Story By James McEwan

The first lash of the day’s heat hits Kingsley Barnes as he snaps the jumper leads from his battered ute to the battery of the ancient International tractor. He coaxes the diesel into life, plumps up the collection of old pillows and sacks that passes for a seat, and starts the long tow to get his bin to today’s first paddock.“I remember when my dad bought these old girls,” Kingsley says. “My brother Wally and I thought they were the flashest tractors in the district. That was 45 years ago.” It’s December and the Morawa harvest is in full swing. All over the West Australian wheat belt, harvesters, grain trucks, tractors and fast chase vehicles are working around the clock, making the best of the perfect weather to cut, collect and truck the grain. At night harvesters seem like monsters whirling out of the starry night in huge clouds of chaff and dust. Operators sit in their cool cabs bathed in the green light of their GPS displays, only stopping to discharge the grain into waiting trucks.
In 39-degree-Celcius daylight, however, Kingsley’s brother Wally is pushing his red Case Harvester fast across the paddock’s ribbed surface, cutting a wide swath through the standing wheat. “It’s not much of a crop compared to last year,” he says as his sprung seat bounces. “We have been short of rain this season and it shows.”
He is concentrating on reading the ground and keeping the height of the cutting blades just right. “Years ago Kingsley and I adopted zero tillage and stubble retention to improve the land, but it rattles your teeth when it’s baked dry.”
The schedule is relentless. The harvester cuts four tonnes or so every half hour, and dust and chaff fill the air. Kingsley is working paddocks that average three kilometres a side and there are 11,000 hectares to go.
“We expect these paddocks to return about $300 a tonne,” Kingsley says, “but good test results can add $30 to $50. We’re all so dependent on the weather.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #75

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2011