people who have the skill and the ability to pull all the information together and then disseminate that once they’ve interpreted it to a point, instead of it being up to everybody to interpret all the different data sources, because there’s just too many.

Our share farmer has gone away from using lots of sources because they are conflicting and confusing. I think it’s about deciding who you feel confident and comfortable with, and who you will rely on.

In 2006 our decision to seed dry had major ramifications to our share farmer and to us as well because we get a percentage.

They put in an entire crop and funded that and didn’t get much back from that. They may have covered their seed but they certainly didn’t cover their input costs.

It was the same thing in 2007 although they didn’t put the whole crop in. They actually did stop. There was a decision made at that point that the year was looking too risky.

Coming to a decision in 2006 to not crop would’ve been a fairly major decision.

It’s really important for farmers to be able to understand and to be able to get access to good reliable forecasting information that they can understand.

A lot of people I deal with are quite cynical about any type of climate forecasting because they’re basing it on weather forecasting and their experience of hearing the weather man say it’s going to be raining out there tomorrow and then it doesn’t rain.

People’s experience is not really about the science behind it—and perhaps climate forecasting is a hard thing to do.

Having a process would be really helpful, and we don’t have it here either—a really good process for how you make that decision.

It’s definitely improved since 2006 but we had to go through that year to realise how important it is to have a process and know which boxes to tick off to know to keep going or don’t even start.

There were people who made a decision in 2006 not to seed. And it was a great decision—they didn’t make any money but they didn’t lose any money.

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Locking in contracts

In 2007 our sharefarmer got caught out and had to pay out a wheat contract penalty. It was huge and there was no income.

So he’s very hesitant now about locking in anything.


Fleur Grieve and baby Juno


Interview dates: 4 November 2009 and 31 July 2012; updated 16 November 2012

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